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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Writings on Sexism and Other Personal Topics


Rodin's 'The Thinker'You may have noticed that I haven’t posted on the issue of Sexism or many non-IT topics of late. That is because I have moved many of those writings to Medium.

I was hoping that these musings would be more discoverable there. I also want to keep the Word a little more focused. So far the posts haven’t been discovered as much as I like. I am going to continue the experiment knowing that it may just be a matter of time.

While you can always find the posts in the link over in the sidebar, I am going to highlight a couple of my more recent posts here. Take a few moments and go read them if you haven’t already.

  • What is Wrong With You?: Why aren’t more men stepping up and at taking a stand against sexism, or any ‘isms’? This basically a rant about men standing on the sidelines. Vowing to do more BEGINS by standing-up and being counted among those who care.
  • Right or Wrong, We Need to Make This Personal: Reaching a critical mass of men who care about sexism is going to require forging an emotional connection. In this article I trace my own journey and how it became personal for me.
  • My Family Legacy, Centuries of Racism and Oppression?: During the protests in Ferguson, I watched people slowly build a new sad chapter in our nation’s history. It caused me to reflect a lot on the history of my family and how it has likely been on the wrong side of history many times.

These are important topics to me. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t share the personal stories that are located within them.

Our society is a reflection of all of us. I’d like to think we are better than the society we live in today. To make that true, we need to step up, make a difference…

And be counted.

Ethics, Facebook, and Medium


Ghostbusters ExperimentI recently published an article on Medium on The Tech World’s Ethical Crisis. I wanted to try Medium out as a possible option for my broader topics, allowing the Word to stay a touch more focused on the industry and truly random acts of writing. It seems to have worked fairly well so it is something I will repeat.

I do want to take a moment to share why I wrote the article (which you should read before reading further). I have been reading about Facebook’s study and I saw a lot of mixed reactions. While some people were aghast, others wondered why it was a big deal at all.

That is the issue at stake here, ignorance. When unethical behavior is not recognized as such, we need to take a step back and evaluate what we hold dear in our society. When conducting human research, informed consent is such an important requirement that there are laws to enforce it. If research has a chance to cause potential harm, people need to be given a chance to say no.

I don’t believe Facebook was trying to be evil. They were ignorant of the ethics involved in what they were doing. That ignorance is a problem. They must have considered it a potential problem as they added research to the Terms of Service a few months later.

Ignorance is not an excuse and we need to start thinking about teaching people more about ethics. It has been suggested that the Venture Capitalists (VCs) should make sure that the firms they fund have training in ethics.

They should throw in a little training about sexual harassment and discrimination while you are at it.

We are all responsible for the ethics of the world in which we live. We need to take time to educate ourselves and others. We needs to talk about this at events. It needs to be part of everything we do.

Because ignorance is not an excuse for risking harm to others.

Are You Human?


Paul with the Gom Jabbar at his neckThere are a lot of theories about what separates humans from animals. Some say it is our use of tools and the civilization that we have built. Others disagree. When you look at all the negatives we have created in our society, it is hard to argue that our civilization is a positive differential.

Personally, I think Frank Herbert got it right when he wrote Dune. He posits that what makes us human is the ability to overcome are baser instincts, letting our mind control our actions. He conceived of the Gom Jabbar test which I think clearly illustrates the difference.

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All Men for “Yes All Women”


Last month I wrote a post on how we need to end sexism in the tech industry. Then a week ago, there was a shooting in LA and twitter erupted in protest over the sexism and misogyny that is pervasive in our society. If you have missed the #YesAllWomen tag, then you need to go read it now.

There were stories from women throughout society. It wasn’t the stories of violence that struck me, but the stories of abuse and harassment that take place ALL THE TIME.

That is my city. That is someone I haven’t met sharing their concerns about traveling on public transportation. It wasn’t the only story about the Metro. It is ignorant to assume that this hasn’t happened to co-workers, friends, family, and loved ones. To drive that point home for me, friends and family shared stories on the hashtag as well.

An Equal and Safe Society

There was an image shared that makes an excellent point about the challenge we are facing.

She is someone

The point is clear and important. This is about us as society treating all women equally because they are HUMAN BEINGS. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and feel safe, regardless of their gender, race, or beliefs.

Of course, this misses on a point from basic marketing, making a connection with your target audience. In this case, men.

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