Ada Lovelace: The First Computer Programmer

There was a lively conversation on the subject of innovation at South by Southwest last week with Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Google, Megan Smith, CTO, U.S. Government and Walter Isaacson, CEO, The Aspen Institute and author of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, And Geeks Created The Digital Revolution. What started out as a general conversation on innovation and innovators turned its focus to one of the core issues facing innovation in technology and the venture market, which is the underrepresentation of women in the technology and the venture industries.

Here is the challenge for tech and venture industries.

According to statistics cited by Isaacson the percentage of women in the computer science and tech fields has declined from 34% in 1980 to 13% in 2015. While college enrollment by women is 58% as compared to 42% for men, why has interest in computer science and technology declined over the last thirty-five years? Women are attending colleges in greater numbers, running businesses and governments yet only 3% of women led businesses get venture funding. How can our economy continue to innovate and grow when we are uninvesting in one of the most productive and proven growth sectors of the economy?

How did we get here?

Children as they are growing up tend to model themselves after people that they admire. Where are the roles models for women in computer science and technology? The short answer is everywhere. There are women who are entrepreneurs, who invented computer programming, pioneered the use of radiation in the field of medicine and made the critical calculations that resulted in man walking on the moon. Where are their stories?

Here is the solution.

Walter Isaacson featured the story of Ada Lovelace in his book on innovators and spoke about her in the panel discussion. While many people have read about Lord Byron a poet, who exerted considerable influence on the Romantic Movement, his biggest contribution may have been his daughter Ada Byron who later became Ada Lovelace, Countess of Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace showed a genius for math from an early age. Ada’s mother made sure that she had the best tutors in mathematics and science. Ada met Charles Babbage, a mathematician, inventor and father of the computer, when she was 17 in 1832. Babbage invented the difference engine, which was created to perform mathematical calculations and also created plans another device known as the analytical engine, designed to handle more complex calculations.
Ada worked with Babbage in the explanation of his invention and is considered to be the first computer programmer. She described how codes could be created for the device to handle letters and symbols along with numbers. Ada also theorized a method for the engine to repeat a series of instructions, a process known as looping that computer programs use today. Ada was more than a century ahead of the computers and yet, how many people know about the story of Ada Lovelace.
I believe the first step to improving the representation of women in technology and the venture markets is to create awareness and role models for all to see. Ada Lovelace is a good place to start.