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Kimberly Blessing

Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day 2010

8 min read

My Ada Lovelace Day post is a two-parter: the first part, recognizing two women who inspired me in math and computing; the second, recognizing Milly Koss, an inspirational and accomplished female computer scientist.

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science. Learn more

Mrs. Smarkola, Miss Herrick, and the Dawn Patrol

Article about The Dawn Patrol From the Grace Park Mini News, an article about Dawn Patrol by yours truly, circa 1985.

I am so fortunate to have been raised in the 80s, during the emergence of the personal computer. My school, Grace Park Elementary, and my teachers were excited about the TRS-80s and Apple IIes in the classroom, and many kids had Commodore 64s at home. Our teachers saw us get excited about learning; we were having fun playing with new toys our parents never had.

Our librarian, Mrs. Smarkola, was one of my most favorite people at school. When I think of her, I always imagine her with a large book in hand, head down, adjusting her glasses, focused on her reading. But I also remember her running the classroom full of typewriters and computers which was across the hall from the library. She'd walk from computer to computer, typing commands, turning them on or off, inserting tapes or disks, making sure each computer had an instruction sheet or book for the next activity. Around the time of fourth grade, a few of those computers moved into the library itself, and the whole school used them to check out and return books -- under Mrs. Smarkola's watchful eye, of course.

My fourth grade teacher, Miss Herrick, was one of those teachers that all of the kids in school were afraid of. Kids talked about her being "hard" and "mean" -- but when I got in to her classroom, I was in heaven. You see, Miss Herrick loved math. I loved math. We were a perfect match! She frequently gave us math quizzes with long division problems, which I always aimed to complete first -- because the first to finish got to "play" on the computer we had in the classroom. I'd guess that I spent more time on that computer than anyone else, and I think I was also the classroom "computer aide," to help other students with it. (BTW, to this day, I love doing long division in my head when I'm bored.)

So many of us kids at Grace Park were interested in computers and learning, that our awesome principal, Dr. Joseph Fleischut, authorized a program called "Dawn Patrol" which was run by Mrs. Smarkola and Miss Herrick. For kids who signed up and got to school about 30 minutes before the opening bell, it was a time to use the computers, typewriters, and library. As you may have guessed, I signed up nearly every day. It may have been during Dawn Patrol that I programmed a TRS-80 CoCo 2 to play the harmony to "Yesterday" by The Beatles, so that it could accompany me as I played the melody on the flute. (When I got to perform at the district concert with the computer, it choked under the hot lights of the stage, sadly.) It also may have been there that I first attempted to program a Joshua-like AI from WarGames. I definitely spent time playing the Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego games there, as well as being questioned by Eliza. But what I remember with the greatest certainty (and the utmost thanks!) were the ways in which Mrs. Smarkola and Miss Herrick (and Dr. Fly, too) encouraged me, nurtured my passion for math, computers, reading, and learning, and always praised me for my accomplishments -- key factors which recent studies say are crucial to getting more women in to STEM.

Adele Mildred (Milly) Koss

Milly Koss and Me I was introduced to Milly Koss in September 2006 when a historical marker was placed at the site of the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation.

Milly Koss "had a distinguished career of more than 47 years in all phases of computer technology, implementation and management, including applications design and development, software/hardware selection, database technologies and computer security." Her name is known to some -- but not enough, in my opinion.

Milly was raised in Philadelphia and attended the selective Philadelphia High School for Girls. She earned a scholarship to attend the University of Pennsylvania in 1946, at a time when schools were primarily giving spots to veterans. She graduated in 1950 with a degree in mathematics. In the early days of computing, women were seen as ideal computer programmers due to their "patience, persistence, and a capacity for detail." Of course, in order for a woman to get one of these jobs, she had to have a degree in math and not be married. Milly Koss qualified on the first point, but not on the second: she was engaged. The first company she interviewed with rejected her for this reason.

Fortunately, she was in the right place -- Philadelphia was home to the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and, from the way Milly describes it, I imagine it to be a workplace much like any modern internet company -- except that 40% of their programmers were women. Milly interviewed with Dr. John Mauchly, who she described as being very nice, flexible, and open. He gave her a wonderful, exciting, creative job -- working with the UNIVAC.

Milly worked with Grace Hopper and was responsible for developing Editing Generator, a problem-oriented language for computer-generated reports, in 1952. Milly was interested in what "computers could do for programmers... how it could help programmers program." She also worked on sort routines for years, which she calls "the quintessential program for machines." She reminds us that today we should be grateful for that early work in automated programming, interpreters, assemblers, and compilers.

By the way, much of this she did while working part-time and remotely! According to Milly, when informed about her pregnancy, Grace Hopper told her to "take it home" -- meaning, the work. Milly would go in to the office one or two days a week, otherwise working from her dining room table. In an interview with Kathy Kleiman (who is the driving force behind the ENIAC Programmers Project), Milly said:

"What’s funny about that period, I’m not sure who my boss was. This was such an unstructured environment… Once I had a child they let me continue to work the way I wanted to. I inferred from that I was of value to them. Nobody lets you work that way unless they are getting value. I got increases. I got paid fairly well. Eckert & Mauchly was pretty good that way… There were no models, they didn’t care how you worked. There were no preconceived notions as to the way you could contribute. You did not have to be in the office…. We did not have huge management teams. We did incredibly new and exciting things and nobody had a problem.”

Milly later went to work for Burroughs Corporation, Philco, and Control Data Corporation, and Raytheon. At Burroughs and Philco she continued her flexible work schedule and would send her work in by mail! At CDC, she worked with early graphics algorithms and interfaces including light pens. Then Milly moved to Harvard University, where says she finally started feeling the hierarchy and loss of flexibility. She spent 27 years at Harvard, in multiple roles. She applied data management expertise to applications for the school and led an R&D effort to develop one of the first data warehouses, the Information Utility. She served as Associate Director of the Office for Information Technology and as the Information Security Officer for the university.

Milly retired in 1994. In 1997, she received a Pioneer Award at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. In 2000, she received the Ada August Lovelace Award from the Association for Women in Computing. With her many years of contributions to the field, I'm sure she also inspired many people -- women and men alike.

Additional Resources

Kimberly Blessing

Geeky news stories you might have missed

2 min read

Some of these stories are a few weeks old -- sorry, that's what happens when you go to SXSW!

Kimberly Blessing

Honoring Ada, Inspiring Women

5 min read

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Ada Lovelace was a mathematician and, essentially, the first computer programmer (in an age where mechanical calculating machines were still ideas drawn on paper). Born in 1815, she envisioned machines which could not only compute calculations, but also compose music.

When computer science students are learning the history of the subject (assuming they get any historical teachings at all -- our history is "taught" via small anecdotes as footnotes in textbooks), Ada Lovelace is sometimes the only women ever mentioned. However the history of the field is strewn with the impactful and inspiring stories of women: Grace Hopper, Jean Bartik and the other ENIAC programmers, Milly Koss (why doesn't she have a Wikipedia page?), Fran Allen, Anita Borg, Telle Whitney, Wendy Hall, Ellen Spertus -- and those are just the high-profile women whose names are likely to be recognized. There are so many other women out there who have done, are doing, and will do great things for computing, technology, and the world -- and today's blogging event will expose all of us to a few more.

Although I've found many female role models in computing and technology, none were as important to me as the women I was surrounded by in college, when I was pursuing computer science as a major. Bryn Mawr's computer science department didn't exist yet -- in fact, we had only one full-time CS professor back then! But there were plenty of women on campus interested in technology and they were my primary motivators and supporters in those days.

Amy (Biermann) Hughes, PhD graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1995 and received her PhD in computer science from the University of Southern California in 2002. She is currently a member of the technical staff at MIT Lincoln Laboratory. I think I first met Amy when we were working together for Computing Services as student operators ("ops" for short) and she was an immediate inspiration. Amy seemed to know everything there was to know about networks, and she taught me a great deal. The fact that she'd decided to major in CS without there being an official major made the idea of me doing it seem feasible. Amy had done research as an undergrad -- another fact which amazed me -- in parallel computing! (That just flat out floored me.) On top of all of that, she loved Duran Duran. I'm not kidding when I say that there were times at which I'd say to myself, "Amy got through this somehow, I can too!" In fact, I'm still telling myself this, as every time I think about going back to school for my PhD, I wonder how I'll get over my fear of qualifying exams and I remember that Amy did it, so can I!

My compsci partner-in-crime from my own class was Sarah Hacker (yes, that's her real name). She graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1997 and went on to do graduate studies at SUNY Buffalo. She currently works in health care information systems at the University of Iowa. Sarah and I were in many classes together before we ever struck up a conversation. I was intimidated by her natural programming abilities -- to me, it seemed that she could pick up any language syntax and any programming concept so easily! -- but I came to greatly appreciate and sometimes rely on them. We also worked for Computing Services and frequently worked the night shifts together, drinking soda, eating candy, and making bizarre photo montages (such as Sarah's brilliant Child of the Moon series). In fact, it was Sarah who first showed me how to create a web page, so I really owe her quite a bit! Sarah introduced me to Pulp (the band), reintroduced me to Real Genius, and taught me LISP for an AI assignment. We started the Computer Science Culture Series together and were featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer for our robots, Jimmy and Timmy. Generally, she just kept me company and in good spirits, and I can only hope that I did the same for her.

Fortunately Amy and Sarah are still friends, so I continue to draw inspiration from their current lives and achievements as well. Of course, they weren't the only women who helped me make it through my undergraduate experience and early career -- Elysa Weiss, Helen Horton Peterson '79, and Jennifer Harper '96 (all Bryn Mawr Computing Services staff) were instrumental as well. And I have to give props to the men who were able to put up with supported a community of such strong women: Deepak Kumar, John King, Rodney Battle, and David Bertagni.

Those of us interested in computer science and technology are constantly looking forward, but today gives all of us a great opportunity to look back and highlight our common history and all of the people -- both men and women -- who've made today possible. Thank you, to all of them!

Kimberly Blessing

Programming, Old-School Style

2 min read

I have a fascination with old computers. Growing up, I heard stories of archaic devices used by my grandfather and his colleagues to accomplish their math and engineering work. Then I went through a few machines myself: the stand-alone Pong console, various TRS-80s, an Atari 2600, multiple Commodore 64s and a 128, finally making it into the x86 line. When I got a new computer, the old one didn't become obsolete trash; it gained a sort of revered status. I'd leave it hooked up, always at the ready, and occasionally I'd take a trip down memory lane and load up some old programs, tinker with something new, or perhaps just bask in the glow of the TV screen/monochrome monitor. Yes, I'm a strange girl.

A DEC PDP-11 Ever since my first visit to the Computer History Museum, I've been fascinated by the DEC PDP-11. The PDP-11 was a series of 16-bit minicomputers which were programmed with toggles. Their design was strangely attractive. I saw plenty of PDP-11 parts for sale on eBay and wondered what it would take to build one. I figured there had to be an emulator out there, but I didn't take much time to look around.

Well, it turns out there is. And there are instructions! Inspired by DePauw University's (slightly cheesy, but fun) videos on programming the PDP-11, lab[oratory] is posting detailed instructions on using the SIMH simulator to program a simulated PDP-11! So join along in the play and experimentation, and program your very own PDP-11. It may not be as cool as handling those purple toggles, but it's still fun.

Kimberly Blessing

I helped elect a female president!

2 min read

Yes, I wish I were talking about Hillary! But I'm not.

Instead I'm talking about the ACM elections, and the woman I'm referring to is Wendy Hall, CBE, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and the British Computer Society, co-founding director of the Web Science Research Initiative, and (if you couldn't tell) one of my role models. So the votes have been counted and, come July 1, Wendy will also serve a two-year term as President of the ACM. Congratulations!

I should also mention that Wendy received the Anita Borg Award for Technical Leadership from the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology at the 2006 Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing, for which I was the webmaster -- an awesome volunteer opportunity which just happens to be available! If you've got skills in WordPress then please apply!

And speaking of GHC, I also need to mention that registration for the 2008 conference is now open! After so many years of attending, stalking Telle Whitney, and volunteering, this year I'm finally going to be speaking on a panel! (Go me!) So, don't miss this opportunity to interact with thousands of smart, successful, techie women -- including Fran Allen!

Gosh I love being a woman in computing.

Kimberly Blessing

Code Monkeys vs. Code Ninjas

3 min read

Software programmer Sara Chipps (yay! a woman!) has written an article titled Natural Programmers (Code Monkeys) vs. Career Programmers (Geeks in Suits). It's probably the best non-techie explanation of the behaviors, habits, and beliefs of the "natural programmer" that I've read -- and yes, I completely identified with much of what she wrote.

However, I have to take a step back and address an issue that I have with the two types of programmers she defines and the names she assigns to them.

First there's the "career programmer (geek in a suit)". These days I find that career programmers are not geeks, and they're definitely not in suits (always business casual!). I've found that they're in programming for the money; they learn enough to do their work -- perhaps well, maybe even to get to the point of being perceived as geeky. But I also find that these people lack a true passion for the craft of writing code. Sara suggests that the career programmer is more of a business person, concerned with cost effective solutions, but I'm not even sure that's true anymore. To me, this person's work is just a job, and if flipping burgers paid as much as programming, they might be doing that instead.

Like Sara, I fall into her other category of "natural programmer". But I am certainly not a code monkey -- I am a code ninja! (Actually, with a nickname like "Obi-Wan Kimberly", I'm probably a code jedi, but anyway...) I find the term "code monkey" to apply more to the previous category of programmer. Why? "Code monkey" implies that anyone can do what we do and that we work for bananas. "Code ninja", on the other hand, says that we're stealth and secretive, jumping out of the darkness when you least expect it. Our code takes you by surprise in its brilliance and our swiftness of execution is legendary. We could do no other job because we have trained for so long, perfecting our natural talent, and nothing else can satisfy our need for control over the systems we affect.

Sara closes her article with some OR logic about which type to hire, however I need to propose a more detailed and different solution. If you have only one programmer working for you, you probably don't want either of these types -- you need someone who really does fall into the gray area between the two extremes. (Yes, they are out there!) And if you have a team of programmers, you need a mix of these two types, and you need to put effort into getting them to communicate effectively with one another. Only then will you have both a killer team and killer code.

Kimberly Blessing

CS Skills FTW! (for the Web)

2 min read

Five ACM experts have contributed to the twelfth edition of Deborah Morley’s college textbook, Understanding Computers: Today & Tomorrow. One of them, Chandra Krintz, Vice Chair of the ACM Special Interest Group on Programming Languages, answered the question, Are programming skills necessary to be a Web site developer today?

Yes, more than ever. Web sites today are dynamic, interactive, complex, and highly adaptive to appeal to the specific and changing needs of the individual users and consumers that constitute today’s competitive commercial markets and popular Web communities. Programming languages have evolved to support existing and emerging Web technologies. Developers today must be able to use effectively a wide range of high-level programming language technologies, such as Java, AJAX, Ruby/Rails, Python, ASP.Net, and PHP, and to adapt quickly to new languages, frameworks, and practices. Programming expertise enables developers to implement efficiently dynamic Web page content, as well as the distributed and layered systems through which Web pages interact with databases and other back-end applications. In addition, strong and marketable programming skills today include team-based work styles and pair programming, test-driven program deployment, agile workplaces, and use of visual and interactive development environments. Programming skills are key to the success, productivity, and satisfaction of today’s Web developers.

Kimberly Blessing

Cheap, programmable robot

1 min read

Via the Institute for Personal Robots in Education:

Scribbler Robot

We're pleased to let you know that the robot platform we developed for CS-1 instruction is now available for purchase.

The $149.95 platform includes a Parallax Scribbler robot, with an add on board developed at Georgia Tech. The complete diff-drive robot then includes: a color camera, bluetooth connectivity, a speaker, light sensors, and line sensors.

The robot can be controlled and programmed from a PC in Python using the Myro package developed at Bryn Mawr (included with the robot).

It is all part of our new curriculum for CS-1 centered on a robot context. The new textbook is also available online at our website.

Kimberly Blessing

'07 and the Ragged Kimberly

2 min read

There are only about 12 hours left in the year, which seems about the right time to take stock of what's happened to me in the past 12 months and what's to come in the next 12.

Looking back, I can't believe all that I accomplished in 2007. Some of the highlights include:

And that list doesn't even include work accomplishments!

As I plan for 2008, I have a number of exciting challenges ahead: more writing, more speaking, more travel -- but also serving as a committee chair for GHC08, running a BarCamp, writing a CS1 course curriculum based on Web development, and more! But best of all, I'm looking forward to moving home to Philadelphia -- a slight change in plans, but a good one.

Into 2008, and into the Arena! (And if you don't get the Duran Duran references, shame on you!)

Kimberly Blessing

Give One, Get One

1 min read

Until November 26December 31, you can sponsor One Laptop Per Child by buying an XO laptop for a child in a developing country, and then get another one for yourself. I just got mine... hurry up and get yours!