Assuming you follow the tech news in one way or another you know that 2015 hasn’t been a kind year to women in tech.
Although it didn’t start this year, trolling, bullying, trashing, violence and death threats have become almost everyday occurrences.
As with most haters, they manage to ignore or deny the positive, such as Ada Lovelace, a Countess who wrote the first-ever computer algorithm and dreamed up the idea of artificial intelligence.
So in the spirit of positivity and hope for improvement in 2016, I thought I would share the story of Katherine Johnson, who calculated the trajectory of Alan Shepherd’s 1961 trip into space, which was America’s first, as published by NASA, where she worked for many years.
I wonder how many techies could do something similar today without using a computer or other current tech.
Katherine Johnson was 90 on Tuesday, an apt date because it also was National Equality Day.
Not that she ever thought she wasn’t equal.
“I didn’t have time for that,” said Johnson in her Hampton home. “My dad taught us ‘you are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better.’ I don’t have a feeling of inferiority. Never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.”
But probably a lot smarter. She was a “computer” at Langley Research Center “when the computer wore a skirt,” said Johnson. More important, she was living out her life’s goal, though, when it became her goal, she wasn’t sure what it involved.
Johnson was born in White Sulfur Springs, W.Va., where school for African-Americans stopped at eighth grade. Her father, Joshua, was a farmer who drove his family 120 miles to Institute, W. Va., where education continued through high school and then at West Virginia State College. He would get wife Joylette a job as a domestic and leave the family there to be educated while he went back to White Sulfur Springs to make a living.
Katherine skipped though grades to graduate from high school at 14, from college at 18, and her skills at mathematics drew the attention of a young professor, W.W. Schiefflin Claytor.
“He said, ‘You’d make a good research mathematician and I’m going to see that you’re prepared,’ ” she recalled.
“I said, ‘Where will I get a job?’
“And he said, ‘That will be your problem.’
“And I said, ‘What do they do?’
“And he said, ‘You’ll find out.’
“In the back of my mind, I wanted to be a research mathematician.”
It didn’t involve teaching, though she did it for a while, starting at $65 a month. While on vacation from a $100-a-month teaching job in 1952, she was in Newport News. “I heard that Langley was looking for black women computers,” she said.
She was put into a pool, from which she emerged within two weeks to join engineers who, five years later, would become involved in something new called the “Space Task Force.”
That was 1958, when the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
She did the math.
“We wrote our own textbook, because there was no other text about space,” she says. “We just started from what we knew. We had to go back to geometry and figure all of this stuff out. Inasmuch as I was in at the beginning, I was one of those lucky people.”
That luck came in large part because she was no stranger to geometry. It was only natural that she calculate the trajectory of Alan Shepherd’s 1961 trip into space, America’s first.
“The early trajectory was a parabola, and it was easy to predict where it would be at any point,” Johnson says. “Early on, when they said they wanted the capsule to come down at a certain place, they were trying to compute when it should start. I said, ‘Let me do it.
You tell me when you want it and where you want it to land, and I’ll do it backwards and tell you when to take off.’ That was my forte.”
More flights became more complicated, with more variables involving place and rotation of Earth and the moon for orbiting. By the time John Glenn was to go up to orbit the Earth, NASA had gone to computers.
“You could do much more, much faster on computer,” Johnson says. “But when they went to computers, they called over and said, ‘tell her to check and see if the computer trajectory they had calculated was correct.’ So I checked it and it was correct.”
So the “computer” began using a computer. And in 1969, while at a sorority meeting in the Pocono Mountains, she gathered with others around a small television set to see Neil Armstrong land on the moon and take the first step by a human there. There was some marveling, but not much.
“It all seemed routine to people by then,” Johnson said.
But there was an extremely nervous “computer.”
“I had done the calculations and knew they were correct,” said Johnson. “But just like driving (to Hampton in traffic) from Williamsburg this morning, anything could happen. I didn’t want anything to happen and it didn’t.”
Her work at Langley spanned from 1953 to 1986. She is still involved in math, tutoring youngsters, and she remembers where NASA’s space program was, even as she watches where it is now on television.
“I found what I was looking for at Langley,” she says. “This was what a research mathematician did. I went to work every day for 33 years happy. Never did I get up and say I don’t want to go to work.”
Johnson also spends time talking with children, making sure that they know of the opportunities that can be had through mathematics and science. She laughs when she talks of being interviewed long distance by a fourth-grade class in Florida.
“Each of them had their questions, and one asked, ‘are you still living?'” Johnson says. “They see your picture in a textbook and think you’re supposed to be dead.”
Far from it. Instead, she’s celebrating yet another birthday on Women’s Equality Day, without admitting that there was a time when she didn’t feel equal.
It’s amazing to me, but looking back over nearly a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written. Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time. [This particular post is a follow-up to last Thursday. Sadly, I’ve already seen resumes and business emails that are almost as bad as the imaginary cover letter below.] Read other Golden Oldies here
I harp a lot on the importance of clarity in written communications and the lack of good writing skills, especially in Gen X and Y. I’m not the only one, B-schools and corporations are spending time and money trying to improve them.
I think part of the problem is that these generations grew up on TV and the Net instead of on books. Obviously, not all, but too many.
Reading helps good language usage sink in—people who read absorb how to put words together without even realizing it.
It doesn’t matter what you read; it doesn’t have to be classed as ‘worthwhile’ or ‘good’ literature as long as you enjoy it. Whether it’s adventure, biography, fiction, mysteries (my favorite), fantasy (another favorite) or science fiction you’ll get a ‘feel’ for how words work.
If writing skills keep deteriorating then in twenty years when Gen Y is the bad old establishment a cover letter may look like this—
To hoom it mae cunsern, I waunt to apply for the job what I saw in the paper. I can Type real quik wit only one finggar and do sum a counting. I think I am good on the phone and no I am a pepole person, Pepole really seam to respond to me well. Im lookin for a Jobb as a reporter but it musent be to complicaited. I no my spelling is not to good but find that I Offen can get a job thru my persinalety. My salerery is open so we can discus wat you want to pay me and wat you think that I am werth, I can start imeditely. Thank you in advanse fore yore anser. hopifuly Yore best aplicant so farr. Sinseerly, PAT
Making decisions: What/which has the greater upside? What’s the downside, and is it worth the risk?”
Learning: I had that typical early-entrepreneur hero complex, where it was about how well I did versus how well I helped other people do the work. Then a mentor told me that if I ever want to run a large company, I should go work at one. So I got a job as a middle manager at Dell, and I had to develop skills as a leader. I also got pregnant with my first child, and I was always sick and tired, so I had to become far more focused in how I was spending my time. I learned to focus on what really matters.
Stella & Dot: Our revenue is around $300 million, and we have over 400 people in the home office and about 50,000 independent business owners in six countries.
Culture: I wanted to hire missionaries, not mercenaries. The challenge, especially when you’re growing fast, is to be incredibly fierce about your hiring filters. You have to commit to caring for the culture more than the quarter.
Jake Bailey found out he had Burkitt Lymphoma just one week before he was due to speak at a prize giving ceremony at his school. As senior monitor, it was his duty to represent the class. In the midst of intensive chemotherapy, Jake was permitted to leave the hospital for a brief period to deliver his speech.
During the holiday media gift frenzy it is the truly wise who remember that the best gifts aren’t electronic or screen-dependent.
The very best aren’t paid for with money, either, but with a much more precious currency — time.
Time to love.
Time for friendship.
Time to play.
Time to talk and laugh together — F2F
Foodcooked and shared together at (someone’s) home.
Not just during the season, but scattered throughout the year like diamonds on a velvet cloth or stars in a clear night sky.
Along with time, the most wonderful gift you can give a child is a love of books — real books.
Real because reading a printed page affects the brain in different and better ways than words on a screen.
Whether your child reads or you read to them start with the books from Lost My Name, which creates personalized books using your child’s name.
Lost My Name — founded in 2012 by Asi Sharabi and Tal Oron — creates customised books based around a child’s name. The books are created and ordered online, then sent out to printing partners around the world. (…) “As a technology company, we’re very proud to be innovating on one of the oldest media formats in the world – the physical book,” said Oron. “We think technology equals possibility. And possibility is the dominant currency in wonderful, nostalgic storytelling, where the book’s job is to inspire children to believe in adventure; that anything can happen if they imagine it. As screens become more and more seductive to children, there is an increasing need to inject more magic into books – to find new ways to spark their imagination.”
Munroe believes that anything can be explained simply using normal language and proves it in his new book (which is a good choice for anyone on your gift list).
“Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words.” The oversized, illustrated book consists of annotated blueprints with deceptively spare language, explaining the mechanics behind concepts like data centers, smartphones, tectonic plates, nuclear reactors and the electromagnetic spectrum. In his explanations, Mr. Munroe avoided technical jargon and limited himself to the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language. This barred him from using words like helium and uranium, a challenge when describing how a rocket ship or reactor works.
For book links and great comics (sample above; chosen for enabling holiday restraint) visit Munroe’s site.
Books are good for adults, too. Check out this month’s Leadership Development Carnival for critiques of books that run the business gamut from being a better boss to upping your game wherever you are in your career.
Another great thing about real books is what you can do when you are done reading them.
Some you’ll want to keep for your own library;
some you’ll share with friends, colleagues and those you mentor; and