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the smartest person in the room

Posted by aim on May 12, 2007 at 2:15 PM PDT

A little more than 50 years ago, a team of brilliant engineers and mathematicians set out in the confines of an old battery factory in Philadelphia to build the world's first supercomputer, the UNIVAC LARC. My mother (Mary Cush, at the time) was on that team. So this year, as I sat in my seat at JavaOne, glancing at the sea of predominantly male geeks around me, I thought about how I came to be a software engineer and I realized that I pretty much owe that to her.

After my mother graduated college with a Math degree in 1955, she considered her options; become a teacher or get married. With no desirable marriage prospects at that time (we'll get to that later), she did what any smart, resourceful individual would do. She sent out a bunch of letters to corporations and was ultimately hired by Remington-Rand (formerly Eckert-Mauchly) to be a Logical Designer. There she worked on a small team writing machine code to drive the LARC computer, which is pretty incredible if you realize that topping the list of important single career women characters of the 50's is Kitty of Gunsmoke. A few years later a team of Livermore Lawrence Laboratory engineers came out to Remington-Rand (then renamed Sperry Corp) to learn about maintaining the LARC and my Mom met James Moore (my Dad), they got married, moved to California, and started a family. She then did what every respectable woman of 1960 did; she left her career behind to dedicate her life to raising her four daughters.

So I grew up with stories of rooms filled with transistors with gold-plated connections, counting by 1's and 0's, and a general love for math and logic. But most importantly I grew up in a household where the smartest person in the room was always my mother (my Dad is brilliant too, but that's a different story) and it never, ever occurred to me that there was anything boys could do that girls couldn't, except perhaps tackle football, which really only highlights an exceptional series of synapses in the woman's brain. Thanks to her, I emerged from the carnage of teenage-girlhood with an unshakable pride in being smart. Thanks to her, I've steered my way through a software career dominated by men without losing my sense of being a girl. Thanks to her, I've kept my pinky hooked into a job I love while raising my own children (yes, Sun has helped there too).

So Mom, this year for Mother's Day I'm skipping cards and flowers and giving you this blog instead. You've made such a difference in my life. You're still the smartest person in the room.

For fun I'm including an excerpt from the Univac LARC Programming Manual, which shows just how far (and not far) we've come in 50 years:

"The Larc computer is an extremely high-speed computing device. Its high speed is obtained in part by using overlapping instructions, that is, the computer does not wait until and instruction has been executed before extracting the next from storage. Consequently, instructions follow each other rather closely through the stages of the control unit. In fact, as many as four instructions may be in the control unit at any one time.

This overlapping of instructions of course increases the complexity of the computer and imposes certain sequencing restrictions on the programmer. In some cases by careless use of instructions a programmer may increase the running time of his program. In rare instances errors can be caused by failing to observe the restrictions. "

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