It is no secret that the tech industry is a male-dominated field. If we go by the number of female respondents in Stack Overflow’s 2017 Developer Survey or the percentage of women working in tech companies, it is clear that women continues to be a minority in the industry.

The underrepresentation of women in tech contributes in large part to many people’s perception that female engineers, developers, tech leaders are unusual or rare, or that they’re a recent trend. When in fact, women have a long history as engineers, programmers, tech leaders, and innovators. In celebration of Women’s History Month, we present you five women who made pioneering innovations in the computing world.

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

Ada Lovelace is considered by many to be the world's first programmer despite living a century before the invention of the modern computer.

The only legitimate daughter of the Romantic poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace was brought up as a mathematician and scientist by her mother. At 17, she was introduced to Charles Babbage, an inventor whose ideas captivated her early on and who became her lifelong friend and intellectual collaborator.

In 1842, Lovelace translated a memoir by an Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea on a lecture delivered by Babbage on the Analytical Engine, the first general purpose computer Babbage designed. Delighted by her translation, Babbage asked her to expand on the original paper. She did, adding her Notes which ended up three times as long as the original paper. These notes are now the source of her enduring fame.

Her notes include a full set of instructions for the Analytical Engine to sequentially compute the Bernoulli numbers. But beyond the machine's number-crunching capability, she grasped its full potential: <em>a machine that could be made to manipulate numbers could also be made to manipulate any data represented by the numbers</em>. A full century before the first modern computer, she mused that the engine can be used to compose music, create graphics, and much more. She was right.

Grace Hopper

With a career that spanned six decades across industries, including academia, the computing business, and the US Navy, Grace Hopper is a pioneer in computer programming in its earliest years. Hopper is best known for her invention of the compiler.

When the United States entered World War II, she persuaded the Naval Reserve to accept her. Trained as a mathematician, she was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at the Cruft Laboratories at Harvard University. There she worked with Howard Aiken, the designer and principal engineer of IBM's Mark I, considered as the first large-scale computer used in the war effort. Hopper dove in and learned to program, authoring a 600-page manual of operations for the Mark I. By the end of the war, she was working on Mark II  where she caught a large moth that caused the machine to fail. She taped the bug into the logbook, amused to have literally debugged the machine.

After the war, she worked for the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation where she helped build the first UNIVACs, a computer which used vacuum tubes instead of relay switches. It was during these years that she made her major contributions to programming. In 1952, she developed the first compiler, publishing her first paper on the subject. She followed it up with FLOW-MATIC, considered the first English language data-processing compiler, providing the foundations for the development of COBOL in 1959.

Her work was crucial in the standardization of compilers, computer languages, and validation procedures. Throughout her long career, she received multiple recognition for her pioneering work. In 1992, she was the first woman to receive the National Medal of Technology and was posthumously elected to the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1994.

Margaret Hamilton

Credited as the software engineer who took Apollo to the moon, Margaret Hamilton's work enormously contributed to NASA's efforts to land on the moon in the 1960s and 70s.

Coming from a diverse background which includes degrees in mathematics and meteorology, Hamilton worked on her first software projects for a professor in MIT, learning several languages and systems. Before her work in Apollo,  she was part of the project in MIT Lincoln Lab's Semi-Automatic Ground Environment Air Defense System (SAGE), an early air defense system for the country. It was one of the first projects where she became interested in software reliability. When NASA picked MIT to design spacecraft guidance and navigation systems, Hamilton jumped at the opportunity.

As the lead in the software engineering division of MIT's Instrumentation Laboratory, she and her team were responsible for the onboard flight software. The software governed the flight dynamics of the Apollo spacecraft, which were used for six landing missions between 1969 and 1972. Impressed with the Apollo software, NASA adapted it for its subsequent projects including Skylab, the space shuttle, and the first digital fly-by-wire systems in aircraft.

Hamilton's work has contributed to the concepts of "asynchronous software, priority scheduling and priority displays, and human-in-the-loop decision capability, which set the foundation for modern, ultra-reliable software design and engineering." In the course of their work on Apollo software development, she and her team created the foundational concepts of modern software engineering. In recognition of her innovations, she was honored by NASA with the Exceptional Space Act award in 2003. In 2016, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Five pioneer women in tech

Upper-left: Countess Ada Lovelace, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper
Bottom-left: Radia Perlman, Barbara Liskov, Margaret Hamilton

Barbara Liskov

A trailblazer in the design of programming languages, software methodology, and distributed computing, Barbara Liskov shaped many of the ideas in modern computer science.

After getting her BA in mathematics at UC Berkeley in 1961, she worked at the Mitre Corporation where she discovered her talent for programming. After a year, she moved to Harvard where she began her work on computer translation of human languages and then later to Stanford where she earned her Ph.D. in computer science, among the first women to do so in the US. Her thesis was on a program to play chess endgames and was supervised by John McCarthy, one of the founders of the artificial intelligence discipline.

Liskov went on to teach computer science at MIT. In a joint work with Steve Zilles, she invented the notion of data abstraction as a way to create more reliable software systems. In the 1970s, she led the design and implementation of the CLU programming language. With its emphasis on modular programming, data abstraction, and polymorphism, the development of CLU served as the foundation of object-oriented programming used in modern programming languages such as Java and C#.

Her MIT division also created the Argus language in the 1980s, which extended the ideas of CLU to distribute programs over the network. She also developed a new notion of subtyping, known as the Liskov substitution principle later formalized in a joint work with Jeannette Wing.  Her subsequent work focused on Byzantine fault tolerance and distributed computing. Citing her immense contributions to the development of advanced computer systems, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) awarded Liskov the 2008 Turing Award. In 2012, she was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Radia Perlman

Best known for writing the algorithm behind the Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) and key contributions in network security, Radia Perlman has been called as the "mother of the internet".

Raised by parents who were both engineers working for the US government, Perlman grew up with a knack for math and science. After earning her bachelor's and master's in mathematics from MIT, she landed a job in Bolt, Beranek and Newman Technologies, a government contractor where she was involved in designing network protocols.

In 1980, she joined Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) to design routing for DECnet. At the time, DEC was trying to solve the problem of file sharing between computers. Perlman came up with an algorithm that became known as STP (Spanning Tree Protocol), which was adopted as the standard protocol for network bridge technology. STP transformed the Ethernet “from original limited-scalability, single-wire CSMA/CD”, into a protocol that can handle massive networks. Her work on STP earned Perlman the moniker "mother of the Internet", a title which she disliked.

In 1997 she worked at Sun Microsystems where she specialized in network security and designed TRILL. TRansparent Interconnection of Lots of Links (TRILL) corrected the shortcomings of STP by allowing the Ethernet to make optimal use of the bandwidth. Her other key contributions to network security include "trust models for Public Key Infrastructure, data expiration, and distributed algorithms resilient despite malicious participants."

Perlman is also known for writing Interconnections, which became a classic textbook on network protocols. In 1997, she also co-authored another popular textbook, Network Security. For the profound impact of her work on computer networks, she was inducted in 2014 into the Internet Hall of Fame and in 2016, to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.


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