Monday, March 23, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day - Admirable Jane

For almost three months there has been a badge at the top corner of this Blog. It proclaims,

"I will publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire but only if 1,000 other people will do the same."

Ada Lovelace Day

The "Ada Lovelace Day" campaign pledge was the brainchild of social networking specialist Suw Charman-Anderson, whom I interviewed for the Just Plain Sense Podcast about six weeks ago.

Suw's target of 1,000 pledges was achieved within a week of the launch at the beginning of January. Since then the number has continued to grow and now stands at over 1,500.

The purpose of the campaign has been to help highlight the existence of women having successful careers in all forms of technology, and to laud the kind of work they do. By this means it is hoped that more women and girls will be inspired through the role models they see to aspire to being technologists too.

Two bites of the cherry

As I produce both a Podcast and a Blog I realised that I had two opportunities to get my teeth into this initiative.

Over on the Just Plain Sense Podcast you will be able to hear me interviewing a woman who, 30 years ago, made such a big impact in her field that the world would probably not have been the same today without her.

In the 1970's Lynn Conway created a methodology to unlock the potential of very large scale computer chip design and then taught a generation of electronics engineers how to do it. Those engineers then went off and created the kinds of small, light, inexpensive electronic gadgets that we take for granted today.

She literally changed the world – which certainly qualifies her for the label of a woman to admire. You can hear the two of us talking about that work here.

Few of us will be presented with the chance to change the world in such a profound way as Lynn. But you don't have to be a technological megastar to inspire. And that brings me to the subject of another friend.

Admirable Jane

Jane's job has decidedly unglamorous aspects, as you'll read in a moment. It's pretty specialist. There are few experts like her of either sex in the world. You might not even have thought about it as a technology in the same way as more obvious fields like electronics or pharmaceuticals, for instance. Her work involves being often the only woman in male environments. It's dirty at times. Even mildly dangerous.

Yet you can see from the way that Jane approaches her work – the discomforts she'll cheerily endure – that Jane loves her job. It's enthused her for over thirty years.

And, if most of us are born into this world to toil then wouldn't we all wish to be enthused in that way by what we do?

But let me explain...

The corrosion specialist

Jane Allen is a much sought-after expert in the science of things that corrode. Her business is rust. More to the point, her speciality is the way that metals rust in extreme environments, such as the hulls of merchant ships, or the airframes of jet planes. She knows about the ways that surface treatments such as painting or galvanising can impede corrosion, and the ways those forms of protection can be compromised over time.

Owners of merchant ships and airliners, plus the makers of marine and aviation paints, are equally interested in her ability to inspect and diagnose the condition of structures to see how well they are faring.

Getting down and dirty

Jane's tales of her work almost always seem to involve a phone call asking her to be somewhere else on the planet at a day's notice.

The most vulnerable parts of ocean going ships are the areas of the hull below the water line, both inside and out. Areas like the keel of a ship can only be inspected with instruments when the vessel is in dry dock. These occasions are generally brief and expensive for the owners. A chance may arise at short notice to get a ship into dry dock.

The fees for using the facility are very high, and the cost of having a large oil tanker or freighter out of service for a day more than necessary are astronomical. Owners don't want to wait a day more than necessary.

So Jane is used to throwing clothes into a bag, grabbing her passport and running for the airport to get to the place in the world where her skills are needed.

When she gets there, the working environment is not the most hospitable. She'll be crawling under the keel of a ship that weighs thousands of tons in dead weight. The surface will be covered with barnacles. Nearby, workers will be sandblasting the encrustation away. She needs to work quickly to inspect the unmodified surface to determine how well the paint has adhered, and how much metal has been corroded away.

No picnic inside

If the world underneath a large ship sounds pretty uninviting then the insides are pretty tough-sounding too.

The most vivid (and inspiring) of Jane's business travel tales concerned an occasion when she was commissioned to inspect the inside of a supertanker whilst it was crossing the Atlantic to collect its next load.

The holds of a supertanker obviously can't be inspected whilst there is oil in them. For this inspection the crew had done their best to rinse the hold with seawater. Nevertheless, when they opened an inspection hatch on deck for Jane to enter, the only way down was a single steel ladder, descending almost 200 feet from deck level to the inner hull.

Jane recounts that, in spite of the cleaning, the rungs of the ladder were still quite greasy. The massive hold was pitch dark. To enter she had to climb first over the metre-high lip of the hatch. The air was pungent. There was a risk of gas pockets. To add to the discomfort the tropical sun on the tanker's hull made it oppressively hot inside the hold for someone wearing the full hazardous environment outfit.

No Amazon

By now you're probably imagining Jane to be a tough, burly kind of woman, but you couldn't be farther from the truth.

She's about 5ft 2ins. She's very slim. Most of the time I've known her, since University days, she has sported gorgeous blond hair that falls straight almost to her waist.

When she is not crawling around hellish environments with a torch and her measuring instruments she's everything the stereotypes say a woman should be. She cooks impressively. She brings her engineering eye to dressmaking or running up curtains. She loves long hot baths with scented candles. Her taste in decoration has changed like it does for us all for the years, but it's always decidedly girly.

The point I'm labouring to make is that Jane has always inspired me by the way that she shows that a woman can have a job like this without sacrificing one iota of her natural femininity. And nobody thinks her anything less of a woman because of the things she does.

Working among men

Jane and I have also often talked about the way that her work dictates that she is almost always the only woman in an environment full of men.

To go back to the supertanker story, I was fascinated to know how she got on for several days being a woman on a ship full of the kind of men you'd expect on oil tankers.

The answer, short and simple, is that she handled it. The crew quickly got used to her being there. They knew she was there because she is very professional at what she does. And, since she didn't expect any special treatment or emphasise her sex whilst she was on board, it wasn't a problem.

A great role model

Personally I found these aspects of Jane's "get on and do it" approach, coupled with her passion for her subject, utterly inspiring.

As a role model, and totally unaware she was doing it, her matter of fact stories altered my own philosophy about what I could or could not do.

Just by living her life the way she does, Jane unwittingly became one of my most influential role models. She removed the barriers that social conditioning creates in us all until someone points the way.

Two admirable people, one lesson

Lynn and Jane are both women friends of mine with a great passion for their subjects. Some would measure them by their academic qualifications, their inventions, or the money they've made from their cleverness. Yet that would be to miss the point.

Knowing both women it's clear that a big part of the way they would define their happiness and fulfilment would be through the fun and inspiration they get out of their work.

Neither has ever set out to be successful; a star; or a role model. They're not trying to score any points for feminism. They've simply found their passion in life from the pleasure of working in the fields that they do.

And neither of them would have been able to taste the thrill in their work if they had paused for more than a second to consider whether their pursuits were proper or feasible things for a woman to do.

They're both women I admire. Superficially the admiration is for how good they are in their fields. Yet on a deeper level the admiration stems from the effects which their disregard for barriers has had for me personally.

My deep admiration comes from the fundamental effects which both women have had on my own concept of what is possible. And I hope that by doing my best to tell Lynn and Jane's stories this week, for Ada Lovelace Day, they may help inspire other women or girls to aspire to have fun with whatever area of technology catches your imagination.

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