Cult of the Turtle

Joe Tortuga's musing on life,tech and gaming

Ada Lovelace Day

March 24, 2010

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, and I pledged over a month and a half ago to write a post about a woman in technology and science who inspired me.  I’m a programmer by trade, and inclination; writing is important to me as well, but even that is centered around programming and technology issues. Ultimately, there are four people who inspired and shaped me into the programmer I am.  The first is a man, the remaining three are all women.  Today I’m going to write about them.

Ada Lovelace was the first programmer, and Charles Babbage was the first hardware tech.  I guess its’ fitting that the one man in my list was a hardware tech, and all the women were programmers.  Without them, I probably would have been a hardware tech, but without this first man, I probably won’t have heard of or met two of the women, at all.

When I was about eight years old, I went to spend a summer week with my mother’s father, whom we called “PopPop”.   He was a retired Air Force Master Sergeant, who went back to work for the Air Force as a civilian contractor.  One Saturday while I stayed with him, something happened at his work, and he took me with him.

He worked at one of the (now defunct) Air Force bases that monitored the Russian submarines off the coast of North Carolina.  His job was to keep the RADAR system running, which meant taking care of the computers.  This was in the mid-70s, and these were the first computers I’d ever seen.   They were hulking behemoths, 5 or 6 of them, each the size of a refrigerator.  He set me down at the teletype — the only input/output for the device, and had me play with the software that calculated trajectories.

One of the breadboards — this computer was old enough that it didn’t use integrated circuits, although it was new enough that it used transistors instead of vacuum tubes — had burned out.  There was a civilian tech there, to replace the part, and my grandfather had to meet him.  As if being in the computer center wasn’t thrilling enough to my 8-year-old mind, my grandfather showed me the secret radar room (where they covered the locations of the subs with a curtain so I couldn’t see, or tell), and the radar dish as well.

He ended the tour showing me a computer bug in the trajectory software that made it come out with negative numbers for height when the angle was too high.  So, a good day for my younger self: my first hardware failure, my first bug, and secret anti-Soviet spy stuff, like a geek James Bond.

If nothing else had happened, I’d probably have gone off to NC State, majored in Electrical Engineering, and be designing chips and hardware today.  In fact, I did spend a year at State, following that goal, but several things and people changed and altered that goal, and those are the women I want to talk about today.

Like my grandfather, I was an early riser. I often woke up earlier than most of my family. My father worked at the end of a long commute, so he was often gone by six in the morning, when I woke up.  I had a couple of hours to really wake up and catch the bus, and I spent a good portion of that watching local news, and the follow-on show, Good Morning America.

One morning they had a guest who was all about computers.  She was in the military, like PopPop, and worked with computers like he did.  Her name?Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (Although she wasn’t a Rear Admiral when I first encountered her, it’s the rank she retired with).  I remember a lot of that talk with the hosts of Good Morning America, although possibly they were conflated with other times I saw her.  She struck a chord in me, there was something about her reservedness and formality that contrasted with her sense of humor.

Her description of finding the first “bug” in a computer program (a story about them actually finding an insect which had died on one of the breadboards of a computer they were maintaining)  reminded me of my trip with PopPop to the base he worked on.  She wrote one of the first computer languages, COBOL.  I remember that she had one of her nanosecond wires  (a wire the length that light travels in a nanosecond), and gave it to the host.  It was neat, and I was awestruck.

And she was the one who introduced me to the concept that it’s “easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”  I know I quoted that a lot when I was younger, but I’ve learned that there’s a certain level of excellence required to pull it off.  I suspect Admiral Hopper managed that level of excellence, though.

If I’d had the words then, I’d have understood why she made such an impression on me. She was tough, she was a geek, and she was a woman.   The women in my life were all strong, determined women.  While my mother’s mother fulfilled a more traditional role as a military wife, my father’s mother worked outside the home as a chemist. So it was no real surprise when my mother went to work, and back to school.

Perhaps the thing that surprised me the most then was that she went to school for a programming degree.

I don’t know why it was surprising, maybe it was because she was my Mom, and she was a teacher, and at that age, who is better than a teacher? Now I know she was a teacher’s aide, which is even more thankless and underpaid than teachers are.  While she taught, she went to night school, at the local technical college, and got her associates in computing.

I think at the time, I was still fascinated by the artifacts of computing. Computers were rare.  We had one in my middle school, and the access to that was strictly controlled.  My brother and I saved up for an Atari 2600 and that plus a cheap LED Football game were about the only ‘computers’ in our house.  I still remember the day, though, when Mom dropped her BASIC program.

She’d kept it up on the top shelf of her closet.  While getting it down, she slipped, and the entire thing cascaded down, cards going everywhere.  I don’t remember how long it took her to get them back in order, but from then on, she kept her programs wrapped up with rubber bands.

A decade or so later, I was living with them for a while, and Mom professed to not ‘understand computers’ all that well.  I had to wonder what had changed so much? It bothers me when people denigrate themselves that way, but where was the woman I remembered, the programmer whose biggest problem was an out of sequence card-stack?  I remember more the ambition and learning, and the desire to program that played out in my own BASIC programs, which, thankfully weren’t on punched cards.

I wrote a game during summer camp, and did a lot of work with the Apple ][c, but was still focused on being an electrical engineer, because I somehow naively thought that’s how you worked with computers.  Even then, I knew I wanted to program them, make them do things. I just didn’t now how that was done.

Perhaps because of that naiveté, I didn’t do so well my first year of school.  I came home, saved up some tuition, and we had a family discussion about how I would be going to a local school.  I’d do more what Mom had done, and go to a local school, and take computing classes with a business perspective.  (Mom’s degree had been business focused, as well).

I might do it differently today, but that would have meant that I never met Mrs. Wanda Thies, and I’m sure I wouldn’t be who I was today without that.   I did a search on her, and other than some mention of her church, and that she did a seminar at UNC-Greensboro (where I went to school) in 1989, there’s not much about her on line.

I took four classes with her, COBOL mostly, and we talked her into teaching us assembly language.  Because she was an old IBMer, the only assembly she knew was on an old IBM Mainframe.  We didn’t have one of those at UNC-G, so we mailed our programs to NC State to be run.  They would only run at night, and when there was time, so one of the things we learned was to check our software over carefully, including the JCL that told the computer how to run our jobs.  I had a few problems with that, but so does everyone.

It was the closest I ever got to old-style, punch-cards, time-shared computing. By the time I entered the workforce, client-server development was the norm, and the way we work on the web is completely different. Still, those skills are useful — they’ll cut your time when you’re doing any sort of programming work.

She was probably the best teacher I had at any computing task.  She wrote and ran all her assignments ahead of time, she was efficient and clear.  You never felt like her classes were a waste of time, or that her instructions were incorrect.  She gave you every chance to succeed, but she wasn’t going to hold you back from failure either. Late assignments weren’t accepted, there was no extra credit, and that’s just the way it was.  She was clear about it from the beginning, and her class schedules rarely, if ever, changed.  It was wonderful.

She survived somehow in a world organized around men — the only other female professors in that part of the business school taught the “Office systems” degree, geared to wards administrative assistants and secretaries, in other words more traditional women’s roles. She didn’t even have a Doctorate, or if she did, we were informed she was “Mrs.” Theis, and that’s the way it was. I suspect she didn’t have one, but had a lot of life experience, and a respect for us as students that made her one of the best teachers I ever had.

She spoke one day, in one of the later classes. It was 1989 or so. “Look at this file format,” she said. “Four digits for the date.  Any of you turn in a program that doesn’t use a four digit date, and I’ll fail you. In a few years, you’ll all get jobs fixing that problem, I guarantee you.  But don’t you even think about doing it now, or in your professional career.”

She was right about that, too.