Women in History: A Girl’s World

I had a very senior meeting with folks from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on some pretty important procurement matters.  We had the meeting on the phone by teleconference.  I was in a great mood because I was wearing this brand new pink leather jacket that I just brought 40% off with an additional 30% off coupon.  After a bunch of ooh’s and aah’s, I realized that all the girls were in DC and all the boys were in Huntsville.  It also occurred to me that the girls just spent the first five minutes of the conference call talking about fashion versatility and fiscal prudence.  So, I apologized to the boys of Alabama and started the meeting. Cute and Powerful Girl 

But, maybe Women’s History Month is a good time to stop apologizing for being a woman.

In an interview by InfoWorld, Carly Fiorina, who served as CEO of Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005, and was the first woman to run a Fortune 20 company, was asked to give advice to other women who are in male-dominated fields.  She said, “…Don’t carry other people’s prejudices as your burden. Don’t sell your soul in the process.” So, women need not be ashamed for acting like and being like … a girl.  Often, we girls hear about major decisions being made on the golf course, or in cigar-smoke filled rooms.  And maybe I sold my soul a bit on this, but I did it like a girl wearing pink golf shoes and gloves, hitting pink balls and smoking Sugar Daddy flavored cigars. 

In an article Leadership Qualities That Distinguishes Women for the Financial Executive Magazine Herbert Greenberg and Patrick Sweeney talk about women bringing “distinct personality and motivational strengths to leadership roles – and doing so in a style that is more conducive to today’s diverse workplace.”  The article discusses women’s willingness to take risks, be inclusive and team-oriented, their ability to rebound and learn from setbacks, and their distinct persuasive style.  I recall my grandmother’s distinct leadership style in persuading us to do what she asked.  As a last resort she would say, “Don’t let me have to take my shoe off!”  That worked every time.  I was asked once, how I was able to be so persuasive in advancing some key strategic initiatives.  My honest answer was that … I took my shoe off. 

There’s a great need in the world of IT for the leadership style of women.  Most CIO’s today know the importance that IT has in initiating change in organizations, bringing people together, and increasing the effectiveness of the modern workforce.  There’s also an increasing need to make IT more understandable and have clear communication in non-IT jargon.  The leadership traits that are stereotypically associated with women would benefit the IT field.

In a TEDWomen talk, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, gives some pithy advice to women in her talk Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.  But, she ends the talk with a question.  She asks, wouldn’t it be a better world if half the countries and half the companies were run by those who represent nearly half the population, women?

I end this blog to help us girls feel empowered, establish our own place in history, and be proud of our strength with the words of the profound urban poet James Brown.  He posits that it’s a man’s world, however:

This is a man’s world, this is a man’s world
But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl

Linda Cureton, CIO NASA

Women in History: The IT Legacy Grace Hopper

I just finished my 2011 IT Workforce Capability Assessment Survey sponsored by the Federal CIO Council and the Office of Personnel Management.  The purpose of the survey is to make an assessment of various competencies in the Federal workforce and identify opportunities going forward.  Being a seasoned veteran of IT and CIO, my technical competencies were mostly in the category of legacy.   What the heck?  I checked off that I was an expert in FORTRAN.  One of our NASA CIOs, Mike and I joked that it must be a relevant competency because FORTRAN 77 helped us get this far, right?

I started thinking about the good old days when I was a happy systems programmer – a programmer’s programmer.  One of my early assignments was to install new versions of the COBOL and FORTRAN compilers.  So, with my mind recalling things like compilers, assemblers, and machine code and with March being Women’s History Month, it is more than appropriate to discuss the life and legacy of Vice Admiral Grace Hopper.

Born in 1902, she was a pioneer in computer science with accomplishments stay relevant decades after her death.  She earned a PhD and began teaching mathematics at Vassar University but left her position as an Associate Professor to join the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES).  After being commissioned as a lieutenant in 1944, she joined the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University.  She was the third person to join the research team that worked on the IBM Mark I – the computer hat heralded the age of the modern computer.  Her first assignment was to compute the coefficients of the arctangent series in a relatively short period of time. 

She was best known for her contributions that led to the invention of the compiler.  The compiler allowed use of English-like instructions to computers rather than the complex numeric machine code.  It is reported that she said that she did this because she was lazy – preferring to do the real work of the mathematician rather than programming in machine code.   Her work strongly influenced much of what we still see today in the area of digital computing: subroutines, formula translation, relative addressing, the link loader, code optimization, and symbolic manipulation. 

I had the pleasure of seeing her many times early in my career.  As a mathematician and systems programmer, I noticed that there were few women in either field and even fewer who were in both.  Her diminutive stature was in stark contrast to the heights she reached with her sassy irreverence.  One of my favorite quotes, widely reported to be about her invention of COBOL, is “but Grace, then anyone would be able to write programs!”  Exactly! She helped make the mysterious extremely technical world of the early computers more accessible to regular folk.  To help people like generals and admirals understand why satellite communications took so long, she would hand out pieces of wire just less than one foot long – the distance that light would travel in one nanosecond.  She would also present a coil of wire nearly one thousand feet long which represented a microsecond.  Later, she passed out packets of pepper which she called picoseconds. 

She passed away on New Year’s Day in 1992 – I’m sure I was programming in REXX then.   Vice Admiral Hopper left a legacy that paved a path for many women and men to follow.  In 1969, she won the first “man of the year” award from the Data Processing Management Association.   I appreciate the opportunity to pause for a few nanoseconds during Women’s History Month to acknowledge her contributions.  

Note: This is my 100th blog.  Thanks for reading. 

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA