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Computer Celebrities: They’re just like us!

Contributed by Esther Massimini, Principal Engineer at Honeywell Aerospace

Networking can lead to individual connections and the beginning of movements! During the late 1980s, women technologists inspired by the late Rear Admiral (RADM) Grace Hopper began to network. The first accomplishment was the still-vibrant SYSTKeynote at Grace HopperERS community for women in computer systems. The late Dr. Anita Borg, a pioneer in human-computer interaction, founded this digital community, centered on a mailing list, after attending a conference where the few women in attendance fit into the small women’s restroom. She later founded the Anita Borg Institute, which since 1994, has sponsored the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing (in conjunction with the Association for Computing Machinery.) The conference continues to grow, and is the world’s largest gathering of women in technology. In 2016, more than 14,000 women and 1,000 men attended! The conference has also expanded outside the US. GHC India convenes in Bangalore, India in the second week of December.

Honeywell at the Grace Hopper Celebration               

_dsc0008I try to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration when feasible, and in 2016, I was excited to find out that Honeywell was planning to attend for the first time. I felt fortunate for the invitation to officially attend, and be part of the applicant screening process in our booth. I was so excited to see Honeywell as a participant this year! The conference’s main goal is to inspire and champion diversity and inclusion in technology, but it also hosts a huge job fair—the industry’s largest career fair for women–featuring all the tech luminaries, from the latest Silicon Valley players to traditional industrial and services companies. For Honeywell as a player in software, it’s important to expose our hiring managers to the diversity of community among women technologists and to acquire some of the available talent. Moreover, for all Honeywell attendees, it was an added benefit to meet attendees from other businesses.

Inside the Conference

closingIt’s hard to explain what it’s like to be in a venue of over 14,000 women in your field, when you’ve spent most of your career being one of the few women in meetings. This year, the Toyota Center, home of the NBA Houston Rockets, was the venue for the opening and closing sessions.  I’ve heard from male attendees that this experience gives them a new perspective, as some have never experienced what it’s like to be the minority in a large group. At the conference, I learned not just by attending technical sessions, but also by attending a variety of other events. GHC provides numerous learning opportunities in a variety of formats: the opening and closing plenary sessions, panels, affinity groups and the Open Source day.

  • As more people from around the world become active in technology, the conference includes luncheons and affinity receptions for a variety of ethnicities/languages and other groups. I’ve learned about the nascent tech incubator groups in the Gaza Strip among Palestinian women, and the vibrant woman-led technical community in many countries on the African continent, and issues facing women in the LGTBQ+ community.
  • Moreover, at these events, I coincidentally have met luminaries such as Megan Smith, CTO of the United States of America, and Radia Perlman, the “mother” of the internet without initially knowing who they were!
  • GHC Open Source Day is a hackathon specializing in “hacking for good.” This year, hackers worked on apps for the Peace Corps and for combating malaria.
  • Finally, there are the PARTIES! Companies host evening events to feature their produces and work environments. They are mostly unadvertised—you have to network to find out time and location. You can’t go wrong by attending one of these—just to talk and find out what similar companies are doing to solve common problems.

To give back to the community I’ve belonged to for over 30 years, I volunteer each year BEFORE the conference. Some years I evaluate scholarship applications; in 2016, I rated and ranked technical submissions for the Software Engineering track. This gave me a perspective on new ideas and concepts that I might be able to use in my work life. It’s exciting to peruse the convention schedule and see that one of “my” reviewed papers is being presented!

I’m looking forward to attend again next year, when Orlando will be the conference location and I encourage you to participate in this, and other diversity conferences.

About Grace Hopper (and me!)

Grace Hopper was a computer pioneer who served in the US Navy. Extremely well qualified with a PhD from Yale in Mathematics, she is credited with coining the word “bug” for an error in computing code, and for inventing compilers, leading to the first widely commercialized computer language, COBOL. On November 22, 2016, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, posthumously, to RADM Grace Hopper.

Shortly after returning from this year’s GHC, I was part of a mini-diversity conference at my Honeywell site, where those who had attended tech diversity conferences gave mini-talks.  I represented the Grace Hopper Celebration attendees, but had something even more unique to share: I actually knew Grace Hopper. When I was 22 and a new US Air Force officer posted to the Pentagon, I often encountered a tiny white-haired woman in a Navy uniform. Computer celebrities, they’re just like us: I’d see her in line at the credit union, at the bakery on the Pentagon Concourse. I got to chat with her in those lines.

One of “Amazing Grace” Hopper’s most famous sayings was that “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” That definitely stayed with me! In addition, she was famous for wielding a handful of copper wires. Each wire represented a nanosecond in physical terms. This 30-cm (11.8 inch) piece of wire became a great learning device, as 30 cm is the maximum distance light travels in a billionth of a second. She even appeared on late-night talk shows, such as this 1986 appearance on Late Night with David Letterman.


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Esther Massimini is a Principal Engineer in the Flight Management Systems Center of Excellence with Honeywell Aerospace. She has been with Honeywell for over 29 years and has worked in the Software Center of Excellence and Computer-Aided Engineering.

 

 

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