Category Archives: female programmers

AdaLovelaceDay in search of the extended learning body

Most of the people who are passionate about computing know Ada Lovelace. Born 200 years ago (1815) her family background provided a mix of poetry (father) and mathematics (mother). An interesting mix, and I feel a necessary mix for great achievers. Being able to feel the dream-state of creativity, allows a different interpretation of the material, realistic world. I truly believe that there is no great invention without great creative vision, and to me Ada Lovelace had both traits which resulted in a magnificent addition to history, even today. There is a lovely FindingAda blog which celebrates the achievements of women in STEM. And today I loved reading the 40 years in tech FutureLearn blogpost by Shirley Williams.

Ada extending the machine

Going against the odds is not an easy thing. Anyone who is slightly different understands the impact of not being part of the norm. Ada must have known and felt it herself. Nevertheless, she had one big advantage, her interests paralleling passion that she could find close by, she had access to an incredibly professional learning network (admittedly, that would have been a very physical, face-to-face network at the time). It was Ada herself who described her scientific thoughts as ‘poetical science’. But what did she do? Ada managed to translate the operations of a machine, the Analytical Engine. She literally translated the Italian description of the analytical engine, but added her own notes to it: “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with notes fromthe translator“. These notes are the blueprint of computer programming, and moved the machine beyond its mere materialistic capacity, towards a new use. It is this that has fascinated me about Ada (and more people with similar poetic scientific passion).

Within this day and age STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) is of course still very important (history tends to have waves of interest, so STEM is bound to become less important in future historical era’s). And I love the fact that STEM is stimulated from a gender perspective. But it does make me think about what I feel we are missing, when thinking about Ada Lovelace?

The dysfunctional extended learning body

The best action movies are those where the actor/actress has to come up with new solutions ad hoc. A bit of MacGyver or the A-team… but with more women as heroes. This is what seems to be missing with a lot of algorithms. This: what if we hit a brick wall? Where do we turn next…. That is what I would love to see: more algorithms that can multi-iterate solutions.  The reason why is because of the current dysfunctional learning body I have to live with in my digital world. I would love to see my digital, extended body to be equipped with a more solid network of solutions, allowing me to stay ‘in the flow’ when I am learning. I am looking for the new Ada that solves STEM affordances, translates them ready for use in our extended, learning body.

No matter what I do, I always seem to hit the brick wall of affordances multiple times. Even the more mature technologies can cut me off unexpectedly. Three days ago I was typing along, coding various data sets using DeDoose cloud software to code qualitative data.

Suddenly I felt like my arms dropped off. Physically they did not really disappear, but it felt that way. I was using the internet, wanting to search for something and … the connection broke. I felt like being at a library and suddenly losing the ability to use my arms. I know the library has the books I need (the internets), I even remember what isle to go to (structured search engines)… but I cannot reach them myself. So I did the only thing I could do… stare and hope for my digital arms to reappear again. I had similar experiences when exploring mobile learning, or using mobiles for learning, in the past. Or building mobile apps to be able to connect with digital, cloud-or-file-based content.

Of course coping with an extended, digital body means that multiple factors need to be part of any problem-solving algorithm: time management, what we mean with ‘flow of learning’, what provides the best possible experience of ‘learning flow’ (is it rather staying connected (for instance having an offline library that can step in with some bits when internet fails) or is it working with some sort of latency which can bridge failures in connectivity? Or anything that we can come up with.).

What affordances do we feel as useful? The first PDA was build based on real life experiences of its inventor walking around with a log. Affordances are in many cases ‘that what we find logical, or natural’, but it could be that what we find natural is not natural at all, simply something that works best given its realistic boundaries. What feels natural is not always transparent.

What would Ada do?

What kind of notes would Ada Lovelace add to a description of the extended learning body that we know have? Using social media, multiple (mobile) devices, connecting with people, learning in both formal and informal ways, moving towards an unknown professional future….? What would she come up with? Where does it leave me? How much of an Ada would I like to be (given my own personal boundaries and passions)… Where do we all see each other?


The Forgotten Female Programmers Who Created Modern Tech

Jean Jennings (left) and Frances Bilas set up the ENIAC in 1946. Bilas is arranging the program settings on the Master Programmer. (Courtesy of University of Pennsylvania)
Jean Jennings (left) and Frances Bilas set up the ENIAC in 1946. Bilas is arranging the program settings on the Master Programmer. (Courtesy of University of Pennsylvania)

If your image of a computer programmer is a young man, there’s a good reason: It’s true. Recently, many big tech companies revealed how few of their female employees worked in programming and technical jobs. Google had some of the highest rates: 17 percent of its technical staff is female.

It wasn’t always this way. Decades ago, it was women who pioneered computer programming — but too often, that’s a part of history that even the smartest people don’t know.

I took a trip to ground zero for today’s computer revolution, Stanford University, and randomly asked over a dozen students if they knew who were the first computer programmers. Almost none knew.

“I’m in computer science,” says a slightly embarrassed Stephanie Pham. “This is so sad.”

A few students, like Cheng Dao Fan, get close. “It’s a woman, probably,” she says searching her mind for a name. “It’s not necessarily [an] electronic computer. I think it’s more like a mechanic computer.”

She’s thinking of Ada Lovelace, also known as the Countess of Lovelace, born in 1815. Walter Isaacson begins his new book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, with her story.

Augusta Ada, Countess of Lovelace, was the daughter of poet Lord Byron. The computer language ADA was named after her in recognition of her pioneering work with Charles Babbagge. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Augusta Ada, Countess of Lovelace, was the daughter of poet Lord Byron. The computer language ADA was named after her in recognition of her pioneering work with Charles Babbagge. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Ada Lovelace is Lord Byron’s child, and her mother, Lady Byron, did not want her to turn out to be like her father, a romantic poet,” says Isaacson. So Lady Byron “had her tutored almost exclusively in mathematics as if that were an antidote to being poetic.”

Lovelace saw the poetry in math. At 17, she went to a London salon and met Charles Babbage. He showed her plans for a machine that he believed would be able to do complex mathematical calculations. He asked Lovelace to write about his work for a scholarly journal. In her article, Lovelace expresses a vision for his machine that goes beyond calculations.

She envisioned that “a computer can do anything that can be noted logically,” explains Isaacson. “Words, pictures and music, not just numbers. She understands how you take an instruction set and load it into the machine, and she even does an example, which is programming Bernoulli numbers, an incredibly complicated sequence of numbers.”

Babbage’s machine was never built. But his designs and Lovelace’s notes were read by people building the first computer a century later.

The women who would program one of the world’s earliest electronic computers, however, knew nothing of Lovelace and Babbage.

As part of the oral history project of the Computer History Museum, Jean Jennings Bartik recalled how she got the job working on that computer. She was doing calculations on rocket and canon trajectories by hand in 1945. A job opened to work on a new machine.

“This announcement came around that they were looking for operators of a new machine they were building called the ENIAC,” recalls Bartik. “Of course, I had no idea what it was, but I knew it wasn’t doing hand calculation.”

Bartik was one of six female mathematicians who created programs for one of the world’s first fully electronic general-purpose computers. Isaacson says the men didn’t think it was an important job.

“Men were interested in building, the hardware,” says Isaacson, “doing the circuits, figuring out the machinery. And women were very good mathematicians back then.”

Isaacson says in the 1930s female math majors were fairly common — though mostly they went off to teach. But during World War II, these skilled women signed up to help with the war effort.

Bartik told a live audience at the Computer History Museum in 2008that the job lacked prestige. The ENIAC wasn’t working the day before its first demo. Bartik’s team worked late into the night and got it working.

“They all went out to dinner at the announcement,” she says. “We weren’t invited and there we were. People never recognized, they never acted as though we knew what we were doing. I mean, we were in a lot of pictures.”

Grace Hopper originated electronic computer automatic programming for the Remington Rand Division of Sperry Rand Corp. (AP)
Grace Hopper originated electronic computer automatic programming for the Remington Rand Division of Sperry Rand Corp. (AP)

At the time, though, media outlets didn’t name the women in the pictures. After the war, Bartik and her team went on to work on the UNIVAC, one of the first major commercial computers.

The women joined up with Grace Hopper, a tenured math professor who joined the Navy Reserve during the war. Walter Isaacson says Hopper had a breakthrough. She found a way to program computers using words rather than numbers — most notably a program language called COBOL.

“You would be using a programming language that would allow you almost to just give it instructions, almost in regular English, and it would compile it for whatever hardware it happened to be,” explains Isaacson. “So that made programming more important than the hardware, ’cause you could use it on any piece of hardware.”

Hopper retired from the Navy Reserve as a rear admiral. An act of Congress allowed her to stay past mandatory retirement age. She did become something of a public figure and even appeared on the David Letterman show in 1986. Letterman asks her, “You’re known as the Queen of Software. Is that right?”

“More or less,” says the 79-year-old Hopper.

But it was also just about this time that the number of women majoring in computer science began to drop, from close to 40 percent to around 17 percent now. There are a lot of theories about why this is so. It was around this time that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were appearing in the media; personal computers were taking off.

Computer science degrees got more popular, and boys who had been tinkering with computer hardware at home looked like better candidates to computer science departments than girls who liked math, says Janet Abbate, a professor at Virginia Tech who has studied this topic.

“It’s kind of the classic thing,” she says. “You pick people who look like what you think a computer person is, which is probably a teenage boy that was in the computer club in high school.”

For decades the women who pioneered the computer revolution were often overlooked, but not in Isaacson’s book about the history of the digital revolution.

“When they have been written out of the history, you don’t have great role models,” says Isaacson. “But when you learn about the women who programmed ENIAC or Grace Hopper or Ada Lovelace … it happened to my daughter. She read about all these people when she was in high school, and she became a math and computer science geek.”

Lovelace, the mathematician, died when she was 36. The women who worked on the ENIAC have all passed away, as has Grace Hopper. But every time you write on a computer, play a music file or add up a number with your phone’s calculator, you are using tools that might not exist without the work of these women.

Isaacson’s book reminds us of that fact. And perhaps knowing that history will show a new generation of women that programming is for girls.

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