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In the mid 1980s I was a young software engineer at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Admiral Grace Hopper in those days worked for Digital as a consultant, mostly a goodwill ambassador.

Similar to Red Hat's annual Summit conference, Digital ran an event called DECUS. And it was paired with an internal event called, imaginatively enough, Internal DECUS. Having spent two weeks installing and configuring every software product that Digital made onto a very overloaded VAX 11/730, I was hovering on the Internal DECUS show floor making sure the demos didn't crash.

Admiral Hopper was scheduled to speak in the late afternoon. I had been on the floor all day, but had arranged to sneak off to listen to her. I had no idea what to expect, all I really knew of her was that she was the COBOL pioneer. COBOL was the language of boring enterprise, while the cool coders wrote in C and Bliss and assembler.

And then appeared this thin little old lady in a Naval uniform, very formal in a room full of engineers, with sharp features and sharper wit. She immediately took charge of the room, commanding attention and telling first-hand stories of the events that had formed our world. Vibrant, irreverent, funny, passionate, she struck me as someone who could very logically dissect any request and make it concrete, a real engineer. Which was the highest praise I had.

She handed out "nanoseconds" to the crowd towards the end of her talk. The famous nanoseconds were pieces of 30 cm (11.8 in) long wire which represent the distance an electrical signal travels in a nanosecond, one billionth of a second, to demonstrate how designing smaller components could produce faster computers. I remember thinking, somewhat ashamedly, that her appearance was in no way indicative of her true self, and that stereotypes certainly did not apply.

I may still have that nanosecond, buried somewhere in a box in the basement.

Admiral Hopper was, and continues to be, an inspiration. I’m glad to be attending the upcoming Grace Hopper Celebration to remember her contributions, and to inspire others to take up her legacy and continue transforming the world of technology. If you're interested to learn more about how Grace Hopper's contributions led to today's vibrant ecosystem of higher level languages, check out the latest episode of Command Line Heroes - "Hello, World!".


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