2014 NCWIT Summit - Eleanor Kolchin Pioneer Award Celebration

May 20, 2014

[upbeat music]

LUCY SANDERS: All right, so I'm gonna turn the floor over to Telle Whitney our co-founder. This is the first time you've taken the stage, so she is going to transition to one of my favorite sections of this meeting, the Pioneer Award. Thank you, Telle. [audience applauds]

TELLE WHITNEY: Lucy. Well one, two, three. Okay, Lucy asked me to start by talking about my remembrance and I had just taken over at the Anita Borg Institute when I got this call from Bobby Schnabel and I first met with Lucy and Bobby. And I was passionate in my support of women being at the table creating technology. And I knew at the time that this was gonna take a lot of people being involved. This new idea of having a center at the University of Colorado Boulder could reach academic audiences in particular that I knew that we couldn't reach. What was most exciting to me were the early meetings starting with Bobby and Lucy. I remember thinking about the hubs. We always knew that the alliances was where the strength and the impact was going to come, but you had to start somewhere. And by having these hubs we could ask these incredible organizations, CRA, ACM, UC Irvine, the Girl Scouts, to come with us and figure this out. So it's amazing to see the change. But that's not really why I'm here, I'm here to introduce the Pioneer Award. In 2012 NCWIT created the Pioneer Award. This award goes to individuals whose contributions have changed the computing discipline. We are looking for lifetime achievements. The women honored by the NCWIT Pioneer Award helped invent the computing discipline and they forged a trail to all of us. Ah, I can't read this, this is small. [laughs] [audience laughs] Who have entered and created the incredible discipline that we see today. So now I'm gonna ask Priscilla Rodriquez, who's a winner of the Aspirations in Computing Award and is also now a student at the University of Southern California studying computer science, to join me on the stage. [audience applauds] And now it's my great pleasure to introduce the winner of this year's award. We are honored to present Eleanor Kolchin the 2014 Pioneer Award. Eleanor Kolchin graduated from Brooklyn College in 1947 with a bachelors degree in mathematics. After a short period of teaching math at the high school level, she was hired by IBM in 1947. And eventually became the tabulating supervisor of the computing staff at IBM's Watson Center at Columbia University. While working at the lab, she was also able to attend classes towards the masters degree in math at Columbia. One of Eleanor's first assignments was computing the orbits of a number of asteroids. After Eleanor left IBM to raise a family, she worked for many years solving various differential equations and doing Fortran programming. She was subsequently hired by NYU where one of her many jobs was a consultant to researchers using Fortran programming. Eventually she ended up developing the webpages for various NYU projects. She retired from NYU in 2006. And so it's my great pleasure to introduce Eleanor Kolchin. [audience applauds] [upbeat music] [audience applauds]

ELEANOR KOLCHIN: One of the reasons that I am standing here receiving this Pioneer Award is that I have recently celebrated my 88th birthday. [audience applauds] And I was truly born in a different era. I may be the only one in this room who actually used and programmed removable plug boards from the earliest IBM computers with the wires, they were programmed. [audience chuckles] When I went to high school, most women were expected to be secretaries. It was important to know how to type and it was important to take stenography. Well it's still important to know how to type, but I don't think anybody is learning how to take stenography. About the most prestigious job that a woman could have was to be a teacher or a buyer in a department store. When you were married you were expected to retire, have a family, and that was that. There was mostly just one wage earner in a family. I decided to be a math high school teacher after I was forced to take plain geometry in high school. At first I just thought it was the nuttiest course, why anybody would want to make one triangle congruent to another triangle. [audience laughs] But after I didn't do so well in the first test, I said that's how they're playing the game and I'll have to play the game their way. So I went back to the textbook and I learned Euclidean geometry. And believe it or not, I fell in love with it. Because it was amazing to me that you could start out with just a few axioms and end up with a whole book of theorems. I majored in mathematics at Brooklyn College, which was part of the City College of New York and it did not bother me in the least that there were hardly any women in the math department. If the ales could, I don't know where I'm at. [audience laughs] Because I'm ad-libbing. I did feel that if the males could learn math, so could the females learn math. And I did learn math and I became the treasurer of Pi Mu Epsilon, which was the National Mathematics Honor Society. I graduated from college in January of '47 and applied to and was accepted by Columbia University to study for my masters degree in math. The fall semester was when I was going to attend. Meanwhile, I was substitute teaching in local high schools. One day when I came home from substitute teaching, my father told me that he heard IBM was hiring mathematicians. So I sent a transcript off with a covering letter to IBM. I didn't hear from them and I forgot about it. Then a month later my mother tells me that the National Biscuit Company called, [audience laughs] but she had it a little mixed up. I thought about the National Biscuit Company and then it occurred to me maybe, I mean IBM was not that well known in those days. [audience laughs] It wasn't. So sure enough IBM had called and they did hire a number of mathematicians in that day. We did not know it at the time, but we were really hired because they intended to calculate the orbits of the planets and the phases of the moon. I had applied for what I thought would be a really good summer job, but it turned out that the job was at Columbia University across the street from where I was going to get my masters. So I was very happy about that. And Dr. Wallace Eckert was the head of the lab and astronomy professor at Columbia University. He had started using the machines to calculate the orbits of asteroids in the thirties, but it was abandoned when World War II broke out. We had key punches, we had solders, we had cards and machines programmed with our plug boards. Anybody with a smart phone would not believe at all at the antiquity of the machines in the year 1947. The Watson Lab was a center for scientific computing and they were very exciting days. We computed with an unheard of degree of accuracy. I still remember 16 digits of accuracy. And the calculations were actually used for the Apollo mission to the moon and allowed Neal Armstrong to step onto the surface of the moon May 20th, 1969. The mathematical language Fortran was heavily used and it's still heavily used today. And was invented at the Watson Lab at that time. Jim Backus was the father of Fortran and he had the office right above mine. I was very happy working for IBM, but they did have a very peculiar rule that would be absolutely unheard of in this day. Most women employed by IBM were secretaries or receptionists, but at the end of World War II they wanted to be able to employ the soldiers coming back from the war and any woman who was married was to be fired and no married women were to be hired. And this rule was finally abandoned in the fifties, but the idea really behind it wasn't that they were cruel. The idea behind it was that they felt that there should be one wage earner per family. Not true in this day. I never went back to high school teaching. While working at the Watson Lab and going to math classes at Columbia University, I met Dr. Louis Green who employed me from about 20 years. And he was an astronomer at Haverford College. He started using the computers for research in his astrophysics in his sabbatical year. When I was leaving to start a family, I worked mostly at home writing Fortran programs and going into NYU at that time, which had a super computer. I learned a lot about solving differential equations numerically and I learned a lot about super computers. And became the local Fortran expert. Every few years a new super computer would come up and we would have to throw out all the old manuals, start reading the new manuals. And there was no computer science, anybody who taught anybody anything. We were reading the manuals and teaching it. Fortunately, Fortran had become a universal mathematically-based computer language and every new super computer that was built had the capability of having a Fortran compiler. When Dr. Green retired, I started working for a math group for awhile and finally ended up working on computer systems for NYU. And I totally retired, I think it was 2-0-0-2. I may have told somebody else wrong before. Anyway, I was heavily into composing the pages, webpages, for the university. In a way since the computers were always changing, the job never became dull. We were always throwing out one set of manuals and learning another set of manuals. Then NYU became part of the OpenAM, which was the first internet connection system. What happened is that there were about five super computer areas in the United States and people would have to geographically relocate to use them. And that was a big problem to the military and the OpenAM was the first internet connection system, the internet system that we know so well today was really started for the military. Back in 1975 I was given an email address, but it didn't help me 'cause there was nobody to send email to. [audience laughs] I mean that was 1975. Bill and I are now living at the Boca West Country Club in Boca Raton, Florida and enjoying the southeast weather and the flora. Seeing the green trees instead of snow and the beautiful landscaping is like having candy for your eyes. As a retired person I never lost my love for the computer and in Florida as a volunteer I am heavily using Microsoft's Office managing a 1,000 person database and a website. It's really a lot easier having a website nowadays, because there is so many different programs to help you. Through the years I have seen the women's movement start and never end. It is not unusual at all now to see a woman at the high-end of technology. We would never have believed this 60 years ago. Here are some of the women who have made it truly big in the computer industry. Ginni Rometty, CEO of no less than IBM, married, no children. Safra Catz, President of Oracle, married, two children. Sheryl Sandberg, everybody knows her, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, married, two children. Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard, married, two children. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, married, really pregnant when she became CEO. [audience laughs] And last, but not least, Lucy Sanders, CEO and founder of NCWIT, married, two children. [audience chuckles] I leave you with my favorite maxim. To learn new things it is never too late. To make amends with people, it's later than you think. [audience laughs and applauds]

PRISCILLA RODRIGUEZ: Eleanor, I loved your speech and here I'm honored to present you this. It's a scrapbook, each page is filled with your, [sighs] each page is filled with your honor, I mean.

ELEANOR KOLCHIN: Okay.

PRISCILLA RODRIGUEZ: I get nervous obviously. [audience laughs] It's Eleanor. [gasps] [audience laughs]

ELEANOR KOLCHIN: Thank you very much. [audience applauds]

PRISCILLA RODRIGUEZ: I also created this charm.

ELEANOR KOLCHIN: Oh, thank you.

PRISCILLA RODRIGUEZ: For you to remember this day.

ELEANOR KOLCHIN: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. [audience applauds] I have a bad knee from jumping broken backwards. [audience laughs]