Sunday, December 9, 2012


Grace Hopper was a dynamite speaker.  I was lucky to hear her early in my career, in September 1983 at an ACM meeting in Minneapolis. A tiny, wrinkled old woman, prim in perfect Navy regalia, she struggled up to the stage carrying a huge coil of wire which she dumped onto the podium and then ignored.   With a commanding voice, a wicked sense of humor, and a few well placed scowls, she launched into a powerful vision of the future of computing. 

She made clear that what had been invented and accomplished so far was just a meager start on a field of unlimited potential and vast application.  Her brilliant, prescient vision was punctuated by palpable specifics:  she laid out examples of what networks of computers could do, and gave a vivid, memorable  example of what a nanosecond means in practice (captured here on video.)

But more than any technical detail, I remember her toughness and her energy.  Being in the same room with someone so vivid,  so focused, so accomplished, so strong of will,  is breathtaking.  It remakes your conception of what a human being can be, and do.  Grace Hopper radiated power and technical desire.  I owe a lot to her;  many many  people do. 

And I remember her challenge.  “I have one piece of advice for you young people,”  she announced at the end of her talk.  She smiled briefly, then glared at us, each one of us.  “DO IT!” she commanded, loud and abrupt. “If you want to accomplish something,  just DO IT.  Don’t make excuses.  Don’t ask permission.  By the time the authorities have caught up with you, you’ll have it working, and they’ll be too glad to have it to care.”

It’s Grace Hopper’s birthday today, December 9.   She was born in 1906, so she’d be 106 this year.  In her honor, it is ComputerScience Education Week, a “highly distributed celebration of the impact of computing and the need for computer science education.”   Details and data here.   Inspired?  Try this.

Grace Hopper would be pleased (but not complacent) about the CSEdWeek effort.   In her own words  "The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, “Do you think we can do this?” I say, “Try it.” And I back ‘em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir ‘em up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances."[ref]

Happy birthday, Grace.  And thank you!


P.S.  For a fascinating read, get Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age by Kurt Beyer.  More about that book in a future post…

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