How often do you consider gravity? And the power of this invisible force to move oceans, hold planets in orbit, and quite literally, keep us all grounded.
Now, how about women in technology? Another force of nature that, I think, deserves more visibility and recognition. Men haven’t cornered the market on technological genius, innovation, and invention. But too often, women have had to work all the harder not only to prove that fact, but also to be equally recognized for their extraordinary contributions.
Pioneers of the past
Lost in space? Not on Katherine Johnson’s watch.
Had it not been for Katherine Johnson, the Apollo 13 astronauts may have never returned home.
Before computers of the steel and silicon variety existed, Katherine was a flesh and blood computer. As a NASA employee, she wrote many of the foundational orbital mechanics calculations that enabled the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert. In one of many interviews about the fateful mission, she stated, “Everybody was concerned about them getting there. We were concerned about them getting back.”
Katherine was also a black woman living in an era that put hurdle after hurdle in front of her. But obstacles be damned. As she said, “We needed to be assertive as women in those days — assertive and aggressive — and the degree to which we had to be that way depended on where you were. I had to be.”
Many have come to know Katherine Johnson’s story through the film “Hidden Figures.” In 2015, nearly 30 years after her retirement from NASA, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A year later, NASA bestowed upon her the Silver Snoopy Award in honor of her outstanding achievement in human flight safety and mission success.
Meet Grace Hopper, aka Grandma COBOL
Without Grace Hopper, modern developers and h4x0rs would not have their 1337 warez.
Grace earned her Ph.D. in Mathematics from Yale and served as a mathematics professor to other young women at her undergraduate alma mater, Vassar College. When World War II hit, she tried to join the U.S. Navy, but was denied. Undeterred, she enlisted with the Naval Reserve, where she began her programming career on the Harvard Mark I, a general-purpose electronic computer built to support calculations that would later underpin the success of the Manhattan project.
As a woman determined to make waves with her naval career — one that saw her retire as a rear admiral — Grace lived by a guiding principle, “A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for. Sail out to see and do new things.”
She set out to design an intuitive programming language based on the English language. She oversaw the release of early compiled languages, such as FLOW-MATIC. She was a “plank owner” for the Conference/Committee on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL). She led the efforts that ultimately produced the COBOL programming language. In short, another true pioneer.
Wi-Fi? Why yes — thanks to Hedy Lamarr.
Louis B. Mayer, a partner of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios, once promoted Hedy Lamarr as the world’s most beautiful woman. But she was so much more than a pretty face.
Born in Austria-Hungary in 1914, Hedy became a rising star in Austrian, German, and Czech films. In 1937, a mere two years before the outbreak of a Second World War in Europe, she left her husband, a wealthy owner of an armaments firm that supported Nazi Germany’s war efforts, and secretly made her way to Hollywood.
Hers was an era where many stars lent their talents to support the Allied war effort through the United Service Organizations (USO) and other entertainment-aligned venues. While Hedy leveraged her “star” status to help raise funds, her deeper impact on the war effort was yet to be felt, and likely not predicted by many.
At the beginning of war, Hedy co-developed a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes using a frequency-hopping, spread-spectrum scheme designed to defeat the attempted jamming by the Axis powers and give the Allied naval forces an advantage. Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy didn’t adopt her co-invention until 1957. Fortunately for the rest of us, it was her trailblazing approach that powered the foundational technology for Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS, untethering our machines and integrating our physical lives with the digital world.
That’s right, we owe our Internet of Things (IoT) and coffee-shop-browsing freedom to this amazing woman.
More than technology: In appreciation of today’s women in cybersecurity
Throughout my cybersecurity career, I’ve met some amazing, brilliant people who’ve taught me a ton about technology. But when it’s come to “life lessons,” women have been some of my greatest teachers. I can only wonder if Katherine, Grace, and Hedy would have offered some of the same advice.
Know your value.
On my first day of training at one new job, I asked a female colleague what agency she used to work for.
“A three-letter one,” she quipped back.
Turns out we had similar backgrounds, but she didn’t feel the need to say more. And it showed me that she was much farther along in understanding her value and worth. In past government roles, I’d often left money on the table in exchange for exciting missions. She taught me I could have “it all” in the corporate world, but it required more than hard work, it required confidence.
“If you don’t value your worth, why should anyone else?”
After a brief introduction to epidemiology, another friend found her way to cyber. She said she was drawn to how experts used programming and data models to perfect the science of studying, containing, and fighting infectious disease outbreaks. Grounded in data science, this medical field is a foundational pillar of public health, shaping policy based on evidence.
She switched her major from Nursing to Mathematics for Business – Data Science and Business Analytics and today, is working for a prominent U.S. bank, developing finance statistical analysis programs in R, Python, Java. She’s also fluent in HTML and CSS.
As with many, her path to success wasn’t an easy, straight line, but as she sees it, “No one has time for ‘woe is me.’ Never count the closed doors. Shut out the negative voices. And keep trying. Good people will see your value and the right doors will open.”
Despite obstacles, all of these women have given the world something new and important. To me, that’s heavy.