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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

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

Imagining Peace

2 min read

Imagine PeaceIt's been 27 years since John Lennon's death. 27 years! It's hard to believe, because I can recall hearing the news of his death like it happened yesterday; yet I've been to plenty of vigils in Central Park to prove that it's true.

Each year it hits me hard... sometimes it's when I'm at home in the shower getting ready for my day, sometimes it's in the car... this year it's been on my mind for the past few days. It's been so long and yet our world is still so (and increasingly more) violent. For all that John did for the world, don't we owe him? Can't we realize his final wish?

And then there's Yoko Ono Lennon, ever the tower of strength and spokesperson for a peaceful world. She's posted a very moving letter to John over at IMAGINE PEACE (the focal point of an online peace demonstration that started back on October 9). Here's the end of the letter:

Let's not waste the lives of those we have lost. Let's, together, make the world a place of love and joy and not a place of fear and anger. This day of John's passing has become more and more important for so many people around the world as the day to remember his message of Peace and Love and to do what each of us can to work on healing this planet we cherish.

Let's: Think Peace, Act Peace, and Spread Peace. John worked for it all his life. He said, "there's no problem, only solutions." Remember, we are all together. We can do it, we must. I love you!

Kimberly Blessing

Grace Hopper on Letterman

1 min read

This video was just too good to be left in my sidebar; the sheer fact that it exists mandated a full entry for it and its hilarity makes watching it a moral imperative.

Watch as a young(er) David Letterman is upstaged by Grace Hopper, not long after her retirement in 1986. My favorite part? Dave asks, "How did you know so much about computers then?" and Grace replies, "I didn't. It was the first one!"

Kimberly Blessing

Fran Allen's Turing Award Lecture

1 min read

The ACM has posted video of Fran Allen's Turing Award lecture. Go check it out!

Delivered by Frances E. Allen, recipient of ACM’s 2006 A. M. Turing Award, the presentation calls for software systems designers to develop new tools that can improve the performance of computer software.

Allen, the first woman to win the Turing Award, issued the challenge in her Turing Award Lecture, delivered in June at the 2007 FCRC Conference in San Diego, CA.

Ms. Allen received the 2006 A.M. Turing Award for “pioneering contributions to the theory and practice of optimizing compiler techniques that laid the foundation for modern optimizing compilers and automatic parallel execution.” In her Turing Award Lecture presentation, she warns that computer software capabilities have fallen far behind the capabilities of computer hardware, and proposes several approaches to boost the performance of software in the face of the new hardware developments.

Kimberly Blessing

Congress honors Fran Allen

1 min read

While I was dealing with all sorts of travel problems this past weekend, Telle Whitney was in San Diego to see Fran Allen receive the Turing Award. I hope Telle took pictures, because the ACM still hasn't learned to use online social networking tools to quickly distribute the media that its members want to see...

However, while I was looking around for photos or video from the awards banquet, I found this Congressional resolution, passed by the House of Representatives on May 1 (how'd I miss this?), which honors:

...the pioneering life work of Frances Allen in computer research and development and salutes the Turing Award Committee for recognizing, through the selection of Frances Allen, that creative women have contributed mightily to the development of this important field.

I'm not sure what made me tear up more: Fran receiving such recognition or the acknowledgment that women have made great contributions to computer science.

Kimberly Blessing

Fran Allen to receive Turing Award

2 min read

Woo hoo! From the latest ACM Press Release (emphasis mine):

ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery, has named Frances E. Allen the recipient of the 2006 A.M. Turing Award for contributions that fundamentally improved the performance of computer programs in solving problems, and accelerated the use of high performance computing. This award marks the first time that a woman has received this honor. The Turing Award, first presented in 1966, and named for British mathematician Alan M. Turing, is widely considered the "Nobel Prize in Computing." It carries a $100,000 prize, with financial support provided by Intel Corporation.

Congratulations, Fran! (See my pictures of Fran at GHC 2004.)

Over at USA Today, Kevin Maney has a great article on Fran. He tells her story and comments on the lack of women in technology fields at the same time.

Maney writes, "Allen, now retired from IBM Research, started in computing in 1957 — a time when tech companies, believe it or not, seemed like wide-open and exciting places for women to build careers." This echoes the sentiments expressed to me by Milly Koss last year, when she told me the story of how she was hired by Eckert-Mauchley just after getting engaged (typically a death knoll for a woman trying to start a career in the 50's).

I love how Maney confronts the hype around girls and women not being suited for math and science -- head on. "First of all, it's ridiculous to suggest that girls are less predisposed to math and science. Allen is not a freak of nature. Instead, something happened to the technology profession — and to public attitudes about it — to scare off girls." I couldn't agree more.

I remember first learning about Fran Allen, back when I was an undergrad. (Deepak encouraged us to learn about the history of computer science and, in particular, about the role of women in its history.) Ever since, she's been a role model to me, and I know she's been a role model and mentor to many other women as well. I'm so excited for her to receive this award, not only because it acknowledges her valuable contributions and dedication to the field, but also because it will make her story better known to scores of people (especially young women) considering a career in computing.

Kimberly Blessing

Anassa Kata, Drew!

1 min read

It's official! Earlier today, Drew Gilpin Faust (Bryn Mawr '68) was unanimously confirmed as President of Harvard!You probably need no reminder, if you've heard the news, but she is the first woman to hold this office (as well as "the best candidate", according to the senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation). As Drew herself said, "I'm not the woman president of Harvard. I'm the president of Harvard."

CNN has the AP story, and the Harvard newspaper, The Crimson, live-blogged the announcement.

Also, don't miss Bryn Mawr's write-up and Drew's 2001 Commencement speech.

Kimberly Blessing

Reading She's Such a Geek

2 min read

I'm only a third of the way through She's Such a Geek but I'm loving and finding something to appreciate in every story. This book is a required read for any woman in (or interested in) science and technology... as well as for any educator or mentor that works with women. Hell, it should just be required for everyone, period.

One thing that has me almost giddy as I'm reading are the stories of how these women got interested in math, science, and technology. So far only one has mentioned a man as their primary mentor; the rest have cited mostly women (sometimes specifically their mothers) as theirs. Woo hoo!

I'm thrilled because this is in stark contrast to what I heard at GHC back in October. There, women repeatedly cited their fathers as their key mentors. Granted, most of the women saying this were of a slightly older generation than those writing in this book... so perhaps this means that the feminist movement did succeed in creating a generation of women that was able to empower their daughters and other women! Still, at GHC, I felt that the speakers should have taken greater care in who they cited as key in their development and achievement; they were addressing a younger audience and the impression I got from some of their statements was that a man is necessary in guiding a woman to success in math, science, and engineering.

I'm sure this is not what these women intended to communicate, but it's how the message was received on this end. I may be beyond the point where I'm looking for advice on finding mentors and inspiration, but I'm not beyond caring about the messages being sent to young women today! So again I say to all, go read She's Such a Geek (the book and the blog) and give a copy of the book to young woman or mother of a girl!

Kimberly Blessing

Uma tells it like it is

1 min read

Leave it to to tell it like it is:

The stay-at-home mom is over not just because of women's liberation but because of men's liberation from wanting to be the breadwinners.

Not only does she essentially call the stay-at-home mom a relic, but she also calls out the men on their often unspoken desire to be free of traditional roles (which I completely support, BTW). Now if only the men could embrace the potential for change, and share more responsibility and equal pay with women!