When life hands you moths, make a debug joke: What Would Grace Hopper Do?|
Time for a quick history quiz:
Who was the first recipient of the prestigious Computer Sciences Man Of The Year Award?
Here’s a hint — this person was also a decorated naval officer, a National Medal of Technology Winner, and the developer of the first compiler for a computer programming language.
In fact, her name was Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, and well before ‘women in technology’ conferences and well-meaning blog posts bemoaning the lack of gender diversity in technology, she was pioneering the newborn field of computer science.
What Would Grace Hopper Do?
Born in 1906, Hopper is credited with helping to create one of the first modern programming languages, coining the term ‘debugging’ and ushering in a new era of quality and compatibility standards for the entire computer science industry — amongst many other things. There are ships named after her, scholarships given in her honor and even a supercomputer dedicated to her. And, whenever I run into a career conundrum I’m not quite sure how to handle, I ask myself ‘WWGHD’ — what would Grace Hopper do?
Not only was Grace Hopper a renowned, respected pioneer in her field. She was a model of how to achieve that respect with dignity and…well, grace. There are many lessons to be learned from Hopper’s life and her work, but as a woman in technology today, I find the following five to be particularly powerful.
1. Don’t take no for an answer.
Hopper was rejected from Vassar at age 16 and accepted at 17, after which she went on to graduate with honors. After separating from her husband, she tried to join the war effort in the early 1940s, and was rejected for not weighing enough. In 1943, she was finally accepted into the WAVES — Women Accepted For Volunteer Emergency Services — after which she went on to a distinguished 40-year career in the Navy. Notice a pattern? Hopper never took no for an answer, and she never let a little rejection stand in the way of a lot of success.
2. Your work should speak louder than your gender.
Despite being an icon of female empowerment, Hopper was always adamant that she should be celebrated for her work and not for her gender. In fact, she believed that too much talk about gender inequality could actually hurt women’s advancement more than help it. “I came up long before those – any women’s libber. What you do is do a good job and you get there…I think [women] will go further as time goes on, not by women’s lib, not by annoying everybody, but by doing a better job…And I think we have gone amazingly far in the computer industry.” Long before Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg delivered her groundbreaking TED talk, Hopper encouraged women not just to take their seat at the proverbial table because it was fair, but to earn that seat by the merits of their work.
3. When life hands you moths, make a debug joke.
Hopper did not invent the term ‘debug.’ But she is widely credited with popularizing it thanks to her quick wit and sense of humor. Legend has it that Hopper once traced an error in the Mark II computer to a moth trapped in one of the computer’s relays. This was well before ‘debugging’ meant manipulating a few lines of code. With the original supercomputers, fixing a bug — insect or otherwise — required almost superhuman skill and patience. And yet, upon removing the moth, Hopper simply joked that she had found the world’s first actual computer bug. The moth now sits in the Smithsonian as a tribute to the world’s first bug and a testament to the importance of being able to laugh when life hands you lemons…or moths, as the case may be.
4. Never stop learning.
When Hopper began her career, programmers as we know them now didn’t even exist. According to Hopper, “[I started to work on the] Mark I, second of July 1944. There was no so such thing as a programmer at that point. We had a code book for the machine and that was all. It listed the codes and what they did, and we had to work out all the beginning of programming.” At the end of her career, Hopper was leading efforts to create compatibility and quality standards for the entire programming profession. Throughout her life, she stayed ahead of the curve, taking classes, publishing papers and evolving through education. And, more importantly, she stayed excited about where the next curve was coming from. She even predicted the personal computer revolution, saying “I don’t think we’ve even begun to recognize how much we are going to have to do with these computers. I don’t think people are facing what the future is going to be like. The big computers are not going to handle all the data. We’ll go to systems of computers. And the sooner we begin to do it the better.” Far from being afraid of the future, she was inspired by it, and determined to have a hand in shaping it. And she understood that the only way to do that was to keep her skills — and her mind — sharp.
5. Just do it.
Hopper is often credited with coining the famous quote “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” Indeed, Hopper was known for moving forward with her ideas, even if that sometimes meant moving forward before everyone else was ready to move with her. Ultimately, she understood the age-old adage that sometimes, actions speak louder than words. As Hopper said “You always run into some stumbling blocks. There are always people out there who are screaming about the future, and they just live out there and yell about the future and try to explain to people why it is to their advantage to do things differently. And it takes you a little time to change people’s minds. You have show them why it’s going to be to their advantage.”
Of course, as we know now, Hopper’s ideas about the future tended to turn out to be true. From the personal computing revolution to the rise of the information superhighway and the burgeoning field of big data, the trends Hopper saw coming way back at the beginning of the programming profession have blossomed into a multi-billion dollar industry that’s revolutionized the way we work, think and live. Not bad for a woman who had to give up her early dreams of being a civil engineer because “there was no place at all for women in engineering” when she graduated from school. She may not have built cities, but she did help build an entire industry, and her experiences doing so serve as a blueprint for a life well lived and a legacy well earned.
Mollie Vandor is a startup junkie who just can’t kick the habit. She’s currently getting her fix as Product Quality Lead at BetterWorks. Mollie helped launch data-driven UGC site Ranker.com in 2008, During her time at Ranker, Mollie learned to speak fluent ‘Engineerese’, and developed a passion for living in the liminal space between Product and Engineering. She went on to serve at Cooking.com, where she worked on mobile and desktop sites for clients like Epicurious, Food Network and Calphalon. Mollie currently writes for sites like Mashable, Lalawag and Women 2.0, where she is the LA Lead. Find her @mollierosev.