When students walk into New York City's Grace Hopper Academy to learn about software engineering, they are greeted by a photo of the school's namesake, a Navy admiral in a Rosie the Riveter pose saying, "We can code it!"

Hopper is also the namesake of a tech diversity conference kicking off today in Houston. The Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, now in its 16th year, honors an icon of the tech diversity movement and one of the preeminent titans of the tech industry.

"Grace Hopper was not only one of the first prominent women in computing, but one of the first-ever programmers--male or female," says Danielle Brown, Intel's chief diversity and inclusion officer. "Her work laid a foundation for code used every day by today's computer scientists."

Hopper, born in 1906, was a stellar mathematician, earning her collegiate degrees from Vassar College and Yale University. Sometimes called Amazing Grace, she began her tech career after joining the Navy Reserve during World War II and working on the programming staff for the Mark I, a computer used during the war.

She continued in tech in the postwar years, helping develop the UNIVAC I, the first commercial computer in the U.S. Well into her 80s, Hopper remained with the Navy, helping the military branch build up its technical prowess. This effort earned Hopper the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, which is the highest honor that can be given by the Department of Defense to a noncombat individual.

Hopper has always been hailed as a tech icon and pioneer. But as the tech diversity movement has grown in recent years, Hopper's legacy has enjoyed a renaissance as women in tech point to role models for younger techies to look up to.

"Honestly, we do come across people who are like, 'Maybe women aren't as good at this,'" says Alaina Percival, CEO of Women Who Code, a San Francisco nonprofit that encourages women to start tech careers. "She's someone who we can point to and say, 'Yes, women are good at this. We helped get this started.'"

Among Hopper's key contributions was the development of the first computer compiler, which made device independent programming possible. (Device independent programming refers to the ability to program various machines using the same coding language--a major breakthrough in computing.)

In that respect, Hopper was to computing what Henry Ford was to the production of automobiles, says Sharon Wienbar, CEO of Hackbright Academy, a coding bootcamp for women in San Francisco.

Hackbright's walls are decorated with photos of Hopper, according to Weinbar. Ford "brought automobiles to the masses because he made it a repeatable, mechanized process," Weinbar says. Hopper "made it possible to write software that could run on multiple different computers ... which made it possible to increase the velocity of writing software."

Hopper also led the creation of FLOW-MATIC, the first programming language that resembled the English language more than it did math. "She pushed computing forward in a way that was one small step for woman but one giant leap for computing," Percival says.

Among Hopper's sillier achievements is discovering the first computer bug. This occurred when Hopper literally found a moth stuck in her machine. Now, the term "computer bug" is used everyday in software development.

Besides her technical contributions, Hopper was also a proponent for education and made various efforts to get more women into computing. In her final years, Hopper gave lectures about computing to encourage people to get into the field. Her career in the Navy also involved training young recruits and teaching them about computer science.

"Grace was an inspirational teacher, speaker, and role model. She made a conscious effort to educate and inspire young women," says a spokeswoman for the Anita Borg Institute, the organization that runs the Grace Hopper conference. "Her stage presence alone inspired audiences to take action and she often used analogies that became legendary."

Hopper passed away in 1992, but her memory lives on through the conference, coding bootcamps, and the push for tech diversity.

"For us to be able to look back and point to one of the most important people in tech's history--and that she was a powerful woman--is very inspiring," Percival says.

Published on: Oct 19, 2016