Archive for the ‘Women in IT’ Category

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.

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.

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 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.