Culture and Trends ›

Women in Tech Share Thoughts on New School Inspired by "Queen of Code"

Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Navy

Women in Tech Share Thoughts on New School Inspired by "Queen of Code"

This month, a pioneering new school will open in New York City: Grace Hopper Academy. The boot-camp-style academy will teach coding to an all-female class, and it'll do so for free, only requiring tuition payments if and when graduates land jobs in their field.

The women-only focus follows research findings suggesting that single-sex classrooms help girls and young women better excel in scientific fields, where they're traditionally underrepresented. As for the school's namesake? Grace Hopper was as much a pioneer as the school itself will be, both for her programming accomplishments and her drive to empower others.

Hopper embarked on her computer programming career in the 1940s. The field of computer science was young at the time, and overwhelmingly male-dominated, but she found a place in that world – and then some. A U.S. Navy veteran, she was a programmer for the World War II-essential Mark I computer. She served on the team that created UNIVAC I, the first American computer built for commercial use by businesses. She invented the first compiler, a computer program that translates source code among computer languages. She was a catalyst for the development of the important computer language COBOL.

Delving into Hopper's many accomplishments, I discovered one tidbit that especially made me smile: she was responsible for the computer term "debugging." No metaphor, the term sprang from an incident with an actual bug. While removing a moth that had become stuck in a relay, impeding the computer's performance, she quipped that they were "debugging" the system. Later in life, Hopper appeared on Late Night With David Letterman and showed that the "debugging" naming was no fluke: the lady had a sense of humor.

Hopper was a dynamic individual. She was both analytically brilliant and an engaging personality; her accomplishments in computer science were enormous – she was a scientist through and through – but she was also an educator to the core. Throughout her career in the Navy and as a programmer, she continued to lecture and educate others in the field that was her passion.

Hopper once told her biographer, Lynn Gilbert, "The most important thing I've accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people."

We believe the computer pioneer known as Amazing Grace would be excited about the new academy bearing her name, and delighted at the accomplishments of the many women she influenced with her groundbreaking career. We talked to a few who currently are making waves in tech. Here's what they had to say about Hopper's influence and the new school opening in her honor.

Danese Cooper, Head of Open Source for PayPal: "Grace Hopper is an inspiration to any girl geek who learns her story. Of course there's the 'first actual bug found' story, but much more impressive is her invention of the compiler and eventual authorship of COBOL. She was exceptional in every way, not least in her Navy service which culminated in the rank of Rear Admiral, and all achieved at a time when most American women were housewives."

Sheena Allen, Developer of popular apps including Dubblen and PicSlit: "Grace Hopper earned the nickname of 'Amazing Grace.' She broke barriers and she was all for encouraging young people to take risks. She was once quoted as saying, 'I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it. They told me computers could only do arithmetic.' She knew her genius. She knew what she could make happen regardless of what someone else said or believed. It was that trait of Grace Hopper that influences me the most."  

Even tech stars who weren't directly influenced by Hopper have good things to say about how she inspired others:

Pamela Fox, Computer instructor with Khan Academy: "I didn't actually know who she was until many years after I got into CS. I've never been someone in particular need of role models, but I know many people do seem to need/want them, so its nice to have a strong pioneer like her to point to."

The gender ratio in computer science has changed drastically since Grace Hopper was an anomaly for her tech smarts, but it's still a male-dominated field. But as more women like Cooper, Allen and Fox excel, they'll inspire more young coders, developers and engineers to study in programs including the Grace Hopper Academy and close the gender gap.