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Kimberly Blessing Hi, my name is Kimberly Blessing. I'm a computer scientist, Web developer, standards evangelist, feminist, and geek. This is where I write about life, the Web, technology, women's issues, and whatever else comes to mind.

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Computing Blog Archive

Geeky news stories you might have missed

Some of these stories are a few weeks old — sorry, that’s what happens when you go to SXSW!

Honoring Ada, Inspiring Women

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Ada Lovelace was a mathematician and, essentially, the first computer programmer (in an age where mechanical calculating machines were still ideas drawn on paper). Born in 1815, she envisioned machines which could not only compute calculations, but also compose music.

When computer science students are learning the history of the subject (assuming they get any historical teachings at all — our history is “taught” via small anecdotes as footnotes in textbooks), Ada Lovelace is sometimes the only women ever mentioned. However the history of the field is strewn with the impactful and inspiring stories of women: Grace Hopper, Jean Bartik and the other ENIAC programmers, Milly Koss (why doesn’t she have a Wikipedia page?), Fran Allen, Anita Borg, Telle Whitney, Wendy Hall, Ellen Spertus — and those are just the high-profile women whose names are likely to be recognized. There are so many other women out there who have done, are doing, and will do great things for computing, technology, and the world — and today’s blogging event will expose all of us to a few more.

Although I’ve found many female role models in computing and technology, none were as important to me as the women I was surrounded by in college, when I was pursuing computer science as a major. Bryn Mawr’s computer science department didn’t exist yet — in fact, we had only one full-time CS professor back then! But there were plenty of women on campus interested in technology and they were my primary motivators and supporters in those days.

Amy (Biermann) Hughes, PhD graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1995 and received her PhD in computer science from the University of Southern California in 2002. She is currently a member of the technical staff at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. I think I first met Amy when we were working together for Computing Services as student operators (“ops” for short) and she was an immediate inspiration. Amy seemed to know everything there was to know about networks, and she taught me a great deal. The fact that she’d decided to major in CS without there being an official major made the idea of me doing it seem feasible. Amy had done research as an undergrad — another fact which amazed me — in parallel computing! (That just flat out floored me.) On top of all of that, she loved Duran Duran. I’m not kidding when I say that there were times at which I’d say to myself, “Amy got through this somehow, I can too!” In fact, I’m still telling myself this, as every time I think about going back to school for my PhD, I wonder how I’ll get over my fear of qualifying exams and I remember that Amy did it, so can I!

My compsci partner-in-crime from my own class was Sarah Hacker (yes, that’s her real name). She graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1997 and went on to do graduate studies at SUNY Buffalo. She currently works in health care information systems at the University of Iowa. Sarah and I were in many classes together before we ever struck up a conversation. I was intimidated by her natural programming abilities — to me, it seemed that she could pick up any language syntax and any programming concept so easily! — but I came to greatly appreciate and sometimes rely on them. We also worked for Computing Services and frequently worked the night shifts together, drinking soda, eating candy, and making bizarre photo montages (such as Sarah’s brilliant Child of the Moon series). In fact, it was Sarah who first showed me how to create a web page, so I really owe her quite a bit! Sarah introduced me to Pulp (the band), reintroduced me to Real Genius, and taught me LISP for an AI assignment. We started the Computer Science Culture Series together and were featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer for our robots, Jimmy and Timmy. Generally, she just kept me company and in good spirits, and I can only hope that I did the same for her.

Fortunately Amy and Sarah are still friends, so I continue to draw inspiration from their current lives and achievements as well. Of course, they weren’t the only women who helped me make it through my undergraduate experience and early career — Elysa Weiss, Helen Horton Peterson ’79, and Jennifer Harper ’96 (all Bryn Mawr Computing Services staff) were instrumental as well. And I have to give props to the men who were able to put up with supported a community of such strong women: Deepak Kumar, John King, Rodney Battle, and David Bertagni.

Those of us interested in computer science and technology are constantly looking forward, but today gives all of us a great opportunity to look back and highlight our common history and all of the people — both men and women — who’ve made today possible. Thank you, to all of them!

Programming, Old-School Style

I have a fascination with old computers. Growing up, I heard stories of archaic devices used by my grandfather and his colleagues to accomplish their math and engineering work. Then I went through a few machines myself: the stand-alone Pong console, various TRS-80s, an Atari 2600, multiple Commodore 64s and a 128, finally making it into the x86 line. When I got a new computer, the old one didn’t become obsolete trash; it gained a sort of revered status. I’d leave it hooked up, always at the ready, and occasionally I’d take a trip down memory lane and load up some old programs, tinker with something new, or perhaps just bask in the glow of the TV screen/monochrome monitor. Yes, I’m a strange girl.

A DEC PDP-11 Ever since my first visit to the Computer History Museum, I’ve been fascinated by the DEC PDP-11. The PDP-11 was a series of 16-bit minicomputers which were programmed with toggles. Their design was strangely attractive. I saw plenty of PDP-11 parts for sale on eBay and wondered what it would take to build one. I figured there had to be an emulator out there, but I didn’t take much time to look around.

Well, it turns out there is. And there are instructions! Inspired by DePauw University’s (slightly cheesy, but fun) videos on programming the PDP-11, lab[oratory] is posting detailed instructions on using the SIMH simulator to program a simulated PDP-11! So join along in the play and experimentation, and program your very own PDP-11. It may not be as cool as handling those purple toggles, but it’s still fun.

I helped elect a female president!

Yes, I wish I were talking about Hillary! But I’m not.

Instead I’m talking about the ACM elections, and the woman I’m referring to is Wendy Hall, CBE, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the British Computer Society, co-founding director of the Web Science Research Initiative, and (if you couldn’t tell) one of my role models. So the votes have been counted and, come July 1, Wendy will also serve a two-year term as President of the ACM. Congratulations!

I should also mention that Wendy received the Anita Borg Award for Technical Leadership from the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology at the 2006 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing, for which I was the webmaster — an awesome volunteer opportunity which just happens to be available! If you’ve got skills in WordPress then please apply!

And speaking of GHC, I also need to mention that registration for the 2008 conference is now open! After so many years of attending, stalking Telle Whitney, and volunteering, this year I’m finally going to be speaking on a panel! (Go me!) So, don’t miss this opportunity to interact with thousands of smart, successful, techie women — including Fran Allen!

Gosh I love being a woman in computing.

Code Monkeys vs. Code Ninjas

Software programmer Sara Chipps (yay! a woman!) has written an article titled Natural Programmers (Code Monkeys) vs. Career Programmers (Geeks in Suits). It’s probably the best non-techie explanation of the behaviors, habits, and beliefs of the “natural programmer” that I’ve read — and yes, I completely identified with much of what she wrote.

However, I have to take a step back and address an issue that I have with the two types of programmers she defines and the names she assigns to them.

First there’s the “career programmer (geek in a suit)”. These days I find that career programmers are not geeks, and they’re definitely not in suits (always business casual!). I’ve found that they’re in programming for the money; they learn enough to do their work — perhaps well, maybe even to get to the point of being perceived as geeky. But I also find that these people lack a true passion for the craft of writing code. Sara suggests that the career programmer is more of a business person, concerned with cost effective solutions, but I’m not even sure that’s true anymore. To me, this person’s work is just a job, and if flipping burgers paid as much as programming, they might be doing that instead.

Like Sara, I fall into her other category of “natural programmer”. But I am certainly not a code monkey — I am a code ninja! (Actually, with a nickname like “Obi-Wan Kimberly”, I’m probably a code jedi, but anyway…) I find the term “code monkey” to apply more to the previous category of programmer. Why? “Code monkey” implies that anyone can do what we do and that we work for bananas. “Code ninja”, on the other hand, says that we’re stealth and secretive, jumping out of the darkness when you least expect it. Our code takes you by surprise in its brilliance and our swiftness of execution is legendary. We could do no other job because we have trained for so long, perfecting our natural talent, and nothing else can satisfy our need for control over the systems we affect.

Sara closes her article with some OR logic about which type to hire, however I need to propose a more detailed and different solution. If you have only one programmer working for you, you probably don’t want either of these types — you need someone who really does fall into the gray area between the two extremes. (Yes, they are out there!) And if you have a team of programmers, you need a mix of these two types, and you need to put effort into getting them to communicate effectively with one another. Only then will you have both a killer team and killer code.