Computing pioneer Grace Hopper once proposed a thought experiment about the value of information. First, imagine a computer in charge of a chemical factory. Now imagine that the computer receives two pieces of information at the same moment. The first comes from a sensor on a closed valve somewhere deep in the bowels of the plant. If the computer doesn’t open this valve the $100 million plant will blow up, endangering the lives of 100 employees.
“In the same instant comes information that Joe did two hours of overtime,” Hopper said in a 1980 interview. “Which is the most valuable piece of information and what are the criteria?” While the answer is obvious to people, it wasn’t obvious at the time that computers could or should learn to sort incoming data by its relative value, and then make decisions based on those priorities.
Today the ability to sort and prioritize data is a central focus of AI development. Using machine learning, security algorithms learn to differentiate between more and less dangerous malware attacks, and route them to the appropriate analyst for action. Customer service algorithms learn to sort requests from employees and customers, answering routine queries and routing more complex issues to human reps. Similar technology powers service management in every business function you can think of, from IT to finance, legal services and procurement.
Insights like that came easily to Hopper (1906‑1992), who became known as “Amazing Grace” during a career in which she programmed the world’s first commercial computer (the UNIVAC 1) and wrote one of the first compilers, a software application that translates code from one computer language to another. Hopper’s work led to COBOL (“Common Business‑Oriented Language”), the first programming language designed to run across different hardware platforms. COBOL first appeared in 1959 and became the standard data‑processing language for mainframe computers, powering large‑scale business, financial and administrative systems for companies and governments.
Hopper spent her long career as a technologist in academia, business and the U.S. Navy, where she became the first woman admiral. In the 1970s, Hopper argued that the Pentagon should replace its mainframes with networks of small, independent computers that accessed information stored in common databases. In this, she anticipated both client‑server computing and the PC revolution.
Hopper was also one of the first people to see that computers would eventually transform all aspects of business, making her the mother of today’s digital transformation movement. She mentored generations of young engineers, beating Steve Jobs to the punch with quotes like this one: “The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’”
In a career of many firsts, Hopper wasn’t the first female computing pioneer. That distinction belongs to the 19th century mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815‑1852), who wrote the first computer algorithm. Lovelace was also the first to see that computers weren’t just number crunchers, but could be used in any process based on logical symbols, from textile design to writing and music. With this insight she predicted the Digital Age and anticipated slogans like Apple’s “There’s an app for that.”
Any shortlist of female tech innovators would have to include Hopper’s contemporary Betty Holberton (1917‑2001), whose “sort‑merge generator” is the first example of using a computer to create software. Holberton wrote the first statistical analysis package, used in the U.S. Census of 1950, and also used a deck of playing cards to develop the original binary sort function.
The history of computing would look very different without Lovelace, Hopper and Holberton, which makes it all the more concerning that women continue to be underrepresented in the tech industry. Our nearby infographic paints a dispiriting picture. In the United States, boys and girls take roughly the same number of advanced STEM courses in high school. Yet women earn only 35% of STEM bachelor’s degrees, and the percentage of women who choose computer science majors has been declining ever since the mid‑1980s. That’s largely due to perceived gender discrimination in the tech industry, where women currently hold 26% of all computing jobs and just 9% of leadership roles.
Gender discrimination isn’t just immoral: It’s also bad for business. Research shows that companies with more diverse workforces tend to outperform more homogeneous competitors. The same is true for cities and countries with more open, tolerant cultures, according to the World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Competitiveness Report.
Grace Hopper was right to observe that not all information is of equal value. She would surely have agreed, however, that good ideas can come from anyone and anywhere. That’s why we need more women, and more diversity of every sort, in the tech industry.
It’s also why I’m happy that Workflow’s publisher, ServiceNow, is one of the sponsors of this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration in Houston. Grace Hopper is the industry’s premier networking event and job fair for women in tech. If you’re coming to the conference this year, please stop by and see us at the ServiceNow booth.