The Stack Overflow Podcast

Extending the legacy of Admiral Grace Hopper

Episode Summary

In this episode, we talk with Quincy Brown, the head of programs at and former computer science professor. This organization supports women in engineering and organizes the Grace Hopper Celebration, while providing scholarships, advocacy, and policy support for women in engineering.

Episode Notes

In 1987, Anita Borg,'s namesake, saw how few women were at a "systems" conference. A few casual chats turned into the listserv, Systers, which continues to offer a place for women in engineering to meet and discuss. 

Grace Hopper—that's Navy Rear Admiral Hopper to you, civilian—was the first to devise a theory of programming languages that were machine-independent. She created the FLOW-MATIC programming language, which served as the basis for COBOL

Quincy started in electrical engineering and learned FORTRAN. That experience with how computers operate on hardware helped her teach C++. The difference is like listening to vinyl vs. mp3s. 

Should UX designers create technology that you need to adapt to or adapts to you? And will different generations create different interaction paradigms?

We're out of lifeboat badges, so we summoned a Necromancer winner! Congrats to stealth who was awarded the badge for their answer to the question, Adding multiple columns in MySQL with one statement.

Episode Transcription

Quincy Brown: How much we adapt to the technology versus how much you know, they create technology that is more adaptive to us. So those are the kinds of things I think about.

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Ben Popper: Big Tech has advantages in budget and resources when it comes to building powerful infra, right? With CockroachDB, you can now build on top of that! The founders came from Google and basically built open source Spanner - but with a serverless option you can use for free at!

BP: Hello everybody, welcome to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk about software technology, computer science, all the good things. I am here today with Quincy Brown the head of programs at So for people who don't know, tell us what is AnitaB?

QB: Yeah, so AnitaB, is the formal name of the organization, is named after Anita Borg. And she founded the organization back in the early 80s. She was at a conference. And there were very few women at the conference, they met, you know, not intentionally, but they ended up having conversation in the ladies room, and decided that they would, you know, keep in touch. And they created a listserv called Systers and the organization grew out of Systers. So that Systers is a still an online community using a mailman list server. And there are over 10,000 members of sisters. And so out of that, you know, really became an understanding of the need for connection and community and support. And the organization has grown out of that. Each year we organize the Grace Hopper celebration, so many people know us by the name of the conference. And that is named after Admiral Grace Hopper. 

BP: And so the gatherings obviously a great chance to meet to network to learn from one another to build a support system. What else, you know, do you do? It says the head of programs. So what kind of programs are you running at AnitaB these days?

QB: So we have a membership program. So that launched last summer. So we're coming up on a year that we there are a lot of webinars resources, there's a discussion forum. So there's a lot of community and connections to be made over the over and membership. We also have scholarships. So we offer scholarships that include registration, I guess, right now, not necessarily travel, but typically we include travel to attend for most generally students, but some faculty, some people from boot camps, and you know, community colleges, we provide support for them to attend to participate in our conferences. We also have an apprenticeship program. So we are kind of doing that pilot now with Intuit. And that's, that's been going incredibly well with 11 women who have taken some courses, and are now doing kind of an internship at the company. Let's see, what else do we do, we do work in the academic space. And so we have an academic Advisory Committee, who we work with throughout the year in thinking through ways we can support students, faculty. We do work in the policy space, there's a big list, we do work in the policy space where we do some policy and advocacy around equal pay, around pay equity, around workplace anti harassment and maternity leave policy, those kinds of things that really are needed to support women.

BP: And on your bio here on AnitaB, it says you're also professor of CS at Bowie State University. So maybe tell us a little bit about how you got into the world of software. And then we can talk a little about what it's like to teach it these days.

QB: Yeah, so I will I'm not a professor anymore. But I can still talk about teaching. But I grew up in the Bronx, New York, I was really jazzed about electrical engineering. So I started my work in this space. And as an electrical engineer, I went to North Carolina AT State University for engineering to engineering and didn't do a lot of software. I took a an assembly course, right, some programming at that level, took a Fortran course. And that was all that I can remember. It's been a while. All that I remember of a formal programming education. But then when I went into industry, I started at working at Texas Instruments that became Raytheon in Dallas, Fort Worth area, and was writing test scripts and doing test software for hardware. So that's kind of how I got into the software side of things, and decided to go to graduate school and got my Master's and PhD in computer science. And that's when I formally switched to computing and discovered that my limited electrical engineering self, I really didn't know what computer science was until I became a computer science major.

BP: And so yeah, I mean, I think Fortran and assembly is going to give you, you know, a lot of great insight about what happens at the lower level, you know, close to the metal, especially also, as you're saying doing testing, then you went to study computer science, and it kind of opened your eyes to, right, some of the more theoretical or algorithmic applications. And then you went into teaching it. When you were teaching CS, were there things that you felt like you knew, based on your electrical engineering background that you could bring to that, that maybe students weren't expecting or, you know, give them some sort of grounding on the EE side that can help on the CS side?

QB: It did. It did. I taught C++, so I wasn't teaching that. But it really, having the the hardware experience and understanding of what happens at the chip level, like it registers really helps when you talk about like, digital and binary, right, like what that really means, right? I've given analogies to students about, you know, listening to records, right old school records on the record player, and hearing, you know, hearing the sound that way, right, is very analog compared to have it, you know, coming through your phone or some other way that's been digitized, right. And so you can, there's a richness of sound that I think I would say is missing, that you just can't get when you're not on vinyl. 

BP: Especially if you're vinyl snob like me.

QB: Yes. But yeah, so it's really, you know, being able to do that, and then really talk about what's you know, just what's happening under the hood, right? Just knowing that in a way, that's a lot deeper when you're when you've got the electrical engineering, and the hardware piece is part of your training, I think was really helpful for me, in my career.

BP: And so I saw here on that same bio, that you had a couple of areas of focus mobile, HCI, I feel like human, you know, computer interaction, something we don't talk enough about on the podcast, but something that now somebody who spends his days, you know, sitting in front of a computer, but also has kids, you know, in elementary school who are learning to use their tablets, that I think a lot about. When you say mobile HCI, sort of was there a specific area you focused on there?

QB: When I was doing my dissertation work, I did it on Palm Pilot. So this was pre iPhone, right? This is, you know, super old school just was, you know, kind of looking at more of behavior modeling. So that's what I did my dissertation work on. And I remember when the iPhone first came out, right, my adviser had one. And was, you know, I was fascinated with, you know, the touch and gesture interaction, and really started to think about how, you know, the people who are designing, right, the phones, the gesture, the gesture touch interactions, the recognizers are designing them for you know, a little bit themselves, right, the people who are kind of their age group, right, they're their peers. And as those devices became more ubiquitous, to your point, younger people started using them. Right. And I started to wonder, well, you know, do young people, young children, are they able to have as much success with touching gesture on these devices as say, adults, right, because they were designed for young children. And then I also started to think about what happens on the other end, do older older people, people with mobility issues, are they able to, to use the devices, right, the touching gesture interactions with the same rates of success as levels of success and recognition as, as younger people? And then I also wondered, and time will tell on this part. But you know, we'll the people who as the people who are creating these devices and the technologies age, and experience some of these various levels of abilities themselves, will they be, will they create different devices and technology?

BP: Right. That's really interesting. Actually, just before this started, my Mac had downloaded the latest version of the OS overnight. And when I started it up, there was a whole panel to sort of guide you through various sort of like new features around accessibility, and to like, allow you to give the machine a little bit of input on like, this is, you know, where I might be right, as you said, not aligned with the center. So that was kind of cool. I'd never seen that before. It was nice to see Apple focusing on that.

QB: Yeah, yeah. So well, like I said, time, time will tell about how these devices will continue to—it's also I'm curious as you know, your kind of your children's their their growth, and also growth with, with technology, but how much we adapt to the technology versus how much you know, they create technology that is more adaptive to us. So those are the kinds of things I think about.

BP: So let's keep that theme but change up a little bit, you know, reading through some of your bio here, you know, it seems clear that both AnitaB and then a lot of the other work that you did in STEM education, My Brother's Keeper STEM plus initiatives,, is about, yeah, helping communities that may traditionally not have been at the center of the CS or software industry, or, you know, obviously, we know from Stack Overflow from our user base, you know, that diversity and equity and inclusion is something the tech industry has a lot of work to do. So, I guess, yeah, over the last five or 10 years, you know, what kinds of things have you seen that have been encouraging or discouraging? And, you know, what are you doing, I guess, you know, within the organizations you work with now, to try to find ways to bring more people from these communities that were not traditionally as involved in software into that world?

QB: So over the past year, I've been, I guess, both encouraged and slightly discouraged. I feel as though I've had conversations about diversity, equity inclusion, these past 12 months then that you just didn't have before, right? There's a level of awareness that some people, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt word just didn't have a year ago or a year and a half ago. And so there's some discourse that's kind of out there that wasn't there before. Right? So that to me is encouraging because I don't think you can really address issues, if you don't, you know, if you can't discuss them,

BP: You know, it's really interesting. One thing that I've really been noticing that feels like it might be a sea change is we had this, you know, year that was a shock to the system that, you know, was tragic and tragically is still going on for people in many regions. And now as people try to, you know, sort of readjust and then get get back to, you know, reality to get back to normal, a lot of people are saying, no thanks, like, I'm not really interested in going back to this minimum wage job where I'm putting my health on the line, and I'm not getting a lot of benefits. And you know, there's a lot of push and pull about, well, should we be taking away the benefits we gave, and people will need to go back to work. But I do think a lot of people maybe have realized working remotely, some of the options that are available to them, especially in this sector, you know, there's been this incredible surge of online certifications and boot camps, that can give you some really valuable skills in the span of six weeks to, you know, three months. And so that's a really interesting thing to think to see that people have new onramps to this industry and these careers, and maybe are starting to avail themselves of that, in part because everything has gone remote, right? Like it used to be, you wanted to get into the world of software or CS, well you had to figure out how to get into one of those companies or go to a school and like, do a full degree, you know, now you can get a certificate in a career at AWS or Azure or Google Cloud or Salesforce or observability in six weeks and have these skills that are in high demand. So it's kind of a cool new paradigm that maybe is emerging, not to say that it will fix all the problems right away, far from it. But maybe there's some new options for people to find ways into the industry, even if they don't have access to that sort of full, you know, four year, two year CS education.

QB: Absolutely. As a professor, it's hard for me to say absolutely. But I do absolutely agree. Absolutely. I mean, we need all the paths, right? There's enough work, and Enough, enough, enough challenges to go around. And so I think we need as many people engaged and putting forth their best towards addressing those challenges and those ideas and that workforce has to come from everywhere.


BP: At the end of every episode, what I do is I shout out the winner of a lifeboat badge. That's somebody who came on Stack Overflow, and answered a question that had a score of negative three and got it up to a high score. But we've had so many podcast guests in the last few weeks that we're all out of lifeboats, so if you're listening to this, go throw a lifeboat up. In the meantime, I will read a necromancer badge, someone who came on Stack Overflow and answered a question that was more than 60 days old, so they came on and helped out an old question. Today, I will be giving it to stealth, award at 22 minutes ago 'adding multiple columns in MySQL with one statement.' Alright, if you want to know how to do it, the answer will be in the show notes. I am Ben Popper. I'm the director of content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me on Twitter @BenPopper. You can always reach us and if you enjoy the show, please do leave a rating and review on the podcast platform of your choice. It really helps. Quincy, tell people who you are, what it is you do and where you can be found on the internet if you want to be found.

QB: Yeah, so for you can, it's just You can find us online. If you go to any search engine and add the word 'membership'. You'll find our membership you can join and become a member. And so we'd love to have to have all the listeners, you know people of all genders, and all race, ethnicity, everyone is welcome to be part of our membership program. And so I invite you all to do that. You can find me on Twitter. Not terribly often. I'm a great retweeter, not too good at original content. The number of characters, it stresses me out. It stresses me out. So I'm @QuincyKBrown is where you can find me online.

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