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Absolute Firsts

October 29, 2016

An initiative for women in computing

AIA source

Louise Bethune was the first female professional architect in the United States, and possibly the world. She worked in Buffalo in the late 1800s through the early part of the 20th century.

Today we roll out ideas for an initiative on attracting women to computer science.

When Bethune worked there were undoubtedly no initiatives for attracting women into architecture. One imagines it was the opposite. Yet she designed the Hotel Lafayette, which is again going strong following a 2012 restoration to its original grandeur. She announced the formation of her own architectural firm shortly before marrying Canadian architect Robert Bethune, who partnered what became Bethune, Bethune & Fuchs. She was the first woman to be elected to the American Institute of Architects (AIA), first as an associate and a year later as a Fellow.

To judge by Wikipedia’s article on women in architecture, it is unclear whether any woman had a regular leading professional role in architecture before her. Nor do we know any stories from antiquity of female builders, say to compare with Hypatia in mathematics. Indeed if we broaden to all of engineering, the women listed here are first Hypatia, second—guess who?—, and then the third and following ones are all contemporaries of Bethune.

I like to compare computing to architecture. In this post we hailed algorithmic tools as “erecting a New World [rather] than discovering one.” In departmental commencement speeches, I’ve said how Filippo Brunelleschi exemplified the ancient Greek maxim “Know Thyself” in his calculations of how his design for the dome of Florence’s cathedral would stand without buttresses—but how in our new kind of architecture it is more vital to “Document Thyself.” So I am happy to use Bethune as the local Buffalo face of my initiative, and the comparisons that follow are in no way meant to shade her.

The First X

I am writing under the prospect that America is about to elect our first woman president. Our Buffalo Bills this year hired Kathryn Smith as the first woman in a regular full-time NFL coaching position. This came a year after the NFL hired the first female referee and two years after Becky Hammon became the first female coach in the NBA.

I could go on with recent examples of “the first woman X.” What strikes me is that computing is singularly blessed with women who have been the the first X, no qualifier:

{\bullet} Ada Lovelace, 1843: First Published Programming Paper, First Public Programs. As I wrote about her last year, she first translated a paper that had been written the previous year in French by Luigi Menabrea from his notes on Charles Babbage’s lectures in Turin on his Analytical Engine and example programs. Then she appended “Notes” that were twice as long and contained larger programs and analysis of them. The point of my article was to engage a scholarly consensus that shadows her contributions under Charles Babbage, by comparing it with the PhD advisor-student relationship today. After a detailed critical review I concluded that she deserves primacy on at least the completed Bernoulli numbers program (“Note G”) and on framing certain programming issues that still resonate today. This recently-updated fact-check chides those who call her “the first programmer”:

The problem is of course, that this version of the story omits Babbage’s programs written years before Ada’s similar, but more complex, program.

But it notes that in contrast to Babbage’s programs, hers as published are error-free. On balance it affirms my points, to which I’ll add her paper’s significance as the first example of open source. She is the “guess who” on the engineers list mentioned above.

{\bullet} The ENIAC programmers, 1940s: Betty Jean Bartik, Frances Holberton, Kathleen McNulty, Marlyn Meltzer, Frances Spence, and Ruth Teitelbaum. They were the programmers of the first publicly-known all-electronic computer. Holberton also developed one of the first automatic program generators, SORT/MERGE, around John von Neumann’s MergeSort algorithm, and Bartik joined the development of the BINAC I and UNIVAC computers. We can add Adele Goldstine, whose 1946 report on the ENIAC was the second computer manual after von Neumann’s famous EDVAC report the year before.

{\bullet} Grace Hopper, 1940s, 1950s, and later: First Compiler Hopper started as a programmer on the classified Mark I machine in 1944, then in 1951 designed the first compiler for her A-0 programming system for the UNIVAC. This is linked with Holberton’s SORT/MERGE in Russell McGee’s recollection of early computers as “the germ of what would be some very important future developments” including the conception of COBOL. In 1952 she wrote a paper on her compiler, which was implemented by Margaret Harper and presaged an automatic program editor written by Adele Coss.

{\bullet} Mary Hawes, Jean Sammet, and Gertrude Tierney, c. 1960: Development of COBOL. They were all on the COBOL design committee and each took leading roles on stages of it. Sammet wrote the book Programming Languages: History and Fundamentals—in 1969.

{\bullet} Margaret Hamilton: First Software Engineer. There are others who might lay claim to that title, but she coined the term. We’d be interested to know whether her voluminous control code for the Apollo 11 moon mission became the first large-scale public demonstration of fault-tolerance when the code by her and Hal Laning handled an error condition from an incorrectly set switch during the landing phase.

Per this source, over 250,000 unique lines of code by Hamilton and team.

{\bullet} Adele Goldberg, Smalltalk. She was an integral part of the Smalltalk-80 design committee. Shared firsts count too.

From related fields we could include Florence Nightingale for the first statistical inference from medical data in the 1850s—she is also counted as a founder of statistics—and Edith Clarke for the first patent of a graphical calculator, in 1925. We’ve also posted on Hedy Lamarr’s spread-spectrum invention. We’ll be happy to hear more reader’s favorites right up to the present day.

Opportunities and Realities

Indeed, many more female computing pioneers are listed here among other places. It is great to look up to them. However we need to look around us in the present on our campuses. What we see is women severely under-represented in the computing major. Whatever one’s opinions on why, the graphs showing women falling from 36% of CS majors in 1984 to 18% now are stunning, even after noting ups and downs in the CS major on the whole.

Discussions of why have ranged from the 1980s advent of home PCs being perceived as “boy toys” to failure to explain in childhood the career need of tech. But even the graphic for the latter’s argument shows a huge drop in high school and college. Thus there is a clear need for work at the college entry stage.

I side with those who decry the emphasis on gaming in intro CS courses. There seems a greater disparity between male and female participation in video gaming than I perceive in chess, at least at the top. For one instance, League of Legends—whose world championships will be watched by hundreds of thousands this weekend—had its first female pro player only last year, and she left earlier this year. One can find conflicting evidence regarding greater parity in the population overall, depending on level of self-identification and involvement. As with chess, this is set against a paradox. Computer gaming involves no physical attribute that segregates men’s and women’s sports, and there is no commanding evidence of separation in cognitive or reactive skills. Granting this means that other factors must be responsible for disparities.

We believe that the current diversification of computer science fields will enlarge the store of good examples. Game-building has always furnished good examples: it provides quick feedback and appreciation of results and a springboard for event-driven, real-time, objects-first, and even multi-threaded programming early on, besides procedural code. Recently we are seeing concerted efforts to diversify the examples, such as Google’s “Made With Code” and the approaches described at universities here. It still remains to connect the examples to career enthusiasm and opportunity. That’s where the theme of the initiative described here comes in.

The fluidity of tech makes leadership all the more a necessity—as implied when the ethic of the “startup of you” is widened to cover all college graduates. So I—and many of my colleagues—felt it would be helpful to invite female Distinguished Speakers leading up to our department’s 50th anniversary celebration next year who can show their pioneering work in several of these diverse fields. The idea is to showcase the many opportunities in our extraordinarily diversifying field for creative design and initiative, both of which imply being the first at something.

Our Distinguished Speakers

We are proud to have the following speakers and talks in our 50th anniversary academic year. All of the talks are free and open to the public, and are held on Thursdays, 3:30–4:30pm, in the UB Student Union Theater.

  • Nancy Amato, Texas A& M: “Sampling-Based Motion Planning: From Intelligent CAD to Crowd Simulation to Protein Folding,” November 10th.

  • Wendi Heinzelman, University of Rochester: “Reducing the Energy Footprint for Wireless and Mobile Communication Systems,” February 2, 2017.

  • Ellen Zegura, Georgia Tech: “Computing for Social Good: Stories and Lessons from Eight Years of Student Projects,” April 20, 2017.

  • Barbara Ryder, Virginia Tech: “Effective Program Analysis for Real-World JavaScript Applications,” May 4, 2017.

  • Cynthia Rudin, Duke University: “Sparse Logical Machine Learning Models,” May 11, 2017.

The series will be capped by Mary Jane Irwin, Penn State, speaking during our 50th anniversary celebration itself on September 28–30, 2017. She is renowned for computer architecture and its interface to software systems. One of her projects involving both is SPARTA, for “Simulation of Physics on a Real-Time Architecture.” Her National Academy of Engineering citation lists VLSI Architecture and Automated Design, and by this we will bring the analogy with building architecture full-circle.

Open Problems

How do you feel that this approach will meld with ones mentioned in our linked stories that are giving results? Do leadership and creative pioneering work as themes by which to bridge from the heroes we’ve listed to today’s workplace reality? Further suggestions are most welcome.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 30, 2016 6:06 pm

    let me play devils advocate just for a nanosecond, a very risky proposition, and try to understand & maybe poke a bit at the ubiquitous “conventional wisdom/ consensus reality” (like the water that fish swim in). (the case of summers is informative, and am going to use the full advantage/ protection of anonymity in voicing this candid comment.) would surely like to see gender disparity in CS as much as in other fields, and have advocated/ tracked it substantially myself on my blog, but gender disparity in fields has been around since the beginning of time, and maybe our PC culture takes it too far sometimes. is there any objective evidence that more women in CS is a good thing? or is such a question inherently beyond objective science? and could there be some very good hidden reasons for this gender disparity that are still yet undiscovered by our culture, which itself seems to be unbalanced in its yin-yang expectations/ pragmatism etc?

    • Anonymous permalink
      November 9, 2016 8:58 pm

      Congratulations on being the first radical skeptic in the world to speak out against the “conventional PC wisdom” of equality and inclusiveness. The answer is no, there are no good reasons. And yes, more women in CS — more women being taught the tools of logic and rational argument both to advance the frontier of science and to defend their everyday decisions — is a good thing. That’s it.

  2. October 30, 2016 6:08 pm

    😳 lol sorry! freudian slip? rereading, meant to say would like to see gender equality ie declining gender disparity….


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