Women in ICT

File picture: Ritchie B Tongo/EPA/African News Agency (ANA)

Women’s Month in South Africa occurs in August as a tribute to the more than 20 000 brave women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women. As a technologist, I asked some ICT post-graduate students, if they could explain the historic role of women in ICT. Their silence persuaded this piece.

Charles Babbage had a brilliant idea to create a scientific computing device. It was called the Difference Engine. Although he conceptualised the system he neither had a methodical structure nor money to embark on the project. Enter one Ada Lovelace, who was one smart individual who happens to be a women. She had structure, genius and money. So she not only funded the project but she also edited, translated, and successfully helped Babbage put together the coherent plan for the machine’s development. The concept proved workable when it was finally built in 1991. There’s a great book on this by Sterling and Gibson aptly called “The Difference Engine”.

The Difference Engine is the forerunner to what you and I now know as a computer, which still runs on the same principle. So, you see the successful framework of the first computer really had a women behind it all. In fact, back in the day, Lovelace was the only person other than Babbage who understood the project. This is why one of the first computer programming languages was called “Ada”. One more important fact: Ada and Charles shared a love of mathematics – not each other. She was happily married. Imagine a relationship between a man and woman based only on intellect and mutual respect. Whatever will the people say? If Charles Baggage is the Father of the computer, then surely Ada Lovelace is the Mother of the computer.

The first Computer Science textbook, “Computer Science: A First Course”, was also co-authored by a women, Alexandra “Sandra” Forsythe way back in the 1960s and 1970s. Her books continued to indiscriminately haunt us in the 80’s and 90’s. Although Forsythe was responsible for the success of many computer scientists (the author included) the world over she was hardly spoken with reverence in the corridors of Computer Science!  Her book was tough which precipitated in massive class size reduction from Year 1 to Year 2 and a mass exodus of students to other faculties. She did however play  an active and role for women when it was unfashionable at the time.

The first ever coder or programmer was female, one Grace Hopper, who even had the supercomputer the Cray XE6 “Hopper” named after her. Hopper was awarded 40 honorary degrees from universities across the world. During the 50’s she participated in a project which created a machine-independent programming language that would, as the name implies, work on any computer. This led to the COBOL language, the most widely used programming language ever.

Hooper also discovered the first bug  in 1947! Paradoxically the first bug was a moth! The then Mark II computer was stuck not working and Hooper looked around at  the electronic circuitry and found a mummified moth stuck in a relay which impeded the operation. A software bug these days refers to an error in the software code developed and we use the term debugging to fix programming errors. It is said that the remains of this bug is still at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.

My favourite ZA Computer Scientist is one Judith Bishop who was Professor of Computer Science at the University of the Witwatersrand, and University of Pretoria and is still busy in retirement at the University of Cape Town, the last time I heard. She writes beautifully and is a serial book author with her books being published in multiple languages. My favourite books include C# Concisely and Java Gently.

Judith Bishop is internationally recognised as a technology evangelist by Microsoft and specialises in the application of programming languages, distributed systems and web technologies. Her PhD students include two who later became Heads of Department at local Universities.

I dedicate this column to two special ladies: Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Dr Grace Naledi Mandisa Pandor and Minister of Communications, Telecommunications and Postal Services Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams. Dr Pandor made science move when she was Minister of Science  and Technology. When she was Minister of Higher Education, she  walked the talk, by studying while imploring students to study. And she achieved her doctorate!

Minister Ndabeni-Abrahams represents the youth and our future. She has enthusiastically embraced the notion of the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) together with its challenges and opportunities. Pollical support from the highest level makes the 4IR project so much easier.  I implore you to follow the Ministers hashtag: #BuildingACapable4IRArmy. I sense that I will have to update this column very soon, to reflect the lasting ICT impact and contribution that  the Minister will surely have in South Africa. The Minister has a very appropriate Twitter handle @StellarRated. From my experience this is a 5-star rating, Minister.

Happy Women’s Month to all!

Dr Colin Thakur is a digital activist who is committed to the dream of “one person, one connected device.” He is the KZN e-Skills.