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!