Remembering My Family’s Ada Lovelace, Aunt Nancy

A picture of my Aunt Nancy in 2015This year for Ada Lovelace Day, I want to share my Aunt Nancy with you. A year ago on this day, I was preparing to head to Huntsville, AL to attend her memorial service. I had been unable to attend her husband’s memorial earlier in the year and I wasn’t going to miss saying good bye to her.

It started, as it always does in the South, with all of us gathering for BBQ on the outskirts of Huntsville. Like all good BBQ joints, Greenbrier Restaurant is not fancy. However, it does serve great BBQ. What was even better was reconnecting with extended family, some of whom I hadn’t seen in decades.

The reason is that my Aunt Nancy is my mother’s aunt. We spent so much of my time growing-up in Navy towns that when it came time to see family, we barely had time to see grandparents and great-grandparents, much less the extended family. We primarily saw aunts, uncles, and cousins at family events.

Like Aunt Nancy’s memorial.

So as everyone entered Greenbrier Restaurant, there were introductions, “My how you’ve grown!” and people calling me by my father’s name at least once. We all shared the highlights of the last 20 years except those at the “grandkids” table. They all caught up on the last few months.

I sat with the older generation for a few reasons. The first was because as the oldest cousin of two oldest cousins, I wanted to sit with the other Gen Xers. The second was because I wanted to hear more stories.

But we’ll get to some of those. The largest outcome was planning our trip to the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center the next day.

I Didn’t Know Huntsville Had Tall Buildings

One of the two Saturn V rockets in Huntsville, this one outside showing off it's massive height. Notice the "short" treesThat was my thought as we drove into town that day. What I was seeing rising out of the horizon was a Saturn V rocket. Those are big. When you see it on its side in Cape Canaveral, you don’t fully appreciate how tall it is. You definitely think it is big but you have trouble picturing its true height until you see it standing upright.

And Aunt Nancy’s husband, John, was on the engineering team that built the guidance system for the rocket.

An Auburn engineer, he had moved up to Huntsville in 1960 as NASA was just getting started. He moved there with Nancy who left behind her engineering job to move and focus on the family that was just beginning with my cousin Ann.

I got to here many stories as we wandered around the Rocket Center with Nancy and John’s kids and grandkids. I heard about Nancy and John meeting in Auburn while she was the lone woman in Auburn’s Electrical Engineering program. John was attracted to her because, he claims, she understood quadratic equations. As apocryphal as that is, John definitely appreciated how smart Nancy was. This was a good thing because she was not one to hide her capabilities.

They got married in 1952 and after college, Nancy got a job as an draftsman. I’m intentionally calling the role draftsman. This is because at one point, she was discussing becoming a senior draftsman and she was told it wasn’t going to happen.

She could not, and would not, be promoted.

The reason? She was a woman. Of course, they all had faith in her ability. However, they knew that the men would never take direction from her. You see, they didn’t want to promote her into a position where she would be setup to fail. It wasn’t her, it was them. The other draftsmen.

An Example To Us All

Nancy went on to have a more hands-on engineering position elsewhere but in 1960, when John had the opportunity to join NASA, leaving behind her “career” wasn’t as hard of a choice as it should have been.My mom (who has a PhD in biochemistry) and I at the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center

Nancy went on to have a long and wonderful life. She has four kids including three daughters. Two are working as engineers today, one for Boeing and the other for Lockheed Martin. They are all amazing women and their mother, as well as the rest of the family, is proud of what they have accomplished in their lives. What they have achieved is, in no small part, due to the encouragement, love, and support from Aunt Nancy who set the example for them and our entire family, including my mom and Aunt Jackie.

Of course she did much more. She and John dove into amateur radio. In fact, when I mentioned this to an old neighbor, her recalled talking to her. They both kept learning, taking classes at the University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH). She instilled her love of reading and for continuing education that is clearly evident among her kids and grandkids.

She Is Missed

My Aunt Nancys drafting kit is impressive and comfortingMy Aunt Nancy is missed. This past August, I went to visit her oldest daughter in Seattle. There she showed my Aunt Nancy’s drafting kit from Auburn, back when it was still officially Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API). It was an amazing thing to hold in my hands. While in Seattle, the two of us went through Aunt Nancy’s genealogy research. Her research was thorough and well documented. Here attention to detail from her engineering days served her well throughout life.

Every chance I get, I remind my kids about their Aunt Nancy and Uncle John. I want to remind them that math, engineering, and the other STEM fields are not only an option for them, it is part of their heritage. They don’t have to follow in those footsteps, but opting-out needs to be by their choice.

And while the world my Aunt Nancy is much more forgiving for women technologists, it isn’t fixed yet. We have a pipeline of women entering different STEM fields. We need to fix the world in which we work so that that the Nancy’s of this world don’t abandon the field because it is just easier to do something else.

Ada Lovelace Day 2015

What I wouldn't give to have a conversation with Ada LovelaceAda Lovelace Day snuck up on me this year. While I had thought-out topics the last two years, making events more welcoming to women and sharing about tech women in my family, I hadn’t planned anything out for this year. Part of that is on me but the rest seems to reflect a malaise I have seen of late.

While I have continued to see people working to improve the diversity in technology, I have seen a lot less fervor in the past few months. It is as if people have put efforts in cruise control. I know that many things happen outside of my awareness but in the world that I observe there has been less discussion of getting more women into technology.

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Celebrating Women of Technology, My Mother and Her Sister

World's Most Dificult Jigsaw Puzzle, Leprechaun StyleFor Ada Lovelace Day, I was all set to write a post on making the tech industry more welcoming to women. I was almost done with that post when I decided that it was the wrong focus for today. I want to celebrate inspiring women in tech. Instead of picking from a slate of relatively well-known women or scrounging together some research on lesser known ones, I thought I’d target some people closer to home.

My mother and her sister.

I could say that a PhD in Biochemistry and a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering is enough to inspire, but there is more. Diplomas sit on walls. It is their journey to those degrees and how they live their lives that show the impact.

What was that impact? Three of my four women 1st cousins work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). In fact, in my generation, if you earned a college degree, the men were less likely to be in STEM than the women.

That is an impact.

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Making Ada Feel at Home

Today is Ada Lovelace day, and I am a man. That means that I can never truly understand any of the challenges women in technology face. I can tell girls about all the women who have changed the world, but outside of my family, my impact will be limited.

I can make sure that the girls that choose a career in technology are welcome and encourage them to stay in technology. I make sure that every industry group with whom I participate is welcoming of all participants.

At least I thought that was the case.

Reflections on an Invite

After one local event this summer, I was sitting at a bar having a drink with the organizer and one of the participants. Both were woman. We were discussing the turnout and why it wasn’t as high as we thought it should have been. One of the thoughts was that the offer of free drinks wasn’t called out in the meeting description.

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