Geek Mythology: Women and the Start of Software Engineering

According to Geek mythology, when Charles Babbage had invented the Analytical Engine, he sat back and said: “Behold! I have created the first pocket calculator!”. Of course, he hadn’t actually built the thing yet, and lacket the practical skill to do so. When it finally was built, there wasn’t a pocket large enough on Earth to put it in. Thus was the inception of the hardware engineering discipline.

While hardware had gotten off to a good start, software took a more practical approach: when Ada Lovelace heard of the Analytical Engine, she said to herself: “Forsooth, such a mighty machine needeth a touche féminine if ever it is to serve a purpose” and proceeded to write the first computer program. It took several decades for the hardware engineering discipline to catch up with the software engineering discipline and for the two to come together and actually do something useful.

Thus were started the disciplines of hardware and software engineering: the one bulky and impractical, the other elegant and practical. No wonder software development was dominated by women until the late 1950s (and has arguably gone downhill since).

From the 1950s to the late 1990s, the time during which men had taken over the business of software engineering, the art evolved into a mature discipline: projects were routinely late, over budget and under spec and, to solve the problem, more project management overhead was added.

In the 1990s, women returned to the software engineering discipline.

On a perhaps related note, since the 1990s, agile software development methods have taken a foothold in software engineering. These methods provide for a more practical approach to software engineering and allowed projects to be delivered on-time and under budget.

According to Geek mythology, this is where I say: “Forsooth! I see a pattern!” and Ada says “No shit Sherlock! Get out of my way!”.

Today is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. Time to set the record straight?

About rlc

Software Analyst in embedded systems and C++, C and VHDL developer, I specialize in security, communications protocols and time synchronization, and am interested in concurrency, generic meta-programming and functional programming and their practical applications. I take a pragmatic approach to project management, focusing on the management of risk and scope. I have over two decades of experience as a software professional and a background in science.
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