Monday, December 9, 2013


Today, December 9, is the 107th birthday of Grace Hopper – inventor and prime mover of computer programming.   Last year, I celebrated her birthday with a personal remembrance and a promise.  This year coding has become cool and the whole world is celebrating with’s Hour of Code and many other initiatives.

Grace Hopper was a masterful innovator.  Here are some of her techniques, adapted from Kurt Beyer's thoughtful biography which is the source of the quotes below.

1. Omnivorous Learning

The hungry-minded versatility that typified Grace Hopper remains a hallmark of innovators in every field today.

From her early days as a mathematics professor through her long corporate and military career, Grace Hopper was an insatiable, omnivorous learner.  She audited university classes in a wide range of fields, “… became quite an expert in military affairs … and mastered the machinations of a variety of diverse industries, ranging from insurance to aerospace engineering.  As a result, her mind was informed enough to transcend her own intellectual discipline.  She had freed herself from any particular methodology, and could approach problems from a variety of angles.” (p 316) 

2. The Power of Inexperience

Challenge, naivety, hubris and drive have always been potent forces for invention and innovation.

Hopper often challenged the least experienced members of a team with the most difficult technical problems.  “Experts have difficulty seeing beyond the borders of their specialty.”  Young, inexperienced programmers did not know that they were supposed to fail, and had “the ability to look beyond ‘what is’ and grasp ‘what could be’.”   (p 315)

3. The More Minds the Better

The power of sharing data, code and ideas through open source development, user groups, and other collaborative enterprises were all presaged by Grace Hopper.  She was also instrumental in founding the ACM (see p 165.)

“Hopper believed that the process of invention should not be confined to herself, her staff, or even her company.  Information flowed smoothly between her team and other organizations, with Hopper serving as the conductor of invention rather than its dictator.” (p318)
“Throughout the 1950s, she played the role of facilitator, gathering technical, economic and social feedback about automatic programming and embedded what she learned in the next iteration of design.” (p321)

4. Risk, Resilience and Irreverence

Grace Hopper was tough, determined, resilient and ready to assume considerable risk to push through her ideas and projects – the classic profile of an innovator.  

Grace was also human, and her accomplishments – like those of most innovators – “came at considerable personal cost.  Pioneers such as Hopper are faced with far more than technical conundrums.  They must deal with a variety of social and psychological pressures… the technical pioneer must manage not only his or her own doubts, but also the doubts of colleagues, investors, managers, end users and a skeptical public.  Being an inventor is in many ways an act of faith:  faith in one’s own technical abilities, faith in those who work alongside faith in the ultimate vision and purpose of the project.” (p 176)

5. Inventor as Promoter

Paving a path and selling the vision make innovations start, and stick.  This is true both within development environments, and in the world beyond.

“ ‘We had to introduce some kind of system and discipline to it,’ Hopper recalled, ‘and that’s how I eventually got put in charge of them.  I realized the things that had to be done and I pounded on management until they too accepted the concepts.’ ” (p 220)
During the 1950s and beyond, much of Hopper’s time and energy was dedicated to “spreading the gospel of automatic programming through lectures, articles and conference presentations.”   Historians note that Hopper and other inventors “were responsible not only for the invention of new technologies, but also for the integration of those technologies into the economic, political and social fabric of society.” (p 318)

6. Go for It!

Hopper was forward-thinking, action oriented, optimistic and inspirational.  Throughout her life, she blew through obstacle after obstacle, in relentless pursuit of her goals.   I remember well her challenge:
“I have one piece of advice for you young people,” she announced.  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.”    (source)   

Innovators everywhere, and all the rest of us, owe a lot -- from pivotal technical advances to ongoing inspiration – to the great Grace Hopper.   

Happy birthday Grace, and thank you.

1 comment:

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