Grace Hopper – the lazy programmer who changed the world

 by Steven Albury

As the father of a 4 year old girl fascinated by how things work (she likes ‘deconstructing’ her toys to work out how they go together) I wanted to contribute something as part of Ada Lovelace day. It is an opportunity to share thoughts about people who have shaped our society through their efforts, their collaborations and their perspective as women. Grace Hopper is a shining example for my daughter; not only of how as a woman she can be free to shape her own future and participate in making the world a better place but also that it’s OK to have fun while doing it.

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was a gifted mathematician who obtained her PhD from Yale in 1934 and became involved in the early days of electronic computing after leaving her professorship in order to join the US navy during WWII. Grace made many contributions to computer science both large and small. She helped coin the term ‘bug’ for a problem in software for example and played a key role in the development of high level programming languages with her work on creating COBOL, the most widely used programming language of the 60s 70s and 80s.

However, as a self-described ‘lazy programmer’ it was the development of the compiler that I think confirms Grace’s place in the  Pantheon of computer greats. A compiler is a nifty piece of software that takes code written in a computer language and turns it into a program that a computer can run. It was Grace’s insight that this was essential for the future of the computing industry (which at the time was mostly viewed as a new toy for mathematicians) which helped make computers relevant to the business world and helped create the information society we now live in.

Grace Hopper was a creative teacher who made great efforts to ensure programmers she was teaching understood how to be lazy, by which she meant efficient, inquisitive and always looking for better ways to solve problems. One of her noted props in class were short lengths of wire (about 30cm) representing 1 nano-second of distance travelled by an electronic signal. She would reinforce the point about sloppily written code being slow by bringing in a millisecond’s worth of wire (about 290 meters!)

This example encapsulates the genius of Grace Hopper; a serious point about software design delivered in a creative, memorable and humorous way. She was a great scientist and her tenaciousness and strength of will in the face of adversity (from misogyny to depression and alcoholism) show that with effort, humour and a dogged belief in the importance of shaping the future any of us can both inspire and be inspired by those around us.

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