/Who was Grace Hopper?
The woman responsible for bridging the gap between government and commercial applications for computers.
Yes, that’s right. We owe the fact that personal computers are so widespread today to this fabulous and determined woman. Grace Hopper has received 9 Medals of Honour, over 40 awards of recognition including the first Computer Science Man of the Year in 1969.
This title sounds ironic to modern ears but Grace always got, ‘annoyed that they titter when they say [it]’. She held to ‘Man is a generic term’.
She was feisty, determined and had a rebellious streak.
Imagine post-war America.
It’s the baby boomer years. I Love Lucy is aired for the first time and Elvis is about to hit the big time.
Military contracts are drying up. You’re a woman working at Harvard, but there are no project renewals that are hiring women.
What would you do?
Grace Hopper had grit. She didn’t give up and she didn’t take no for an answer. She took her own path and wound up joining what would later be known as the UNIVAC division of Remmington Rand Corporation.
One UNIVAC employee by the name of Phil Vincent recalls meeting Grace there: “They had this CAL, Computation Analysis Laboratory…where people were really jammed in… And the desks were piled very close together with little aisles between them. I saw two people in there and they were crawling around between the desks and every once in a while they’d rear up between the desks and each had water pistols, and they were shooting at each other. And one of them was a guy named Harold Sweeney, who I understand died a while ago, and the other was Grace Hopper.”
So what is it about Grace Hopper that inspired so much recognition later in life?
/Never Giving Up
It’s a superpower.
Some people have it and some people don’t. Grace Hopper had it in fathoms.
When she was rejected from joining the Navy in 1941 due to being too slender for her height, she applied to volunteer in the Naval Reserves with a waiver. Grace embraced the physically demanding training and, aged 37, she achieved the highest training rank – battalion commander – and graduated top of her class.
When the new projects at Harvard weren’t hiring women, she turned to the private sector.
When management didn’t see the need for language-based programming to make computers more accessible to the public, Grace kept working on it and wrote the first compiler, a direct precursor to COBOL - COmmon Business Oriented Language.
/Exceptional Communication Skills
Grace Hopper realised early in life that different people communicate in different ways, they use different vocabulary and have different levels of understanding.
Not everyone’s a mathematician. Some people are managers, some people are accountants. Everyone has different needs and Grace had a way of explaining things in the right frame and the right context, for the person she was addressing.
/Recognising and Championing the Contributions of Others
In an interview in 1980, Margaret lamented how often women in her field were overlooked. She claimed that it was common in those days for managers to take credit for the work of the individuals on the team.
Grace Hopper was incredibly modest. Always pointing to those around her who had contributed to the project. ‘I always felt you had to give the credit to the people who really did it.’
Betty Holberton was a woman she worked closely with at UNIVAC who never got as much recognition as Grace and yet Grace cited Betty as instrumental in Grace’s own work.
Grace thought far ahead in the future and must have found herself frustrated by short term obstacles. She was forward-thinking and always trying to solve problems of the future.
She was the one who made it possible for computers to be more easily understood and programmed in English. She made computers more user friendly.
Many times in her life, she was recalled to work for the Navy. At her desk, she was reputed to have flown the jolly roger flag on her desk.
Grace Hopper was ‘known for her combative personality and her unorthodox approach'.
It is believed that Grace Hopper was the first to say: ‘It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.’ This devil may care attitude enabled her to take action and stand up for herself and fight for the work she saw needed doing.
Grace was a practical and down to earth woman, but she also had a sense of humour and a streak of playfulness.
In 1947, while at the Bureau of Ordnance Computation at Cruft Laboratory, Harvard, Lt. Grace Hopper was working on the Mark 1 computer when the relay failed. A moth had gotten inside and Hopper and the team found it riotous that they literally ‘debugged’ a computer.
Teacher Grace juggled many jobs simultaneously. She was a lecturer, a programmer for UNIVAC, a consultant for the Navy, often all at the same time.
Grace’s contribution goes beyond the work she did in programming, in laying the foundations for COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language). She recognised the importance of the generations following and the dissemination of information within the field.
She tirelessly supported students with their studies and their ideas, saying that they were more on the ball with the newest theories because they had the time to read publications. Whereas managers and people more advanced in their careers were often behind the times due to their lack of time to read about those innovations.
/So Ends Our Overlooked Series for International Woman’s Month
Here at Ada Meher, we champion all workers in their fields to help them find fulfilling and worthwhile employment —to be the best and get recognised. If you feel overlooked in your current role, don’t lose heart. The right employer who will recognise your contribution to the team is right here with us. We make it our business to champion the overlooked and match them with employers who value and recognise their contributions to the team.