Women in Tech: Talking About Ada …

Looking at role models ... both old and new

By Michelle Sandford, Tech Evangelist and also Service Delivery Manager, Microsoft Services

This article originally appeared as a blog on LinkedIn 

I am often invited to the graduation ceremonies of students from local universities and technical colleges. They like to have someone from Microsoft there, smiling benevolently at the freshly minted students as they collect their certificates and prizes. I like to be there to see the next generation, full of passion and pride – ready to take on the world. Fearless and energetic.

At a recent event I was chatting to one of the students and she was saying how hard it was to be in the minority. She was the only woman in her graduating tech class. Others had started the course, but switched to other majors as it progressed, until only she was left. They just didn’t see a place for themselves in the world of tech. She was so happy to see me there, a role model for women and a beacon of hope to her.

One of the young men at her side said: “I wonder how different it would have been if the first Programmer had been a woman?”

I stared at him and blurted out “The First Programmer was a Woman!” I was startled that he didn’t know this fact.

In 1833, Ada Lovelace was introduced to Charles Babbage whom she helped to develop a device called The Analytical Engine; an early predecessor of the modern computer. Lovelace and Babbage worked together closely for many years in order to refine the Engine. Babbage is famous for building the hardware and Lovelace the software. Her programs were the most elaborate and complete of her time, and the first to be published. So, she is often referred to as “the first computer programmer”.

Ada Lovelace died of cancer at the age of 36 a few short years after the publication of “Sketch of the Analytical Engine, with Notes from the Translator”. The Analytical Engine remained a vision for many, but until Ada’s notes inspired Alan Turing to work on the first modern computers in the 1940’s.

She was the daughter of the poet, Lord Byron, and was brought up by her mother after he passed. Her mother feared that she would inherit her father’s poetic temperament, and gave Ada a strict upbringing of logic, science and mathematics. Ada became fascinated with mechanisms and designed steam flying machines, poring over the scientific magazines of the time and embracing the British industrial revolution. Her passion and vision have made her a powerful symbol for women in the modern world of technology.

I think the world is full of modern day role models – if we just open our eyes and see who is around us.

With Ada Lovelace day being celebrated this week, I wonder why we spend so much time remembering her or Grace Hopper (great women though they were), when there are so many modern day role models we could be quoting. At the top of the page I show images of Pip Marlow, Kat Holmes, Amy Hood and Dona Sarkar – wonderful mentors I have had the pleasure of meeting in real life.

Pip Marlow was until recently the Managing Director of Microsoft Australia, and she has always been a strong advocate for diversity and women in ICT. Both times she was pregnant she applied for and received promotions – and ultimately she rose to the top role in country – and remained there successfully until lured away to a new adventure with Suncorp. She told us she would never leave us for Apple or Google, and she spoke the truth. I love that.

Kat Holmes is the daughter of an Irish artist-psychologist mother and a Chinese engineer-karate instructor father. She loved bridging left- and right-brain activities. She describes herself as a nerd in three things: math, civics and painting. She was the lead designer behind Cortana and a pioneer of Inclusive Design at Microsoft. Many of my heroes are people that are both technical and artistic and Kat is the perfect example of this.

Amy Hood holds the #2 position in Microsoft worldwide at the side of Satya Nadella where she is CFO. Amy helped to orchestrate US $93.6 billion in revenue for the 2015 fiscal year, a US$6.7 billion increase over the previous fiscal year. But it’s not for her fiscal brilliance that I admire her, it’s her words of wisdom. Amy is practical and personal. She looks you in the eye with respect and really listens to what you say.

“I can make every decision in the hope it will work out perfectly and fail 99% of the time or I can choose progressive iteration, which is you deeply say I’m going to make choices everyday, some of them are going to take me forward, some of them won’t but if I keep at it and I progressively iterate on my ideas and take learning and try to get better, I’m in the pursuit of something but it’s not perfection. It’s progression.” – Amy Hood

And finally, Dona Sarkar – Designer, Founder, Principal Engineer, Chief NinjaCat – she combines all of her artistic side, her passion, her people skills and her technical expertise and unleashes a brilliance on the world that makes everyone around her want to step up and be part of something bigger. A movement. A tribe. She leads the #WindowsInsider Program – and where she leads, more than 500 million people are following.

If you are looking for more inspiration and modern day heroines – I can recommend the Geek Girl Rising book, which is full of them. Or in this little video, where there are a few more.

I think the world is full of modern day role models – if we just open our eyes and see who is around us.

Michelle Sandford works for Microsoft. She is the Vice Chair of the Australian Computer Society in Western Australia, a Tedx Speaker, a Tech Girl Superhero and one of MCV’s 30 Most Influential Women in Games. You can follow Michelle on LinkedIn for her articles; on Twitter for events, interesting shares and occasional commentary in 140 characters, Facebook to see where she is presenting next, YouTube for Video’s and Instagram for the life of a Microsoftie in photographs.