Ever heard of Grace Hopper?

Ever wonder who said:   “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission”?  Often attributed to Grace Hopper — inventor, naval officer, academic and business leader.

We discovered The Commonwealth Club of California and soon after discovered Grace.

One of Dave’s many fortes is finding gems like this.  I had actually heard of the Commonwealth Club but it didn’t occur to me that living a couple of blocks from it would be a great opportunity to hear interesting speakers engage in policy debates and to meet a range of Californians.

From Web Site:  The Commonwealth Club of California is the nation’s oldest and largest public affairs forum, bringing together its more than 18,000 members for over 400 annual events on topics ranging across politics, culture, society and the economy.  http://www.commonwealthclub.org/about/

Dave went to hear Eliot Spitzer, the former Governor/Attorney General of New York speaking on: The Cataclysm of 2008-2009:  Lessons Learned, or Lessons Ignored.

I missed that one but last night we went to hear Kurt W. Beyer, author of Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age, discussing the amazing woman who was Grace Hopper.

Grace Hopper (1906-1992) was a driving force in the evolution of computers.  From the dust jacket of the Beyer book:

Hopper made herself “one of the boys” in Howard Aiken’s wartime Computation Labortory at Harvard, then moved on to the Eckert and Mauchly Computer Corporation.  Both rebellious and collaborative, she was influential in male-dominated military and business organizations at a time when women were encouraged to devote themselves to housework and childbearing.  Hopper’s greatest technical achievement was to create the tools that would allow humans to communicate with computers in terms other than ones and zeroes.

Here is a photo of Rear-Admiral Hopper — 1983, Harvard University Archives.

Grace Hopper.jpg

In the 1950s the dominant group of computer programmers were women — during the war that was one of the important roles.  And Grace’s vision of the future was that computers must be democratized and that democratization had to do with communication and policy around programming.  She invented compilers that would allow us to use non-binary language to speak to computers.  Grace was involved in testing and selling COBOL — the programming language that nobody liked in 1960 but to this day is at the basis of much of the programming that we depend upon.

Most useful to me were the “lessons from Grace” with which Beyer ended his talk:

1.  Lead, do not Manage. Grace said:  You manage things, you lead people. We went overboard on management and forgot about leadership. It might help if we ran the MBAs out of Washington. She was very keen on empowering youth — she made assignments to the youngest of her team because she said that they didn’t know they should fail so they thought much differently from the more mature workers who understood the difficulty of whatever the problem was.

2.  Giving the Team a Vision for the Future. People create technology — computers would have remained scientific instruments if it hadn’t been for people.  Grace believed in articulating bold visions of where we might be headed.

3.  Learn at the Margins. Grace thought we tended to live in intellectual cages.  As a college instructor she always audited 2 courses.  This gave her the capacity to work with a whole range of businesses around their computer needs — because she understood their language and their fields.  She was connected and familiar with business, the military and academia.

4.  Grace is a role model for today. For Grace, computer innovations were not about making money.  They were about making the future better for everyone.

One of my favourite stories from the evening was around  the removal of a 2-inch-long moth from the Harvard Mark I experimental computer at Harvard in August 1945, as quoted in Time (16 April 1984):  Grace said:

From then on, when anything went wrong with a computer, we said it had bugs in it.

I had always wondered where that came from.  Hurrah for Grace.

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2 Responses to Ever heard of Grace Hopper?

  1. David McPhee says:

    Enjoyed reading this commentary. The words angling, casting and bugs are all words related to fishing. Fishing is also a metaphor for exploration. The Commonwealth Club of California…who would have thunk it.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention MQ » Blog Archive » Ever heard of Grace Hopper? -- Topsy.com

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