Friday, July 12, 2013

Famous Speech Friday: Tech pioneer Grace Hopper explains nanoseconds

"Sometimes there are people who appear to be all 'Navy' but when you reach inside, you find a 'Pirate' dying to be released. One such person was Grace Hopper," wrote former Apple senior vice president Jay Elliott in his book The Steve Jobs Way: iLeadership for a New Generation. And that's the impact that Hopper, a pioneering computer scientist, had on the many audiences to whom she lectured in the last years of her life, as a goodwill ambassador for Digital Equipment Corporation.

Long before these talks, Hopper had blazed a pirate-like path in the fledgling field of computing. With a Ph.D. in mathematics earned in 1934, she enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II. She helped to create COBOL, one of the first programming languages, pushing for it to more closely resemble English than machine code language, and often came up with simple terms for computer processes. We get the word "debugging" from her, prompted by a real moth that had to be removed from a computer.

She's also credited with coming up with the terms "nanoseconds" and "picoseconds." Described as a lively and irreverent speaker, Hopper explained nanoseconds in most of these lectures. One appreciation describes the demo:
The “nanoseconds” she handed out were lengths of wire, cut to not quite 12 inches in length, equal to the distance traveled by electromagnetic waves along the wire in the space of a nanosecond–one billionth of a second. In teaching efficient programming methods, Rear Admiral Hopper wanted to make sure her students would not waste nanoseconds. Occasionally, to make the demonstration even more powerful, she would bring to class an entire “microsecond”–a coil of wire nearly 1,000 feet long that the rear admiral, herself tough and wiry, would brandish with a sweeping gesture and a steady wrist.
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Use recurring audience questions to shape your talks: Hopper started explaining nanoseconds in response to recurring questions from military leaders about why it took satellites so long to relay information, then incorporated this demo into her talks, knowing it would likely come up again. It's a smart tactic that too few speakers employ.
  • Be authentic: "I didn't know what a billion was. I don't think most of those men downtown know what a billion is, either. And if you don't know what a billion is, how on earth do you know what a billionth is?" I know plenty of scientists and engineers who would die before admitting they didn't know what a billion was (let alone a mathematician). Not Hopper, who looks smarter than ever by admitting it's a tough concept to understand. She even shared the wire  "nanoseconds" with the crowd, encouraging their use to explain the concept to family and friends. 
  • Test your analogies before you put them into use: Here, Hopper does a simple and smart thing: She describes with mathematical precision her demonstration prop, "A piece of wire which would represent the maximum distance that electricity could travel in a billionth of a second." Then she shows them a coil of wire that represents a microsecond, as a comparator, putting the first wire into perspective that anyone can see. In that sentence, despite the fact that she's describing a hard-to-grasp concept of speed, the most difficult word is "billionth," the word she's defining with the demonstration. Hopper proves yet again that big ideas don't need big words. 
  • Wear your authority with ease: She came up in a time when women in her field were the exceptions, not the rule, and they certainly weren't in charge much. So in these late-in-life lectures, she donned her Navy uniform and spoke in a straightforward tone that suggests she knows what she's talking about. Using deft humor and poking at established authorities ("those men downtown") just underscores her firm footing. 

Many things are named in Hopper's honor, but here at The Eloquent Woman, we are especially fond of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology--in no small part because the conference features numerous women speakers and shares their speeches on YouTube. It's a rich resource for women speakers, and we look to this fitting legacy of Hopper's for great speech examples from women in tech.

I'm grateful to Google software engineer Cate Huston, a regular reader of Famous Speech Friday who asked some time ago, "How about an FSF on Grace Hopper?" and helpfully pointed me to the video. Thanks, Cate!

(Photo of Grace Hopper at the UNIVAC keyboard--yes, that's a computer--in 1960, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.)

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