Kindergarten Engineering

June 16, 2010

An article in the NY Times today discussed a new movement to teach engineering to primary students. According to the article,

Supporters say that engineering reinforces math and science skills, promotes critical thinking and creativity, and teaches students not to be afraid of taking intellectual risks.

Clearly, my next step was to check out the available modules; I was disappointed to find there were no modules addressing information technology. It was an interesting set of topics, though, set in different contexts and different countries. I looked at the industrial engineering module (I do, after all, have a BSIE). The module introduced the topic of how machines make work easier, a traditional topic in IE. The materials include a children’s book (which chronicles two young girls’ trip to the potato chip factory where they learn how machines make work safer), a teacher’s manual, a DVD with vignettes about machines and a set of materials. Not a bad collection.

So, on and off today I have been thinking about what activity could be developed to help young children appreciate programming or other aspects of technology. I thought about creating a “human computer” where only some children could compute and others could write on the board and others carried messages, etc. Would that help them understand it? What kind of book would go along with that topic?

Then I thought about having them explain precise instructions of how to do something. The tasks in the program, according to the teachers interviewed, were to teach the children to “take students step by step through the engineering process: design, build, test, evaluate.” Well, those are good things to learn. But, how to apply them to information technology?

I still don’t have an answer, but I do have a question. Does anyone else have an answer?


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.

Babbage’s Difference Engine Number 2

April 22, 2010

I love history. I do not read as much about history as I should, but I love to visit places, learn their history and, of course, visit their museums. In addition, I am a geek. I love computers and what they can do. In fact, I like these two subjects so much I started a computer museum here at the University called Grace’s Place. So when I had the opportunity recently, I jumped at the idea of visiting Babbage’s Difference Engine. To many, this engine is the beginning of computing as we know it. Certainly Babbage’s later machine, the Analytical Engine, is a computer in the modern day sense of the word. I would love to see how a 19th century inventor thought of computing, but Babbage never built his Difference Engine. However …..

Charles Babbage was a mathematician, inventor and philosopher. He was troubled by imprecision. He hated imprecision so much that he once wrote Lord Tennyson to note the imprecision of his poem, “The Vision of Sin.” In that poem Tennyson said, “Every minute dies a man, Every minute one is born.” But, Babbage wrote that the poem could not be factual or the population of the earth would be flat. He suggested instead that Lord Tennyson change the poem to read “Every minute dies a man, And one and a sixteenth is born.” Further he said “I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.”

But, I digress. Back in the 1930s, all mathematical tables were computed by hand. (I realize that my students will probably have never seen a mathematical table since they now get all of those values directly from some computing device. They will just need to trust me that there was a time when people did arithmetic by hand and people used tables.) These tables were critical to computations needed for building, astronomy and navigation. Even minor errors in the tables could cause buildings to fall and sailors to be lost forever. And there were many errors. So Charles took off to create an “engine” that would do the computations exactly. How he came up with the idea of the Difference Engine, I cannot imagine. But, Difference Engine 1 was designed to include approximately 25,000 parts, weigh fifteen tons, and stand 8 ft high. He took his idea to the British Government for funding and they too thought this was a good idea, so they granted him funds to build the engine.

Unfortunately, Babbage was not a good project manager. He was, after all, a perfectionist, and so his project suffered from scope creep as he continually improved on his design. In addition, he was not an easy man for whom to work (remember his writing to Tennyson to change his poem?), and he suffered some significant losses close together. Needless to say, he did not get the project finished.

Learning this is important for two reasons. First, it was a surprise to me because I had learned that the problem was with the precision of tooling in the 19th century. Apparently that was not true. Second, think about how many inventions and developments never happened because of bad planning. It has been said that this first experience with calculating devices so soured the British Government that it would not fund projects of this type for some time which, in turn, stunted the development of calculating devices. I wonder how much more advanced our capabilities would be had Babbage been a good project manager!

Babbage was not discouraged and he went and designed Difference Engine 2. This one was smaller and had less moving parts, but the British Government had no interest in funding the project and he could not get funding from any other source. After his death, Babbage’s son gave the plans for this engine to the London Science Museum. In 1989 (about 150 years after its design), the London Science Museum decided to try to build Difference Engine 2. They used Babbage’s plans and 19th Century manufacturing precision. Where Babbage’s plans were incomplete, the builders used other functionality that Babbage had designed. In the end, it was all Babbage’s design. It was tested at the London Science Museum and returned the answer for a polynomial to 31 digits correctly!

It turns out that there are two Difference Engine 2 in existence. The London Science Museum ran out of money before it could finish the original piece; they had built the engine but did not have the funding to build the printing component (on the left in my photos) of the engine. They approached Nathan Myhrvold for funding. He provided the funding with the stipulation that they build him a replica of their engine.

Myhrvold agreed to display the difference engine in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View California for a year after taking delivery. It actually has been there longer than that because Mr. Myhrvold needs to fortify his living room floor before he can move the engine there.

So, during spring break my husband and I visited the Computer History Museum and Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2. This is like visiting history that even the people involved never saw. It was a great experience.

I must tell you that it is a beautiful machine! The bronze set off from the black frame is just lovely. But all of that paled next to the idea that this piece of equipment was designed almost 200 years ago. It was like going back into history and seeing what inventors were doing. One can almost imagine James West and Artemus Gordon using this engine on the Wild Wild West (this was a television show that had detectives using fanciful inventions of modern conveniences as they might have looked in the Victorian Era).

We were lucky enough to be at the museum when they were demonstrating this engine. Someone literally cranked the numbers! Remember, Babbage didn’t have electricity. So, he had to control for sloppy cranking too. One put weights on the structure to control the polynomial that you wanted and cranked away. In the front you saw the gears moving around. But in the back you saw levers and switches that controlled all of the carrying that was necessary for the computations. It was captivating. At the end, the printer gave us the value of the polynomial and was ready to start again. If we wanted, it would also prepare a mold for a copper plate so the values could go right from the computer to the printing press. Just imagine!

To me, the experience was a lot like finding a long lost Renoir or Monet painting that no one knew about and having the privilege of being one of the few people who could enjoy the experience. It was like being a little kid again and being amazed. Yes, I know that makes me a geek.

But, go ahead and look at the machine. I have posted some photos in an earlier blog, “wordless Wednesday” and watch this thing work. Direct your browser to the Computer History Museum and watch the engine work. You too may be captivated. For more information about the history, there is a YouTube video. See the process of unpacking the machine when it arrived in Mountain View. Also watch the program from the opening of the Babbage Engine exhibit at the Computer History Museum.

Yes, it is history. Why is history important? For two reasons. First, it is important to see how far we have come in computing in order to project where we might go. Second, it is important to “get into the head” of great inventors to help ourselves learn to invent better so that we can solve the many problems of the 21st Century. In this case, the history is also beautiful and mesmorizing. Check it out!

My Clock

April 12, 2010

As anyone who has been to my office can tell you, I have a “thing” about clocks. It all started with one I bought at an art fair that was nothing more than a kit you get at Michael’s used to make an old hard drive controller card into a clock. But, then I saw a binary clock and bought it. Then I found a clock that is driven from computer boards and shows on old nixie tubes. And, I have a digital clock, but instead of numbers, it lights up squares in the four positions — oh yea, and the squares that are lighted change every second. I added one to our lab that runs backwards and has the line “think creatively” next to it. My clocks are fun. They don’t get me places any earlier, but they are fun none the less.

I had a birthday recently (and no, I won’t tell you how many). I want to brag about the gift my wonderful friend Margaret gave me — it was a clock. But, given my collection, not just any clock, would impress me! Margaret knitted me a clock as shown in the photo below.

She used all the colors I love and demonstrated her amazing knitting skills. I could not replicate this clock in a knitted form for all the tea in China.

But, look at the clock straight on as shown by the photo below. Do you notice anything about the numbers?

Yep, the numbers on this knitted clock are in binary! Isn’t that amazing? Can you make them out? Well, for those of you who cannot do binary quickly, I have given you a quick key below.

1: 0001
2: 0010
3: 0011
4: 0100
5: 0101
6: 0110
7: 0111
8: 1000
9: 1001
10: 1010
11: 1011
12: 1100

So Margaret gave me a perfect gift! It is a unique work of art. And, it has a technology theme. What could be better for me? The only thing better is a perfect friend — which, of course, Margaret is!

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

April 7, 2010

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Ada Lovelace Day

March 24, 2010

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).

Personal Privacy

March 18, 2010

My undergraduates are increasingly teasing me about my reluctance to keep information online. In fact last week they had me wondering if I was, in fact, getting too old for the field. I used to be one of the people close to the bleeding edge – am I getting too conservative for that position now? Does that mean I can no longer be an effective teacher and researcher? In other words, I was having a bit of a crisis of confidence.

Then two things happened. First, I spoke with my son (who is always a source of wisdom) about my quandary and found that my concern about privacy online is not as conservative as his. So, maybe it is not my age? Second, I read a Time Magazine article about how we have the largest generation gap in history and it is all about this question of how much should we put online. OK, so maybe it is not just me?

Then this morning while reading the New York Times, I felt my confidence return. In an article How Privacy Vanishes Online, the authors discuss how people can deduce data based on the personal information posted on social networking sites – not only one’s own, but also those sites of one’s friends. In fact, it states, “Computer scientists and policy experts say that such seemingly innocuous bits of self-revelation can increasingly be collected and reassembled by computers to help create a picture of a person’s identity, sometimes down to the Social Security number. “

The article went on to remind the reader of last year’s MIT experiment during which students were able to identify with 78% accuracy the sexual preference of students based upon their profiles (which, of course) were stripped of that information. A more recent example is the recent decision of Netflix to cancel their second competition because although the records were stripped of identifying information, individual users could be identified because of their unique viewing history.

People judge you by the information you share and by your friends. This information can be put together in a distinctive “social signature” (as the researchers quoted in the article identify it) that can be used for good, bad an neutral purposes. We tend not to look at our social signature in the same way that prospective employers or others might.

I worry that we have a generation of people who are growing up putting all kinds of things online that will come back to haunt them in later years when they least expect them. Once online, of course, things cannot be taken back. They exist there forever. Just look at our web presence as identified by the Way Back Machine (see All those old web pages that may or may not have things on them that we would not want now (and certainly have design flaws that we would rather not see again) are available for anyone to view. Can we say there will not be a parallel site for facebook, twitter, and other social networking sites?

So, after having my crisis of confidence, I have reassured myself that the problem is that I have more knowledge about what can be done with the data than my students, so I can see possibilities that they cannot. In addition, I have the wisdom that comes with more years to see how one’s personal views change.

I used to tell my students that it was critical that they manage their careers, starting from what courses they take. I will now add that it is critical to manage their social signature so that they can have a career to manage (among other things).

Why worry about diversity in the IS Field?

March 18, 2010

Alpha Trade Finance is a publication that I never read. However there was a link in a Mentoring newsletter that caught my attention: “Ten Things Companies – and Women – Can Do To Get Ahead.”  As advertised, it really does identify 10 things companies can do and then 10 things women can do to get ahead.

Many of them are things we all have heard before. However, the first item needs repeating:

Work toward “Functional Diversity”: Professor Scott Page of the University of Michigan uses this term to capture the idea that we need people with diverse ways of perceiving problems, rather than groupthink, in order to devise better solutions. 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.

    That caught my attention because it identifies the primary reason I believe we need to increase the number of women (and other minorities) in the Information Systems field. The field suffers from terribly high failure rates for systems. Study after study has shown that diversity leads to better products. So, it is in everyone’s interests that we increase the diversity of the IS field. Don’t think of it as a “women’s problem” …. think of it as a “better technology problem” that belongs to all of us!


    January 26, 2010

    In today’s New York Times there was an article entitled “In Digital Combat, U.S. Finds No Easy Deterrent.” This article discusses simulations run by the Pentagon of how to respond to systematic cyberattacks. The simulations were run in a response to the hacking against Google and 30 other U.S. companies that have been in the news recently. The result of the simulation?

    The results were dispiriting. The enemy had all the advantages: stealth, anonymity and unpredictability. No one could pinpoint the country from which the attack came, so there was no effective way to deter further damage by threatening retaliation. What’s more, the military commanders noted that they even lacked the legal authority to respond — especially because it was never clear if the attack was an act of vandalism, an attempt at commercial theft or a state-sponsored effort to cripple the United States, perhaps as a prelude to a conventional war.

    The implications for national security are scary. One participant in the game admitted,

    “The fact of the matter,” said one senior intelligence official, “is that unless Google had told us about the attack on it and other companies, we probably never would have seen it. When you think about that, it’s really scary.”

    But there are smart people working on this problem, and so eventually I believe (ok, I hope) it will be solved.

    However, what no one is discussing is the implications of this to cloud computing. The idea behind cloud computing is that you keep your data and programs and such residing on someone else’s computer, or “in the cloud.” The data, the programs and all else is available through the internet. OK, sounds like a plan. BUT, what happens if these cyberterrorists attack your company or attack the cloud. Then everything that you need to run your business is suddenly unavailable. Isn’t that scary too? Are companies prepared to take this risk — especially after the Google incident? Are cloud companies planning for this kind of problem? How are people responding? I think this needs to be part of the planning process — especially in light of the dire results of the simulation.

    Share your views!

    January 24, 2010