Lady Ada day rolls around once a year and reminds us to think about Ada’s contributions to technology and women in technology. I took a pledge to blog, celebrating the day. It’s cool to note that women inspire, make great inventions and creations and question and push the world forward: they always have. Whenever people doubt that, and believe that women have just crotcheted on the edges, not inventing “the real serious” things, remind them that it was a woman that invented Kevlar and a woman that holds a patent to the first automatic pistol.
If we were to go back in time, besides thinking “gee, modern dentistry is great,” you’d be blown back at how dismissively certain people got spoken to. They and we still have a narrow view of what success looks like. You know, you had to be from a certain group, you had to be a certain sex, you had to wear certain clothes, be a certain age, from a certain region or country…you know…”the right sort of people.” It still happens. If you are a certain type in a certain slot, there is an invisible line on the door jam - “you can only have ideas this high to ride this ride.” In that place, only some people are permissible to have success.
I’ve taught computer science classes for years, and I’m shocked from the dismissive comments the students tell me made to them by their prior professors, as if they were the keepers of the priesthood. Some have been told “you aren’t the right material” and to give up on a career in technology. I’ve recently gotten my Master’s degree, and it did happen that a graduate professor of mine floated the idea that promoting women was imprudent. This guy was in his forties, if you’re wondering if he was dottery. Perhaps he thought he being was whimsically piquant to the students. Like a bitter, sour pickle at the end of a great meal.
Nobody keeps the priesthood. It’s not a priesthood. It’s open. It’s an open road, the last frontier - the wild west, the expanding universe whose edges and endings race before you. To be inspiring moves the world. Go out and do something and keep going as long as you have the passion.
When my mother went to school, her high school guidance counselor advised her to prepare for a clerical or accounting job. This was as far as her ambitions were allowed go, and the counselor’s job was to do that kinder cut and cut the students into puzzle pieces that would fit the community. But she had broader ambitions and a richer internal life. Luckily there were libraries with tons of content and stories about inspiring people doing work afar - and women like Margaret Mead who had real adventures half way around the world and spoke to her about the real possibilities in herself and the world. Writers and other artists and historians who gave her a world of imagination and possibility when the world got too harsh - which is the more sustaining gift of education - the real equity. When I got my Master’s degree, she was so proud. In my direct family line, I was the first woman to do that. My mother died at the end of last year, and I have not written about it, because nothing seemed worthy.
When I was thinking about who to write about to celebrate Ada, I know of some great women in technology currently like Anu Shukla and Sandy Carter. Success does look like these women. I’ve interviewed them the book I’m writing about technology strategy, Open Strategies. I’ll write about them at length later. But my mind kept circling around back to Jack Kilby. Insistent. Again and again. But Kilby is a dude. But still. At the time, early in his career, he didn’t appear to be what “they” thought the success club member should be. It’s ironic now to think a white guy would face bias, but it just goes to show you that bias can change like a caste fashion. Bias is all about a restriction and a resistance to “certain kinds” of people who can give, create, inspire greatly. But let’s accept that success has no fashion, and it can come from all sorts of people with all sorts of styles and backgrounds and demographics.
Jack Kilby was a Nobel prize winner for his work leading to the first silicon chip, the integrated circuit, and Jack had the cold experience of his heroes telling him he wasn’t the right demographic, the right kind for the fancy book learnin’ and fancy thinkin’. Jack Kilby came from a small town in Kansas and in his time, the priesthood of technology was judgmental about a guy from a Kansas farming town and product of public schools and public libraries. It seems odd to us now - because he looks to us like a geeky dude, but at the time he wasn’t deemed to be the right kind of man to develop theorical physics. He was told he should give up princely theorical physics and study agriculture or practical electrical engineering. But he pushed ahead anyway. Like women experience in technology, he didn’t look like what success looked like to the keepers of the priesthood. It was impossible to them that he would contribute on a high level - again, did I mention he became a Nobel prize winner?
Jack went to war as a soldier in WWII, and while he was serving, he’d order special books from his heroes in theorical physics at MIT. He’d read them at night, sometimes by flashlight. When he got out of the service, he sought to go to MIT to study with the men who wrote the books. He went to test at MIT and to interview, and he specifically sought out some of his heroes on campus. His test results in mathematics was some points lower than what was common for entrants into the theorical physics program, but still not out of the realm of admission. He went to interviews, and his heroes snobbishly dismissed him, even though he could discuss their ideas, as a young man who could not possibly have the background to make important contributions to theory. He didn’t fit the profile. Jack never forgot this and later in life made encouraging students from different backgrounds a very important part of his mission. He also later said that if he had gone to MIT, they would have taught him that an integrated silicon circuit was impossible. The silicon chip set it off, like a match to gasoline, to new frontiers of living spawning imaginative applications, products, and wealth.
Jack’s speech accepting his Nobel prize was entitled, “Turning Potentials into Realities,” which both speaks to aspirations and a very geeky pun about the mechanism of silicon chips. Architectures, strategies, our technologies, our tools, our participations are all about turning potentials into realities. Our best future relies on throwing off any caste system dictating who looks like success and who may give it to us.
-- Nan Hickman
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