Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

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.

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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The Essence of an IS Professional

August 23, 2010

Recently I read the blog of Nicole Sullivan-Haas, who uses the name Stubbornella (http://www.stubbornella.org/). 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 http://www.stubbornella.org/content/2010/07/26/woman-in-technology/).

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?

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.

“Wordless Wednesday!” — Babbages Difference Engine No. 2

April 7, 2010

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