Amazing Grace

One of the greatest sources of instruction and motivation is learning about great people who came before us.  One of these stories is the story of Grace Hopper – aka “Amazing Grace” by those impressed with her accomplishments.  Grace was a computer scientist in the 1940s until her death in the 1980s.  Also – get this – she was a Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy.  Quite a big story for a small woman during years when the barriers to women in technology were even greater than they are today.

To illustrate how uncommon it was to find women in technology circles, I remember back to an incident that occurred to me at an airport probably over 25 years ago.  It was pre-9/11, but airport security was basically similar as it is today, albeit with less theatre and dumping out of water bottles.  Laptops had become more commonplace and, as a way to determine they were actually functional computers it was common for security personnel to ask travelers to turn on their machine. Once they saw something appear on the screen they would be satisfied and allow the traveler to pass.

On this one day, I happened to be carrying my Gateway laptop (many of you remember that company, a fascinating story in it’s own right).  The problem with my Gateway was that at unpredictable times it would refuse to turn on despite my pushing the power button – which when you think about it is a pretty big problem if a user should ever want to actually use the computer.

It turns out it’s an even bigger problem when you’re standing in an airport and a security guard is looking at you suspiciously while you fruitlessly peck at various keys.

So I used my mobile phone (which probably was the size of a brick) to call Nancy, one of the IT people at the telecommunications company I worked for.  I knew Nancy well – she was great. Nancy told me that they’d been having this problem with other laptops and I should flip it over, open the battery cover, extract the (massive) battery for a few seconds, replace the battery and then re-try.  I did this, and it worked.

The security guard who had been supervising all of this was an older guy – probably in his sixties. He had clearly been listening as I was talking to Nancy, and as I’m putting my laptop in my bag, the following conversation ensues:

Security Guard: “Did you just ask a woman how to fix your computer?”
Me: “Yes”
Security Guard (incredulously): “You need a woman to help you fix your computer?”
Me: “Yes”

This scene probably occurred five or ten years after Grace Hopper’s death, which might give us all a glimpse into some of the crap she had to deal with during the black-and-white television years.

One interesting story about Grace (possibly aprocyphal) is that she discovered that the source of a faulty relay in a computer she was working on was a moth, popularizing the computing phrase of “de-bugging” code. I enjoyed learning about Grace and encourage you to at least take a read through the Wikipedia page about her.

Learning about great people like Grace Hopper can inspire us to be our best and to help us find the “Amazing Grace” that lies within each of us.

Good luck!

PS: To learn about another pioneer during this same time period, go here.

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