2013 NCWIT Summit – Jean Sammet Pioneer Award Reception

[upbeat rock music] [audience applause] [enthusiastic applause]

JEAN SAMMETT: Thank you very much for all the kind words and for the honor. I must confess that when I first, was told of this, I must confess that I did not know of NCWIT and thought, “I better look this up [audience laughs] and make sure this was a reputable organization.” [loud laughter] Well of course, it is. I found that out very quickly, and in the short time that I’ve been here, I’m even more impressed. I think the work that’s being done here is really quite amazing.

There are just two very small stories that I want to tell you. One, when I went to numerous computer conferences in the late 50s and the 60s, and I don’t know what the date was, but there weren’t very many women, that’s for sure. And the first time I realized that there were a significant number of women attending these conferences is when I had to stand in line in the ladies room for the very first time. [audience laughs]

The other thing I want to tell you, because I get asked very very often: How did I get started in the computer field, which was in 1955? Some of you may have heard this story, and if so I apologize. But for those of you who have not, I simply want to tell you because it was rather strange. I was working at Sperry Gyroscope doing mathematical work because my original work was, my original education was, in mathematics. I wanted to be a math teacher and somehow never got around to being able to do that. I was doing mathematical analysis at Sperry Gyroscope having to do with torpedoes. It wasn’t very interesting, but at least, you know, it was something to do for a living.

One day in 1955, my boss’s boss came over to me and said, “Do you know that there are engineers? Some of our engineers are building a digital computer,” because up till then everything that Sperry had done — and Sperry did a lot of work for the federal government, but everything involved an analog computer, which most of you probably have never heard of. But nevermind, it existed. [audience laughs] He came over and said, “Our engineers are building this so they can learn how to be, learn something about the digital computer field.” And he said, “Do you want to be our programmer?”

I said, “What’s a programmer?” [audience laughs] And his answer, I kid you not, was, “I don’t know, but I know we need one!” [audience laughs and applauds]

Well, that put me into kind of a quandary, because I didn’t know who to consult! I didn’t know anybody in the field. I hadn’t really heard of the field. [audience laughs] Although HCM existed since 1947, I didn’t know anything about it, and didn’t know who to consult, didn’t ask anybody. I had nobody to ask, and I finally decided I would take a chance. So, I then proceeded to self-teach myself what I needed to do, to do the job.

The one last story I will tell you is that one of the young men that we hired to help with the programming came in, and after I trained him, I sent him up to this computer, which was a Drum Computer using a teletype input. In those days, computer time was measured in hours. I mean, that is to say, you assigned time on a computer, whether it was a UNIVAC or our small computer, or some other might be an hour. Maybe, if you were lucky, you got two hours of computer time. You and the computer, and maybe an operator — especially if it was a UNIVAC. After about an hour I had not heard from this man who was upstairs, and I had told him to call me if he had any problem. I hadn’t heard from him, and I was kind of worried. I thought maybe something had happened to him. So, I went upstairs and I saw him pouring over a printed output! Those are the days in which we had printed outputs! He was sitting there with a grin on his face, and I said, “John, did your program work?” And he said, “No.” And I said, “Well, why are you looking so happy?” And he looked at me with big round eyes and said, “You mean they’re paying me to have all this fun?” [audience laughs]

That, to me, has always been the best description of programming that I have ever heard. I congratulate the young women who have gotten the previous awards from this organization, and I certainly wish every woman who is here — and the men as well, but especially the women — lots of good luck in the computer field. It’s wonderful. Thank you again. [audience applause]

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