On Ada Lovelace, Microsoft, and women in tech

Piquant.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO, at the epicenter of tech, opined last week about women in tech, suggesting they not ask for raises but instead trust “the system” to recognize performance with pay increases when appropriate, earning “good karma” along the way.

At the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

Five days before today, Ada Lovelace Day.

Only to walk it all back via Twitter and intra-Microsoft email hours later. Could any moment more perfectly capture the current, fraught complexity of women’s place in the world of computing?

Who Am I?

James Joel, used by permission

(Image courtesy James Joel.)

Ada Lovelace, in fact, personifies a confusion about women in computing that has metastasized over the last 30 years. Widely hailed as the “first computer programmer,” Lovelace inspires agreement in few areas among historians of computing. One thing they do agree on – she was not the “first computer programmer.”

The only legitimate daughter of George Gordon, Lord Byron, Lovelace was a player in a fascinating, often fantastical drama featuring scandal, incest, fairies, obsession, and tragedy. Her computing fame derives from work she did and the relationship she had with Charles Babbage, inventor of two proto-computers, the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine.

Twists and Turns

Among other projects, she translated into English an Italian transcription of a lecture series Babbage gave — in English — about the Analytical Engine, which was never actually built. To this translation, she appended a set of her own notes, longer than the translated work itself, reflecting on and extending the contents of the lecture series.

In the famous Note G, Lovelace described an algorithm for computing Bernoulli numbers. This has become the basis for her primacy in the annals of computer programming. Describing formulae and a series of “operation cards,” the note contemplates a process more than a program, lacking anything like a programming language, for example.

More Than a “Computer”

(Image courtesy Andrew Roberts via Flickr.)

(Image courtesy Andrew Roberts via Flickr.)

In Note A, Lovelace theorized applications of the Analytical Engine similar to those of modern computers, beyond anything Babbage seemed to have understood.

Rather than just numbers, Lovelace understood the engine to be a device for manipulating any set of symbols towards some defined output.

Using musical notes as inputs, for example, “the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or event.”

As a theoretician of computers, then, Lovelace showed real insight. She saw and wrote about, at the time, revolutionary capabilities of these “engines,” which have become, in fact, commonplace features of modern-day computers.

Lovelace, Figuratively Speaking

The scholarship on Lovelace runs the gamut, from seeing her as instrumental in the early history of computing to irrelevant. This confusion about what sense to make of Lovelace’s work in computing is writ large in contemporary circumstances surrounding women in computing.

Yikes!

The numbers, to start with, are dismal. At a time when degrees in science and engineering fields in general, as well as in fields related to computing, are all increasing by leaps and bounds, computer science degrees have actually decreased. From 2002 to 2012, overall science and engineering degrees increased by 42 percent, engineering by 37 percent, math by 62 percent, physics by 46 percent. Computer science? A 3.5 percent decrease, from 49,706 to 47,960.

To be sure, women’s shares of these increases have lagged men’s. But with overall numbers rising so much, the top-line totals for women have gone up, too.

But not in computer science.

Not only have total degrees declined, but women’s share of the total has declined, too, from 27.5 percent to 18.2 percent. For all the high-profile successes of Meg WhitmanMarissa MayerSheryl Sandberg, and others, women are staying away from computing in droves. All the tech companies’ self-studies about their workforce demographics released over the summer indicate the same thing: women range from 15 percent to 30 percent of the workforce, even lower in technical areas as opposed to marketing and ancillary fields.

My World Is the World, Right?

Which brings us back to Satya Nadella. His initial guidance against seeking raises and almost immediate retraction reveal a confusion about women in tech that must be rife in the field. But I don’t think the circle is actually too hard to square.

Not knowing the first thing about Nadella’s performance evaluations, I’d bet his comments reflect his own personal experience advancing up the tech career ladder.

Raises for excellent work must have come regularly and agreeably, given where he’s ended up. It’s easy to imagine, then, him extrapolating his own personal experience into a universal principle of the workplace – excel at your job, and good things will follow.

Nadella wouldn’t be the first man in a position of power to look out at the world and deem it singularly well constructed for having seen and rewarded his own self-evident excellence.

Um, No

One person’s utopia, of course, can be another’s nightmare.

The data above and general climate for women in computing illustrate the second half of this proposition.

But Nadella can’t be stupid or uninformed about gender. Given a few moments of reflection, he would certainly be able enter into a perspective on tech other than his own. And he must understand Microsoft’s strategic interest in not only valuing diversity in their workforce, but appearing to do so.

So his about-face, on second thought, probably comes from just as authentic a place as his first thoughts on workplace karma, even if only hours separated the two positions.

The Path Forward

Moreover, he would need only look across the stage to see an example of how to change organizational culture to recruit and retain more women. His interviewer, Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, got wide credit over the summer for graduating a class of engineers that was majority female.

Diversity, for the Win

Indeed, Ada Lovelace can be seen to exemplify a pillar of the argument for diversity. Multiple, diverse perspectives are widely understood to produce better products.

Lovelace’s perspective, informed by technical understanding but also a taste for metaphysics, poetry, and music, gave her insights into the possibilities of Babbage’s Analytical Engine that he himself couldn’t see.

A robust bottom line, bolstered by diversity, can underwrite significant cultural change for those organizations capable of seeing where it’s actually coming from.

(Article reprinted by permission from StartEngineering.)

Eric Iversen

Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena.