What I learned from Grace Hopper
September 29, 2017
In the early 1980s, I was a new Air Force officer, at the Pentagon.It was a time when most women military officers still were nurses. The Air Forcewas modernizing from the post-Vietnam era, and recruited women STEM graduates,and I was one of them. As a novelty in uniform, my few women colleagues and Istood out.
The Pentagon features a concourse, with shops and a bakery.As the junior person in my office, I was sent to fetch goodies at the bakery. Inoticed that there often was an elderly, uniformed woman in line with me. Herrank and age intimidated me‚ÄîI didn't know that “old” people could be in uniform,and junior officers just don't chat up senior officers. Grace eventually struckup conversations with me while waiting in line, at the bakery and the creditunion.
Grace is a posthumous (2016) recipient of the American Medalof Freedom, best known as the creator of the compiler, and a major contributorto the business programming language COBOL. She also coined the word “debug”after having to remove a real bug from the hardware of one of the firstcomputers.
Esther, from her days at the Pentagon, where she met Grace Hopper.
World War II inspired Grace's military service. Prewar, sheearned a Yale Math PhD, and worked as a Math professor at Vassar.After the war, her career was in Naval computing. After forced retirement, shewas called back to active duty several times. When she retired the final time,at almost 80, she was the oldest active duty Navy officer, and promptly went towork for Digital Equipment Corporation at 80.
When I met her, Grace was already famous, especially for her“nanosecond” demo. She carried a bundle of wires thatphysically represented what a nanosecond was. (She seemed to always have abundle of wires in her tote bag.) The wire was meant as a reminder toprogrammers that wasting even a nanosecond was something of physical consequence.
Today, Grace is an inspiration for young women in software. Mostyoung women in computing know her via the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) forWomen in Computing, the world's largest gathering of women in technology. Iattended GHC most recently in 2014 and 2016, and will attend again this year.
Grace was known for her many sayings and habits‚Äîthe clock onher desk ran counter-clockwise, she coined various phrases about asking forpermission later, etc. I've discovered other reasons to admire Grace Hopper‚Äîsomenot publicly disclosed until after her death in 1992. Grace was just like any other young woman ofher time‚Äîshe dated, married, and like many, divorced. Even today, young womenneed to know that being brainy does not mean they can't have a personal life.
For me, the most important Grace-ism is to always questionthe status quo. For example, when Grace first tried to enlist, she was told shewas too old (over 30). Then they told her she was too skinny. Her response wasto ask for a waiver &endash; ALWAYS. I also am inspired by her age. Like another 20thcentury icon, Saint (Mother) Teresa of Kolkata, she didn't begin the careerwhich made her famous until her late 30s.
Take chances! As Grace Hopper said, "A ship in port is safe, but that is not what shipsare for. Be good ships. Sail out to sea and do new things.”
The legendary Grace Hopper.
To find out how to visit us at this year's Grace Hopper Celebration, click here.