Where the Girls Aren’t

Hi-tech has always been male-dominated. It is no longer Caucasian-dominated, I’m happy to say: I work with people from all sorts of ethnic persuasions. But there are still far too few women in the field. I just returned from a business trip where my ten customer meetings included a total of just two women. For many years I was a Unix systems administrator, and I regularly attended the Usenix LISA conference. Over a twenty-year span, the number of women attendees slowly grew from a tiny fraction to about 10%, but of course it should be 50%.

Today the San Francisco Chronicle ran this article about Black Girls Code, a San Francisco non-profit. Founder Kimberly Bryant writes:

By launching Black Girls Code, I hope to provide young and pre-teen girls of color opportunities to learn in-demand skills to at a time when they are naturally thinking about what they want to be when they grow up. That, really, is the Black Girls Code mission: to introduce programming and technology to a new generation of coders, coders who will become builders of technological innovation and of their own futures.

Bryant was a community college EE student, but had no role models: she was one of few women, and often the only person of color in the room. Her own daughter Kai grew up a heavy-duty gamer, but Bryant wanted her to learn workplace skills as well. And so she started Black Girls Code. She received a grant from Google and has mentored over 300 girls to date.

Much has been written about why so few women, and particularly minority women, pursue careers in math, science and engineering. I agree with those who believe it stems from both implicit and explicit social pressures that steer women into “traditional” women’s fields, or away from a career altogether. This can change if enough of us work to make it so. As Bryant says, “Imagine the impact that these curious, creative minds could have on the world with the guidance and encouragement others take for granted.”


The little program that foreshadowed the Web

On 10 August 1987—twenty-five years ago yesterday—Apple Computer unveiled a revolutionary new program called HyperCard. Tonight the Hillside Club in Berkeley hosted a 25th anniversary celebration of HyperCard, with BMUG co-founder Raines Cohen interviewing Bill Atkinson with a large crowd of grizzled computer geeks in attendance.

Soon after HyperCard’s Boston debut, developer Bill Atkinson demonstrated his new program to the Berkeley Macintosh User’s Group. At its peak, BMUG was the largest user group in the country with over 13,000 members, and gave away book-sized “newsletters” each year stuffed with free software. I was in the BMUG audience that night, inside the Physical Sciences Lecture Hall (now Pimentel Hall) on the UC Berkeley campus—the same cavernous room where I had taken chemistry from Dr George Pimentel a decade before. The image that sticks in my head was Bill displaying a picture of a fish and clicking on the fish’s eye, which immediately jumped to other eyes on other pictures.

Atkinson was already famous among Macintosh afficionados, as he had written both QuickDraw and MacPaint for the original Apple Macintosh in 1983. One might say that HyperCard version zero of the World Wide Web: a program whose raison d’etre was creating links between various elements in a database. Tim Berners-Lee drew upon this concept when he invented HTTP, and computing has never looked back.

My personal favorite stepchild of HyperCard was the game Myst. I’m not a gamer, but I was captivated by the evocative landscapes, steampunk and spaceships, all with a fantastic soundtrack. Atkinson’s own favorite stepchild was his iOS app PhotoCard, an attempt to save the postcard from extinction by offering a postcard delivery service. Bill is a talented nature photographer and edits many of PhotoCard’s images himself.

And the winner of the gold medal is: Curiosity!

While my wife Arlene is in the other room watching the Summer Olympic Games in London, I just finished watching NASA TV’s live coverage of the Curiosity rover’s landing on Mars. After years of engineering work, then an eight-month flight to Mars, all the hard work came down to a seven-minute landing sequence where the entire team can only watch helplessly as their work either succeeds brilliantly or fails miserably.

The parallels to an Olympic athlete are striking: years of sacrifice and hard work towards a precisely-defined goal, with one final performance when it really counts. If you succeed, a medal is hung around your neck; if you fail, you must find consolation and fulfillment in the journey itself.

The engineers at JPL know all too well the Olympic parallel: I just heard NASA Deputy Administrator Laurie Barber refer to swimmer Michael Phelps as “not the only one to hold his breath the whole time.”

What a fantastic day for JPL, NASA, and planetary science.

Aug 7
Today Adam Frank wrote this excellent piece for NPR.org about how seemingly impossible tasks can be solved, as long as we all work together solve them.

Aug 9
Watching the live stream from JPL was completely engrossing, and the ongoing data we are getting (full color photos! GAH!) is just astounding.  David is right…the parallels with Olympic sport are uncanny.  One other similarity is the months and years spent in training (development for the scientists) that no one sees or cares about until the event happens.  Even then, that training is merely a footnote. We, the general populace, have no idea what that is like.  It’s more than just a job; more than a career. It’s truly a lifestyle, something that is completely consuming for the athlete (or scientist). And something I have a hard time really grasping, but I do my best to appreciate the commitment.