Last Monday would have been the 107th birthday of computer scientist and US Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. To mark the occasion, Google featured her in its daily “doodle”, celebrating a lifetime of achievements that include creating the COBOL programming language.
In 1943, Hopper walked away from a promising academic career to join the Navy; it was wartime and she wanted to do her part. While serving in the Navy, Hopper came up with the idea for COBOL (common business-oriented language), the most widely used programming language in history, and still in use some 30-plus years after her death. Hopper was also the first to apply the term “debugging” to a computer, when a moth short-circuited a relay in the Mark II she was programming in 1947. (Her notebook containing the moth is now in the Smithsonian Institution.)
Scientist, inventor, and trailblazer: what would Hopper have to say about the state of today’s professional women?
This last year saw Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s 44-year-old chief operating officer, urging other professional women to “lean in” to their careers. Newly appointed Yahoo! Chief Executive Marissa Mayer served as a prime example, giving birth to her first child while trying to engineer a turnaround at the Internet pioneer. And General Motors just appointed its first woman chief executive, Mary Barra, a 51-year-old mother of two, who started at GM as an 18-year-old co-op student and meticulously climbed the ladder to the executive suite.
But for all those high-profile appointments, Hopper would be disappointed to see how few women hold technical positions in the computer industry, the field closest to her heart.
The reasons are complex: few women study engineering and computer science in college (a subject for another blog). And Silicon Valley, for all its self-congratulatory talk about being progressive, has often proven less than supportive of women in the workplace.
Nimble Storage has taken an important step toward correcting this imbalance with the Nimble Women’s Network, started by Doris Lim, a member of our human resources team, and chaired by Stacey Cornelius, vice-president of operations. Among its charter members are three female vice-presidents, two of them engineers, who will serve as mentors to other Nimble Storage women.
“A lot companies in the Valley say that its most important assets walk out the door at the end of each day,” says Radhika Krishnan, Nimble Storage’s vice-president of product marketing. “If a company doesn’t help its women to maximize their talents, then it’s allowing a valuable resource to languish. And that makes absolutely no sense.”
“At Nimble we’re determined not to let that happen,” Krishnan says.
The network meets once a month, and provides women with an opportunity to network, as well as to hear from women leaders in the technology industry. The idea is not only to inspire, but also to give Nimble’s women real tools and resources so that they, too, can be successful in their careers.
Grace Hopper believed in the importance of teachers and the power of mentoring. Hopper had taught at Vasser before joining the Navy, and upon retiring she became a goodwill ambassador for Digital Equipment, lecturing audiences on the early days of the computer and her career.
As a reporter at Toronto’s Globe & Mail newspaper in 1983, Michael Kieran, Nimble’s Social Marketing Manager, got the chance to interview Hopper and see her in action. A tiny women who stood ramrod straight in her full-dress Navy uniform, she captivated an audience of technical neophytes with nothing more than a clutch of salvaged phone cables – a prop to illustrate how far light travels in a nanosecond. Once her audience had left, Hopper let loose with a burst of profanity that left the cub reporter red-faced. Yep, she cursed like a sailor.
She finished the interview with a prediction: “My job is to look ahead into the future and to get started on it. The world of computers is just beginning. We’re driving around in Model T’s, and the jet planes and space ships are still to come.”
At Nimble Storage, we couldn’t agree more. We’re committed to helping identify, nurture and empower talent, regardless of gender. After all, the next Amazing Grace might already be working here, quashing a new generation of bugs.