The Countess of Lovelace, ordinary or exceptional?
Wired.com tells me that it is ‘Ada Lovelace Day‘, many of us have promised to write blogs that celebrate the achievements of women in technology.
For those of you who don’t know, Ada Countess of Lovelace was (arguably) the first computer programmer, she designed an algorithm for Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine in 1843 (according to wikipedia).
She was an extraordinary woman, exceptionally rich, well educated and clever. She was often ill as a child. Her father (Lord Byron) was hardly conventional, these factors combined to give her the opportunity to explore and develop her mathematical abilities, a thing that very few women of her time (however rich) were allowed to do.
That’s the thing I want to celebrate, women in computing who have been allowed to develop their skills. Everyone can’t be the first, or have a turgid programming language named after her. Traditionally these blogs talk about Grace Hopper, or the women of Bletchley Park. They were exceptional, I want to celebrate the ordinary, women who turn up to work with computers and do a good (or excellent) job, and are judged on their achievements, not on the fact that they are women.
The first time I saw a computer in real life was some time in the early 70s when my aunt took me into her office in the Department of Education in London and showed me a modem and the terminal that connected it to the (gasp) mainframe. The department used the computer to try and predict the future demand for school places for planning purposes.
(That isn’t my Aunt Doris by the way, and her mainframe was probably an ICL not an IBM)
Throughout my computing life there have always been women around, using computers as a tool. I first came across the issue of women in computing when my university lab partner (Kate) and I signed up to do a computing project. The supervisors spent the first 2 sessions discussing how we would ensure the results didn’t put off women. We just wanted to get on with the project get the marks and get on with life/beer drinking. So I’m afraid we switched supervisors to a guy who set us a straight forward image processing problem and let us get coding.
Later on I worked with Gabriel on a simulation of a chemical plant - she is one of the brightest mathematicians I have ever met. Recently I’ve worked with Ilana, who has a computing track record going back to the 70s when she was an ‘analyst’ for Control Data and worked with Seymore Cray , but more recently HP, Microsoft, Cisco have used her skills.
While in Holland over 10 years ago I started working with Birgit, who I still share an office with, we have worked on loads of hard projects together, she’s got her name in an RFC and implemented a codec from the ISO standard description, as well as delivering consistent clean code day in day out.
That’s where it all falls apart, my gender blind dream world. VoIP. The VoIP world has inexplicably few women coders in it, so much so that I can only think of one who I regularly meet at conferences (and enjoy a fierce debate with). I’m sure there are a few I don’t know and Diana almost makes up for the lack with her determination and achievements. But even trawling my email and twitter lists, I can still think of only a very few.
However much we might like to think the western world is gender neutral, it just isn’t yet. Last night my daughter asked me to buy a new ‘First person shooter’ game. I asked her if she could borrow it to see if she liked it , she said no – none of the girls in her class had it and she didn’t want to ask the boys who did, I’m still wondering what to do.
It seems to me that there are two ways to level this playing field (to reuse a cliche), one is by making the argument – publicising the extra-ordinary. The other is a proof-by-example, where the extra-ordinary becomes the normal. Which you choose depends on how extravert you are I guess.
So this blog celebrates women who ‘just work in computing’ but who are slowly pushing back the boundaries so my daughter won’t have to.