Giving Tuesday

November 27, 2012

People who decide these things have designated  today as “Giving Tuesday,” a day on which we are all encouraged to support a not for profit organization (501(c)3) either financially or by volunteering for them.   You may or may not have a favorite 501(c)3 to which to donate.  If not, I would like to propose one for you.

Before suggesting it, I need to provide some background.  This morning a friend forwarded me an article, Women in IT:  How Deep in the Bench.  While the article he sent me landed on a page with a picture of  Ginni Rometty, President of IBM (and fellow Northwestern alumna),  the article went on to document the small number of women who elect to pursue careers in the information technologies.  The article (from ComputerWorld) noted that only 25% of workers in the computing industry are women and that only 12% of the companies are headed by women.    While the article did discuss the advantage of having more diverse design teams, unfortunately, it did not tell us anything new about how to attract women into the field.

Personally, I think the answer to this question is to expose young women to the wide range of opportunities available to them if they pursue a technology degree (in computer science or in information systems).  Too many people think that programmers sit alone in a cubicle and work on boring systems.  Those of us in the field know that the life is nothing like that.  We are likely to be on a project team and spend a lot of time interacting with others.  Projects might be anything from helping doctors diagnose disease, to blending music, to helping police find “bad guys,”  to running Facebook!  Everyone uses computers and they need people working to make the businesses work smarter.  What we need to do is to introduce this wide ranging field to the girls so they know what opportunities are available to them.

This gets me back to “Giving Tuesday.”   Each of the last five summers, UMSL has run a summer academy called Xtreme IT!  The goal of the academy is to expose students to the wide range of opportunities available in the computing profession (you can view the website, including the list of activities from last year).  For the first four years, the number of boys far exceeded the number of girls;  in fact, one year there were 16 boys and 1 girl!  Last year, however, we received a grant to fund scholarships for girls, regardless of their economic backgrounds.  We used these scholarships for recruitment and ended up with over 60% of the attendees being girls!  Some of those girls  began ollege programs in computing fields this Fall.  Others still in high school are applying to college in computing fields, or pursuing activities to put them in a better position to apply in those fields.  WOW!  While we need to wait to learn if these students stay in computing, this looks like a great investment

Do you want to have an impact on increasing the number of women in computing technologies?  If so, please consider supporting a scholarship for a girl to attend Xtreme IT!  A full scholarship is $600, but any contribution will help (lots of small contributions will end up at $600).   You can send a check to Xtreme IT!, 210 ESH, University of Missouri – St. Louis, One University Boulevard, St. Louis, MO  63121-4400.  Or you can give online.  Make sure you designate your gift to the Information Systems Department in the drop down box and then put “Xtreme IT! Scholarships for Girls” in the box to target your gift.

If you give to this, I personally promise the money will help a girl have a great experience learning about careers in computing technologies.



Grace’s Place: A Gallery that Remembers

September 17, 2012

We are just a couple of weeks away from celebrating women in computing.   As you prepare to attend Grace Hopper Celebration in Baltimore, I want to share with you how I celebrate Grace Murray Hopper every day.

Computer technology has changed a great deal since I began with punched tape and cards, mag tape, and green and white bar paper.  Knowing the hardware and its limitations helped me understand why systems were developed as they were and how they evolved over time.  But,  when technology changed , students and others began to lose that understanding.  From an historical perspective, if you don’t know where we have been, how can you understand where we are going?

This question sparked an idea.  At first, it was a little idea … help students understand where computers have been and how fast they are changing.  After talking with some of my colleagues, we decided to get a few display cases and show students (and others) about computers.  I thought I would disassemble a few computers so students could see the difference between parts, such as a hard drive and a floppy drive.  Then I thought we could show some old things and people would get the idea.  It was to be a “little project.”

Well, the “little project” took on a life of its own.  Once people knew we were interested in historical and interesting pieces, we received lots of donations of machines, of peripherals, of memorabilia, and everything else you can imagine.  Suddenly we had much more than our few display cases could hold, and all of it was great!

We started “small” (by today’s standards) with a few display cases and some wire shelves.We now have all of those things and more.  We have a fairly complete set of early PC’s (including “clones”) and Apple products (anyone want to donate an Apple I to the collection?).  But, we also have old “dumb” terminals and Heathkit analog computers.  We have modems from acoustic couplers to smart device modems, examples of tapes, cards, and a variety of disks, lots of CPUs, tubes, telephones, smart devices, and more.  We have old minicomputers, terminals and decwriters, and the power  cord, peripheral cords,  and other components from an old mainframe, We have advertising from various eras, and posters.  A museum in spirit, even if it is only a gallery in size.

This gallery is called “Grace’s Place” in honor of Grace Murray Hopper, of course.  From the  beginning, it was obvious that it should be named after her.  We began with an area that had a few pictures on the wall, but no real use.  So, we “commandeered” it for Grace’s Place.  We did not ask permission, but rather were well prepared to ask forgiveness when someone objected.  No one has.  Recently we moved some of our exhibits into a lounge using the same Hopperian philosophy that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission.

But, there were other reasons it was appropriate to name the exhibition after Grace.  She is, after all, an early pioneer in computing.  She is well-recognized for her work with the COBOL programming language, which still runs a significant number of major applications world-wide.   Without COBOL, computers would not have entered the business environment.  She also is recognized as the originator of the idea of making computer languages accessible to people solving business problems, and hence should be important to students learning to code.  Grace Murray Hopper believed it was critical to educate young people, especially about computers, and this exhibit would do that.

However, perhaps the best reason to name it after Grace is because she understood the importance of making things simple when explaining complex topics, and found it useful to use tangible items to help with that explanation.  Anyone who heard her speak in person or on television has head about a “Grace Hopper nanosecond.”   As I heard the story, Dr. Hopper was frustrated by admirals who could not understand why it took so long for information to get from the earth to space. She asked for a piece of wire that was just under a foot.  With that piece of wire, she could illustrate how far electricity could move in one billionth of second (a nanosecond), and thus the admirals were able to understand that there were “many nanoseconds” between the earth and space objects.  When she would speak, Dr. Hopper would distribute “nanoseconds” to the participants and encouraged them not to waste even a microsecond.

Yes, we have a “Hopper nanosecond” in Grace’s Place, with an explanation.  We also have a replica of Dr. Hopper’s log book (the original of which is in the Smithsonian) that included a taped down moth that she found in the computer when she claimed the computer had a “bug.”

Over the years, though, Grace’s Place has grown in depth too.  One patron had a collection of typewriters that she donated as “predecessors to word processors,” and we added a collection of “computing devices,” including slide rules, calculators, abacus and a Marchand comptometer. We have toys that depict computer parts and proudly show Barbie the Computer Engineer.  A local artist created a piece to demonstrate the difference between “spaghetti code” of the early years from “structured code” written today.  (It is multipurpose in that it can also explain the problems of today’s BI systems with lots of messy data being fed into a BI system.)  We have covers of Time magazine that depict stages of computer development.  My favorite is from January 23, 1950 cover which shows a stylized Mark III computer that happens to have a navy cap and sleeves (that I think gives a nod to Dr. Hopper).  Since the museum is named after Hopper, we have information about the naval ship, the Amazing Grace, also named after Grace Murray Hopper.  Finally, we have our very own “Gingerbread Mansion” built as a Christmas decoration by our IT support staff; it is their depiction of a gingerbread house made totally out of computer components.

You can spend a lot of time in Grace’s Place (and you are all invited to do so) because there is so much squeezed into a small space (and, I continue to get more materials in on a regular basis).  When the College of Business builds its new building (date unstated), there is a place for Grace’s Place – in a prominent location with nice shelving and lighting.  But, it will always be “Grace’s Place” because even the donor funding the new location believes that is the appropriate name for the collection.


May 23, 2012

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.  -- Ghandi

Wordless Wednesday — Women in IT

April 6, 2012

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Grace Murray Hopper

March 7, 2012

Believe it or not, the world of computers didn’t begin with Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.  Look what Grace Hopper has to say about it.

Da Vinci and Robotics?

January 29, 2012

I had always known that Leonardo Da Vinci was a bright fellow who studied not only the human form, but also engineering.  I was reminded  how many engineering applications he either created or perfected during his lifetime today while visiting an exhibit of Da Vinci machines made from his 500-year-old designs.  This exhibition presents over sixty models grouped in themes: War machines, Flying machines, Nautical & Hydraulic machines as well as devices illustrating the Principles of Mechanics.  His sketches of the human body and of horses bodies are fascinating.  But the thing that took me most by surprise was Da Vinci’s study of robotics.  According to the exhibit, he began considering the creation of a robot started while he was an apprentice.  He designed the robot below based on the inner workings of the human body.  (Don’t forget, Da Vinci dissected many bodies so as to understand how the human body functioned.)   He designed this robot using levers and counter levers, joints, and with ropes and pulleys acting as muscles and tendons.  It turns out that the King of France commissioned Da Vinci to create a robotic lion that would walk forward and then open his breastplate to display a cluster of lilies.  Imagine — this was 500 years ago, before electricity and electronics.  It is amazing!  I particularly like this robot below … notice the pulley system it uses.

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Teaching and Electronic Media

September 1, 2011

Earlier this month, the Missouri legislature passed Missouri Senate Bill 54, also known as the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act, and the governor signed it. Last week, a judge placed an injunction on the law after the Missouri State Teachers Association filed a law suit against the governor and the attorney general. So, why, you ask, am I talking about it? The 35 page law addresses many aspects of student-school relations. But, on page 15, the law prohibits private “oral or nonverbal communication” using a non-work social networking sites, especially those that are “exclusive access.” In other words, teachers beware! You cannot use a social networking site to break the law, or you will be breaking another law!

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the misguided attempt to protect our children from sexual predators, even if those predators are teachers. There are, of course, already laws that prohibit such behavior, and most school districts have policies that supplement those laws. Personally, I believe that people who prey on children, teens and young adults should be punished severely. Our children are our greatest asset and we should protect that asset.

So, what will this one do and why do I care? First, what does it prohibit? I am not entirely sure about this. I consulted with some lawyer friends (whom I will not name in case I misunderstood them) who said the written word is referred to as “verbal” communication. So, given the law prohibits “oral or nonverbal communication,” I think it literally prohibits Skype use and emoticons on Facebook, texting and other internet sites. Clearly what the legislature thought it was prohibiting was the use of chat or messaging using a social networking site. Why, then, didn’t they include email? I know the high school students think that is pretty archaic, but if the goal is to protect the student, shouldn’t they have a broad definition of technology? Email is pretty exclusive and is certainly problematic if in the wrong hands. The technology of tomorrow is likely to be exclusive as well.

This law is only useful as a threat, or as a way of catching someone whom they cannot catch in other ways. It is like using the tax laws to catch Al Capone. If, in fact, the communication is exclusive, then it will not be obvious until a problem has already been identified. This e-trail will be used as evidence and as another way to punish the inappropriate behavior. Teachers can still talk to the students outside of class, call them and other potentially inappropriate behaviors.

Again, why do I care? I think teaching teenagers must be a terribly difficult thing. Teens are transforming between children and adults, which is difficult, and their raging hormones is making it even more so. Getting their attention for academic work can be challenging. What we know is that if you want them to hear you, you must talk to them in the channels in which they are already listening. The horrible thing that this law does is to take away tools a teacher can use to be on the right wave length to communicate with their students. You might argue that everyone should use the school-based tool. OK, but that only works if the students are “there.” It is extra work for the teacher to go to the social networking site to help the students. Sometimes you want to give hints or reminders that are private – perhaps so other students won’t know who is having trouble. This law prohibits that kind of one-on-one help that many of our students so dearly need.

Also, and perhaps worse, this takes away the teacher as an adult from whom a student who is having problems can turn for help. Many students have problems of abuse and neglect at home. They often turn to a trusted teacher to help them address those problems. Similarly, some students are more likely to turn to a trusted teacher with addictions, unwanted pregnancy or other personal problems. But, they are not going to do that if everything must be communicated in public. What this law will do is to make quiet communication and mentoring more difficult.

I wonder why this law was enacted. Is there evidence of misappropriate discussions through electronic means? Is there evidence that children are being abused by teachers because of their discussions through electronic means? If so, I haven’t seen it (but, in fairness, I haven’t looked either). Or, is this just a “Mom and Apple Pie” kind of law to get voters to think our legislature is working to protect our kids? I encourage the legislature to get some data and analyze the data before we add another unenforceable law to the books. And, in the meanwhile, let’s stay out of the way of the teachers trying to prepare our children for the future.

If you are interested, the law can be found at A story by CNN is available at and a story about the injunction is available at There certainly are other stories and blogs that you might also consider reading.

Making Jean Bartik’s prediction come true

March 28, 2011

Jean Jennings Bartik died last week. If you are one of those people who are asking “who is Jean Bartik” then you might consider reading the obituary at CNN. Although she was born, raised and educated in Missouri, I found no mention of her in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, even in the “national spotlight” section of the obituaries. Lenin’s niece made the list, but not Bartik. Isn’t it amazing that the passing of an individual who made a significant contribution to the development of computing and to winning WWII didn’t make news?

Jean Bartik was one of the six women who programmed the first general purpose computer, the Eniac. But, according to Bartik, “for many years in the computing industry, the hardware was it, the software was considered an auxiliary thing,” and so neither she nor her five colleagues got much credit. In fact, when they were showing off the Eniac, managers downplayed their role, simply making them out to be models who posed in front of the machines. (you can learn more about them at the Top Secret Rosies website or the Eniac Programmers website).

According to CNN, in February, Bartik said women hadn’t gotten far enough in technology, but she saw a promising future. This comment made me think — why? The first programmer, Ada the Countess of Lovelace, was a woman. These six women played a significant role in early computing as did Grace Murray Hopper. Why do not more women see them as role models and chose IS as a field for their careers? And, what can we do about it to make that future more promising for the next generations of women?

As most people who know me will attest, I am an advocate for getting more girls and women into technology. Why? Because it is a great field and the field needs them! I am advocating a balanced advocacy for women that is best represented by an article I read a few weeks ago: What is a Woman in Tech? When I say “advocating for women,” I am talking about educating women about the range of opportunities associated with an IS degree and giving those women a fair chance at the field. It does not mean preferential treatment or advancement simply because people are women. It means helping to eliminate the IS workplace that is hostile and building a supportive community.

Does that mean I want less opportunities for my male students and colleagues? NO! Putting a woman in a position for which she is not prepared only makes the whole problem worse for everyone!

Last week I also read a study out of University of Washington which shows girls are already picking up on the stereotypes of what is and is not an appropriate career path for them by second grade. WOW! How can anyone know what they can and cannot do by the second grade?! How can we fight the stereotypes if it starts that early?

I, unfortunately, do not have a solution. I believe the proactive efforts of all of us are needed to make the accomplishments of all of the women, from Ada to those on the front line today, known to young women. I believe we need those same proactive efforts to help those young women see the possibilities that are available to them. Finally, I believe we need those same proactive efforts to make the field welcoming of those women. It takes all of us to change the tide of decreasing numbers of women in the field. It takes all of us to make Jean’s hope that the future is promising for young women in computing.

The Essence of an IS Professional

August 23, 2010

Recently I read the blog of Nicole Sullivan-Haas, who uses the name Stubbornella ( I don’t know why she uses that name and it is not a blog I generally follow (but I may start). In this particular entry, she is discussing women in technology. But, that is not the part to which I want to direct your attention. Rather she provides a nice dichotomy of the difference between good developers and bad developers (the specific blog is at

The code cowboy

* Stays up all night recoding the entire code base, documents nothing, and forbids anyone to touch it because they aren’t good enough to understand his level of code.
* Refuses meetings, chats, or any other form of communication.
* Cares more about being perceived as the brilliant-uber-genius than he does about his team working well together.
* Gets into silly pissing contests which boil down to “hehe, my brain is bigger than yours”.
* Finds complex solutions to problems, thus proving his brilliance.
* Makes a lot of mistakes due to lack of sleep, overcaffination, and ego — but thank god he is around to save the day when the bug is discovered.
* Is fairly certain clients, PMs, designers, and really anyone he has to deal with on a daily basis is at least three standard deviations below his IQ.
* Jumps to say “me, me, me!” when credit or rewards for accomplishments are offered.
* Jumps to say “me, me, me!” when opportunities to attend or speak at conferences arise. The good developer

The good developer

* Digs the fact that he is making products for people. Likes people and enjoys communicating with them and understanding how they think. Can put him or herself in other people’s shoes and reliably imagine how they might react to different parts of the UI.
* An excellent problem solver who takes into account all aspects of a challenge when designing a solution – including human elements like maintainability and usability.
* Shares credit with the entire team or entire internets. Recognizes that no solution evolves in a vacuum.
* Applies consistent effort and recognizes that working in a way that promotes long term productivity will yield better results.
* Respects the members of his team, including those who aren’t engineers.
* Manages projects so they don’t require super human feats of sleeplessness to meet deadlines.
* Has a life outside of work, other interests, friends, and family — they love code, but they love lots of other things too. If you don’t understand how this makes them a better developer, see item #1.
* Amazing capacity for abstraction and creative thinking.

This is a reasonable view of the dichotomy of technology professionals. It particularly appeals to me as I face a new semester with two sections of “systems analysis.” One of the major purposes of the class is to transform people who are in the first column into people in the second column. Believe me, sometimes it is easier to turn lead into gold!

The goal of an Information Systems degree (in contrast with a computer science degree*) is to focus on how the computer is helping the enterprise. The goal is to set the business priorities first and see how computers can reasonably help the enterprise meet those priorities faster, more cheaply and with less stress. In order to be successful, IS professionals must understand the business better than the people in the professions. This is why we require all of those business courses. It requires an understanding of where the business is going and how the system needs to support that growth.

Any professional will want to optimize the product he or she produces – make it bigger and better than anyone else has done before. Sometimes, however, that means that it costs too much or takes too long to produce. Instead, it needs to “satisfice” – to be good enough given the constraints on the system. As a profession, we don’t do that very well. The one kind of constraint that we do not process very well is that of the human component. In particular, what can we expect that human to do and to know and what will that human expect of the system. Said differently, as IS professionals, we need to know how the customer thinks and make sure that the system responds to that well. As a profession, we need to get past the code cowboy behavior and show empathy for the client, and show creativity in our solutions.

So, what’s my point? First, for all of you who are not in IS because you think you must be like the people in column one above, PLEASE change your majors and join us – we need more people of the type in column two. Second, for those of you who want to know how to practice the profession better, focus on the first point in column two – how can you make the system work better for the business, including the people, who work there? Third, of course, if you have any advice on how to transform people from type one to type two (or to transform lead to gold for that matter), please share!

Architecture and Systems

June 28, 2010

Friday’s TechNews highlighted some work being done at the University of Leicester by saying:

The University of Leicester’s Farah Lakhani is studying how techniques from architecture could be used in the development of software for embedded processors, which have grown in complexity. Lakhani says the designs of buildings and control systems share commonalities. “Architects must couple knowledge of engineering–for example what type of steel girder is required to support a floor–with human-centered design, i.e. what makes a building a good place to live or work,” she says. Lakhani says that similar concerns should be a focus of developers of embedded systems, and her current research focuses on “how techniques called ‘design patterns’ from the field of architecture can be used by developers of reliable embedded systems.”

It is quite obvious that we can learn from architects — and not just for embedded systems. In fact, the object oriented movement has highlighted the work of Alexander. His views of “a property without a name” drive my doctoral students crazy until they “get it.” While the field has gone on to document many patterns for design, they have been less likely to document the patterns for analysis. In fact, my reading of Alexander is that he believes patterns for analysis are more important than those for design. Specifically, knowing what kinds of issues need documentation for specific kinds of problems, what kinds of stakeholders probably exist in what kinds of situations, and where problems tend to appear for certain kinds of problems would be most helpful for novices in analysis. Accounting systems differ from personnel systems — there should be help for the novices to know how to approach them. Further, many of the failures of systems can be tracked back to bad analysis (not understanding the problem, not communicating, etc.) than to design. Thus, patterns in analysis would be more critical. Of course, the reason they don’t exist is that it is much harder to define analysis patterns than design patterns. I wonder how we would start?