Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day on which we celebrate women in technology.  The intent is that we all blog about women in technology whom we admire not only to celebrate their achievements, but to provide role models for others.

As I write this I can see my male students and colleagues shrug their shoulders, shake their heads and mutter something about this being women’s history month.  So, I believe I should begin this essay with an answer to the question, “why should we care?”  That’s easy….

The IT field suffers from terribly high failure rates for systems.  I could cite statistics, but I suspect that no one reading this needs to be convinced that software projects often run over budget, don’t meet users needs or just simply don’t work.  The most commonly cited, of course are the Chaos studies that estimate between 20 and 50 percent of all projects are failures.   Specifically, they estimate that about 18% are total failures and another 53% are “challenged.”  There have been a myriad of solutions proposed to address the problem of system problems.

I would propose that the problem is not the methodology or tool or even upper management’s support, but rather the mix of the team that is developing the product.  Right now the majority of the systems developers are male.  Worse yet, the number of women in the pipeline shrinks every day.  When I began in this profession, women were happy because it was an even playing field compared to other disciplines in engineering. Women flocked to the discipline causing it to be at some point about 30% women.  Today, women are shying away from the discipline.  As I write this I know that I am about to go teach a class that has no women in it.  In my early years of being a professor, that never happened.  Today I see it more and more.

So, what I suggest is that addressing the goal for better technology is best done by increasing the diversity of the teams that develop it.  Countless studies show that diversity in a team leads to better products.  As a recent Ernst & Young report points out, a group of intelligent problem solvers chosen at random will outperform a homogenous group of even the best problem solvers, under the right conditions.  Will it work?  Well, teams comprising men and women produced the most frequently cited patents – with citation rates that were 26 to 42 percent higher than the norm for similar patents (i.e. diversity promotes innovation).  Companies with the highest representation of women in their senior management teams had a 35 percent higher return on equity and a 34 percent higher return to shareholders.  And, we have only to look to our colleagues in production to see that it is true.

There are lots of theories as to why women do not select the profession and it is up to all of us – male and female – to think about increasing the percentage of women in the field.  It is not a “women’s problem” it is a “better technology problem” that belongs to all of us.  So, that is why days like Ada Lovelace Day, where we celebrate the women who are in the field and attempt to attract more women are so important.

I want to celebrate all of the women in technology whom I know.  I know countless women who have wonderful careers and I could not possibly enumerate all of them here.  What I want to do, however, is to celebrate a trait that I see in the ones that are happiest and most successful.  That trait is to “do it your way.”   Early on, when there were few of us, we attempted to blend in, to be “one of the guys.”  Now there are enough of us that we can each celebrate our own individuality and gifts.  As we celebrate our differences, we begin to understand how those differences can be channeled to bring about the improvement in technology.  It is through those different views that we can see the problem, and thus the solution, for what it is.

So, I celebrate Mary Fowler who approaches computer problems and system design in an almost “psychic” approach.  I am not sure she could ever chart how she sees the problems or decides on the solutions, but she is brilliant in her analysis and design.  I also want to celebrate Sheila Burkett who approaches problems in a more traditional way with specific plans and procedures.  She can tell you how she got there and she is also brilliant in her analysis and design.

Those who are best, find that part of the field that they like and then practice the Shakespearean quote (from Hamlet): “This above all: to thine own self be true” (emphasis added).

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