2013 NCWIT Summit - Jean Sammet Pioneer Award Reception

August 14, 2013

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

ALLISON COLLIER: Jean, Aspirations in Computing is a program by NCWIT to encourage young women to pursue computing. A group of us were asked to create your award so we made a scrap book honoring you as 2013 NCWIT Pioneer. Each page is filled with original artwork and musings and over 40 of us contributed to the scrapbook. And each page is a testament to your legacy and inspiration. From our generation to yours, Thank you for all of your contributions to computing. [audience 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're 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. And 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. And 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] And 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?" And 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 applauses] 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 and so I then proceeded to self-teach myself what I needed to do, to do the job. And 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. And 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 or 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. And 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, and 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! And I said-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] And 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]