The sayings of Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, USN

Scanning the "New Arrivals" shelf of my local library recently, I was very pleasantly surprised to come across an intriguing new book by Professor Kurt Beyer: Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age.

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JEFFREY BAIRSTOW

Scanning the "New Arrivals" shelf of my local library recently, I was very pleasantly surprised to come across an intriguing new book by Professor Kurt Beyer: Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age [MIT Press, Cambridge, MA (2009)]. I first met the then-Commander Grace Hopper, USN, in Seattle where she gave the keynote address at the History of Programming Languages conference in June of 1978. As I recollect, the meeting was standing-room only, particularly in the sessions where Grace Hopper participated.

The conference attendees frequently referred to Grace Hopper as "Amazing Grace." Indeed, the numerous achievements of Grace Hopper in computer programming were nothing short of amazing. She had an outstanding career that encompassed military research and development, academic research and teaching, and business software design and development.

Professor Beyer has written quite an interesting biography of this leading pioneer in computers and programming. He details Hopper's World War II assignment by the US Navy to the Harvard University Computation Laboratory, the home of the huge Mark 1 electromechanical calculator. At the end of the war, Hopper joined Remington Rand, a typewriter company that was developing computers for potential business use (the Univac series).

Despite the extensive male chauvinism of that time, Hopper had unparalleled opportunities to develop her own ideas on computer programming. She also honed her research and teaching skills. Grace Hopper may not have been the inventor of the Information Age, but she certainly was a moving force in the rapid development of computers and programming languages for business applications.

Whenever Hopper "retired," new assignments were speedily offered and were welcomed by Amazing Grace. She was officially retired from the US Navy in 1986 as the service's oldest serving officer. She was promptly hired by Digital Equipment Corporation, where she worked until her death in 1992 at the age of 86.

You'll have to read the book to get the full flavor of the radical ideas and machine-gun delivery of Grace Murray Hopper. However, I thought I might give you some of the observations that poured forth from this diminutive Navy person who always appeared in public in her full dress Navy uniform.

(N.b. Grace Hopper's original observations are in italics; the comments immediately following each one are mine.)

On computing
Information is more valuable than the hardware which processes it.
A situation that becomes even more obvious as desktop and laptop computers become ever more ubiquitous.

Management versus leadership
You cannot manage men into battle. You manage things; you lead people.
Both military forces and business enterprises need strong leaders in order to survive.

Getting things done
It is much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.
Just as saying "No!" is much easier than saying "Yes!" How often do we take the easy route rather than the harder and often riskier one?

Taking risks
A ship in port is safe but that is not what ships are built for.
Spoken like the high-ranking naval officer she was!

Pushing the envelope
At any moment there is always a line representing what your boss will believe. Go as close to that line as possible.
Definitely words to live your business life by!

If you'd like to hear more wisdom from Grace Hopper, try YouTube (www.youtube.com), where you can find several videos featuring her. Look for a very entertaining interview by Dave Letterman.

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
[email protected]

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