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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review: Rise of the Rocket Girls

Once upon a time, computers didn't refer to machines running programs, but to people who did the computation work that were eventually relegated to those machines. Rise of the Rocket Girls is the story of the computer department at JPL. It's a great read and well worth your time.

That the computer department at JPL consisted entirely of women was not an accident but deliberate policy. The supervisor of the team, Marcie Roberts, had a policy that she only hired women. She would say to the women in her team:

"In this job you need to look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a dog." (Kindle Loc. 3061)

As the department switched to electronic computers, the women involved trained and learned to write computer programs. What's document is interesting: the early IBMs were so unreliable that the engineers involved wouldn't trust the results unless it was a human who did the computation. It took several generations of improvements before the computers became good enough to be used. The first of such machines was even given a name by the department and became a valued part of the team. Subsequent generational iterations happened so quickly that the people no longer became attached to them:
The scientists reviewed the computer analysis and tried to make sense of it. Some of the students were surprised by how much of the operation required human interaction. They expected to see supercomputers instead of people doing all the work. Senior scientist Harold Masursky good-naturedly responded to one inquiry: “Computers are just like wearing shoes. You need them when you are walking on gravel, but they don’t get you across the gravel. (Kindle Loc. 2922)
Note that JPL as an eventual government agency focused on research instead of financial results, didn't hand out stock options. That didn't actually matter: the programmers were paid by the hour, which given the usual extreme overtime hours required of programmers actually meant that they were paid much better than if they were salaried:
The women worked late nights and weekends on Mariner, desperately checking their trajectories and programs. The hours were exhausting, especially for new mothers Barbara and Helen, but their paychecks were worth it. As hourly employees they were both earning impressive incomes, outstripping their husbands, thanks to the long hours Mariner required. (Kindle Loc. 2154)
Having an all-woman department at JPL meant that in the early days the lab could run beauty contests:
As odd as it seems by today’s standards, the beauty contest was a result of JPL’s progressive hiring practices. As the bouquets were handed out and an attractive woman crowned the winner, the competition was unintentionally highlighting the presence of educated young women working at JPL. After all, other laboratories would have found it impossible to hold such a contest in the 1950s; they simply didn’t hire enough women. (Kindle Loc. 949)
An interesting difference between  biographies of men and women is that while men's biographies rarely mention their personal lives (like raising kids, etc), in women's biographies that's covered in detail. Nevertheless, the book provides ample coverage of the various missions that JPL ran, including the practice of planning dual missions for redundancy.

It's also well-written and provides a compelling narrative. Highly recommended.

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