“What I learned from Grace Hopper”

One of our engineers recounts what it was like to meet the woman who inspired the Grace Hopper Celebration

In the early 1980s, I was a new Air Force officer, at the Pentagon. It was a time when most women military officers still were nurses. The Air Force was modernizing from the post-Vietnam era, and recruited women STEM graduates, and I was one of them. As a novelty in uniform, my few women colleagues and I stood out.

The Pentagon features a concourse, with shops and a bakery. As the junior person in my office, I was sent to fetch goodies at the bakery. I noticed that there often was an elderly, uniformed woman in line with me. Her rank and age intimidated me—I didn’t know that “old” people could be in uniform, and junior officers just don’t chat up senior officers. Grace eventually struck up conversations with me while waiting in line, at the bakery and the credit union.

Grace is a posthumous (2016) recipient of the American Medal of Freedom, best known as the creator of the compiler, and a major contributor to the business programming language COBOL. She also coined the word “debug” after having to remove a real bug from the hardware of one of the first computers.

Grace Hooper
Esther, from her days at the Pentagon, where she met Grace Hopper. 

World War II inspired Grace’s military service. Prewar, she earned a Yale Math PhD, and worked as a Math professor at Vassar. After the war, her career was in Naval computing. After forced retirement, she was called back to active duty several times. When she retired the final time, at almost 80, she was the oldest active duty Navy officer, and promptly went to work for Digital Equipment Corporation at 80.

When I met her, Grace was already famous, especially for her “nanosecond” demo. She carried a bundle of wires that physically represented what a nanosecond was. (She seemed to always have a bundle of wires in her tote bag.) The wire was meant as a reminder to programmers that wasting even a nanosecond was something of physical consequence.

Today, Grace is an inspiration for young women in software. Most young women in computing know her via the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) for Women in Computing, the world’s largest gathering of women in technology. I attended GHC most recently in 2014 and 2016, and will attend again this year.

Grace was known for her many sayings and habits—the clock on her desk ran counter-clockwise, she coined various phrases about asking for permission later, etc. I’ve discovered other reasons to admire Grace Hopper—some not publicly disclosed until after her death in 1992.  Grace was just like any other young woman of her time—she dated, married, and like many, divorced. Even today, young women need to know that being brainy does not mean they can’t have a personal life.

For me, the most important Grace-ism is to always question the status quo. For example, when Grace first tried to enlist, she was told she was too old (over 30). Then they told her she was too skinny. Her response was to ask for a waiver – ALWAYS. I also am inspired by her age. Like another 20th century icon, Saint (Mother) Teresa of Kolkata, she didn’t begin the career which made her famous until her late 30s.

Take chances! As Grace Hopper said, "A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for. Be good ships. Sail out to sea and do new things.”

Grace Hooper

The legendary Grace Hopper. 

To find out how to visit us at this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration, click here.


Victoria Streitfeld

Health, Safety & Environment

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