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Amazing Grace: It takes a team

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At a time when women were expected to concern themselves solely with housekeeping and children, and when computers were the province of pointy-headed mathematicians, Grace Hopper helped guide the budding computer industry after World War II and went on to revolutionize it.

A young professor who joined the Navy and also worked in industry, Hopper possessed:

Vision. She knew that if her dream of a “computer age” were to come true, a wide audience had to understand computers. At Harvard, Hopper created documentation standards that explained each piece of computer code, and later she drew graphic models that laid out the logic behind her code.

In the 1950s, working in industry, she produced groundbreaking work on programming and computer design. Eventually, she created a device that broke down the communication wall between man and machine, allowing people to talk to computers in ways other than zeroes and ones.

Mastery. Hopper set about understanding the minutia that went into computer hardware, riding the wave from mechanical to electronic machines and becoming a powerful problem-solver.

Inventiveness. Hopper created a new style of innovation called “distributed invention” that delegated work to many programmers and users. This broke from the traditional notion of the lone, heroic inventor and laid the foundation for open-source software development and even today’s concept of “crowd-sourcing.”

What’s more, Hopper liked to assign the toughest technical problem to the youngest and least experienced members of her team. As she explained later, young people didn’t know that they were expected to fail, and often could see beyond “what is” to “what could be.”

Practicality. Hopper led teams in developing early coding, debugging and batch processing procedures. She also saw to it that the pioneers of computing agreed to standardize certain rules and codes.

Creativity. Hopper stood at the core of the computer revolution by 1960 when she turned to create a common language for business applications. She guided the development of COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language), which remains the most successful computer programming language.

— Adapted from Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age, Kurt W. Beyer, MIT Press.

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