Archive for the ‘People’ Category

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.

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 http://www.senate.mo.gov/11info/pdf-bill/tat/SB54.pdf. A story by CNN is available at http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/08/01/missouri-law-bans-some-teacher-student-contact-on-facebook-other-sites/?iref=allsearch and a story about the injunction is available at http://chesterfield.patch.com/articles/teachers-sue-missouri-over-facebook-ban-in-new-move. 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.

Barbie, the computer engineer

May 22, 2010

Yesterday I had an email from Systers (more about that later) that cited an article about a woman who works for the defense department who was a consultant on designing the computer engineer Barbie (see http://science.dodlive.mil/2010/05/21/defense-fellow-helps-give-barbie-a-new-career/). The article was an interesting summary of how this woman tapped her networks and came up with some of the ideas for the new outfit. So, it talked about “networking.” My son and my students will tell you this is one of my favorite topics for “lectures.”

Why is networking important? It is important for getting jobs, and learning things and just existing. Life happens because of the people we know and what we learn from them. In the article, Dr. Fitzgerald notes that some of the people who gave her ideas were on Systers, “the world’s largest email community of technical women in computing.” Systers is an online community hosted by the Anita Borg Institute that brings together young and old women in technology with each other. It is a wonderful resource through which women receive ideas and mentoring, share their accomplishments, and talk about what it means to be a woman in technology. I found this list late in my career, but it has done much to help me realize that some of the things I experience are not because I am “me,” but rather because I am a woman in technology. I read emails that tell stories that I have experienced almost exactly – different people, but the same discussion and the same issues. What is wonderful about the list is that the Systers give advice – “this is how I got out of that situation” or “this is what I would do.” So, it is more than a place to complain, but rather a place to get support and guidance. When you join you promise to keep the emails secret (so there can be honest discussion), so I cannot give you explicit examples. But, I recommend it to any woman in technology; and I recommend you learn more about the activities of the Anita Borg Institute.

Computer Engineer BarbieNow, back to Barbie. If you haven’t heard the story, here is the line. When Mattel brings a new career to Barbie, it puts up some ideas online and people vote. In addition, Mattel holds some focus groups. So, when it became known that a computer engineer was one of the careers being considered for Barbie, an email came over Systers announcing that we could vote. I’ll be truthful – even though I have not played with a Barbie in many decades, I voted. I sent emails to friends and colleagues and encouraged them to vote. When all was said and done the “middle age women” (probably most of us from Systers) voted for computer engineer while the focus groups (all girls who actually play with the doll) voted for media anchor. Mattel decided to introduce both careers this year and they will be available this fall. This was all announced by Mattel (including the voting), but several weeks later, the Wall Street Journal broke the story that we old women were stealing the election. As a former resident of Chicago, I couldn’t believe they were claiming there was a problem – I had only voted once! (For those of you who don’t know, Chicago is known for voting irregularities.) The story was picked up by the Chicago Tribune and later the St. Louis Post Dispatch. How do I know this? Because I received anonymous and not-so-anonymous clippings of the story in my email and my snail mailbox. My colleagues were making sure I knew we had stolen the election.

To me, the real story is why these women took the time to vote and to share the idea of voting with others. What did they see that others don’t. What they see is that the number of young women opting for a career in computing is dropping every year, while the problems of women in computing in the workforce are not going away as they are in other professions. For some reason, it is no longer seen as “the thing to do.” Dr. Fitzgerald says it well in the article “What Computer Engineer Barbie will do, I think, is broaden the realm of not only what is possible, but what feels accessible—being smart, confident, and tech-savvy without sacrificing femininity or fun.” We believe that if Barbie can be a computer engineer that it will open more doors for young women to pursue this path. And, that is a good thing.

Why do we care? Obviously, those of us who have been in the trenches for a while would like to think that the pathways we opened will stay open for those who have the interest. It is more important than that. The Standish Report, which is cited all over the industry (even though it has many methodological problems), tells us that somewhere between 20% and 70% of all systems development projects are not successes. Some are out and out failures, some are just challenges. But, the point is that we, as an industry, do not get many clear cut wins. We also know that diverse the design teams generally produce better results. So, why do we want to see more women in technology? Obviously, we want the output of the industry to be better. If computer engineer Barbie will help, then I am all for it.

Mattel will probably do quite well with this decision. I know I have already purchased my own computer engineer Barbie and I am sure others on the Systers list have done so too. Those are purchases Mattel would not otherwise have gotten. This is in addition to all of those Barbies that will be given to age appropriate girls.