Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day

The O'Reilly community shares stories of inspiring women in tech. Who inspired you?

By Suzanne Axtell
October 13, 2014
Diagram for the computation of Bernoulli numbers Diagram for the computation of Bernoulli numbers (source: Wikimedia Commons)

October 14 is Ada Lovelace Day (ALD), an annual global event that recognizes not only the 19th century mathematician and aristocratic super nerd who wrote the first computer program, but other women in our community, too. ALD founder Suw Charman-Anderson’s goal is “to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering, and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire.

Supporting diversity is important to us, so we’re participating in ALD this year. We’ve compiled some stories of women in tech from O’Reilly staff and members of our extended family — you can read about them below.

Learn faster. Dig deeper. See farther.

Join the O'Reilly online learning platform. Get a free trial today and find answers on the fly, or master something new and useful.

Learn more

What women inspire you? Let us know in the comments below and/or add it to the list on Finding Ada. Also, stay tuned for news Thursday on a new O’Reilly campaign about making geek culture one that welcomes and supports everyone.

Sarah Allen

Sarah Allen

“She was my boss for a while (engineering manager at Macromedia), and I have learned so much from her. She’s also super awesome, teaching women in tech via the Ruby classes she set up all over the country … check out her about page for all the details.” — Peldi Guilizzoni

Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner

Mary Gardiner
(left) and
Valerie Aurora

“Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner are Linux hackers who decided to do something about the lack of women in the open source community and founded the Ada Initiative, which supports women in open technology and culture through activities such as producing codes of conduct and anti-harassment policies, advocating for gender diversity, teaching ally skills, and hosting conferences for women in open tech/culture.

“They have been extremely effective: hundreds of conferences have adopted codes of conduct, and they have widely presented their ally skills workshops and made the materials available online under a Creative Commons license.

“I am inspired by Val and Mary because, when they were faced with the low number of women in the open source community and the harassment of such women, they didn’t leave the field or just focus on their own careers — they created a highly effective organization to improve the environment both for women in open source and for members of marginalized groups in a broader array of environments.

“Note: Val was a winner of a 2013 O’Reilly Open Source award.” — Ellen Spertus

Rebecca (Becky) Bace

(Becky) Bace

“Becky has been around IT, especially computer security, for many years. In her years at the National Security Agency, she was responsible for many of the technology transfers that became the foundation of the computer intrusion detection field today. She also contributed to the founding of the Air Force Information Warfare Center, the FBI’s Computer Crime squads, and the COAST laboratory (now CERIAS) at Purdue University.” — David Curry

Belinda Barnet

Belinda Barnet

“Her book Memory Machines traces the early history of hypertext through one-on-one interviews that show both the depth of her knowledge in the field and her skill at finding great hidden gems in the lives and experiences of her subjects. Dr Barnet’s insights into the history of hypertext and its unfolding through the decades comes through clearly in this book and in her other related written works.

“Her research and interview skills have inspired me to learn more about a field I love and remind me that there are incredibly interesting and valuable stories to be discovered and retold for everyone to learn from. Her writing also reminds me that there is a great deal of important history and transformation in the field of hypertext that reaches not just into education and business applications, but also into literature, cultural studies, and related fields.” — Mike Amundsen

Jessica Faye Carter

Jessica Faye

“I met Jessica six years ago at an O’Reilly conference, when I was starting to put real energy into getting more women to speak at our events. She’s such an accomplished person — she has multiple advanced degrees, is an author and entrepreneur, and yet she is so approachable. When I asked her about speaking at our events, she was the first person to turn the tables on me, and challenged me to start speaking in public, too. That brief conversation had a significant effect on me and my career — it helped me “walk the walk,” and to ask others to enlist other women to speak at tech conferences. Jessica embodies the power and ripple effect that even just one role model can have in our community.” — Suzanne Axtell

Marie Curie

Marie Curie

“She was the first person in history to win two Nobel Prizes (only other person to do it was Linus Pauling). She also defined the theory of radioactivity, a discovery she died for. Her life story of fleeing Poland for France, helping her family, and charitable works is awe inspiring. She discovered two elements and developed the first treatments using radioactive isotopes.

“She made my list of the top women innovators of all time.” — Scott Berkun

Tonya Engst

Tonya Engst

“I am, of course, entirely biased, but Tonya is a perfect example of a woman in the tech world who works incredibly hard, produces top-notch results, and helps a vast number of people (with her efforts producing Take Control books). Apart from editing many books every year, she manages and schedules 20+ authors and editors, and worries regularly that she’s not spending enough time communicating with each of them. Like many women in the tech world, she juggles her work life with being a mother (and all the driving a teenager entails), volunteering with the PTA, running and biking to stay sane and in shape, and maintaining a home life. As a result, she doesn’t have time for the constant chatter and self-promotion that so many people engage in on social media to raise their visibility.” — Adam Engst

Marti Hearst

Marti Hearst

“From her base at Cal’s School of Information Management Studies, Marti’s built up the intellectual side of the big data revolution, leaving the dirty business of commercial (and governmental) exploitation to the boys. Everything you read about information technology in the business and international news sections of the New York Times in 2014 is stuff she was talking about in 1994, if not earlier.” — Sam Williams

Grace Murray Hopper

Grace Murray

“‘Amazing Grace’s’ many achievements (inventing the first compiler, COBOL, early advocacy of networks of small computers to replace mainframes) show that her brilliant intelligence was only surpassed by her ability to get things done, of which spunk was an indispensable part — as was her genius for immortal soundbites (best known: ‘It is often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission’ — but also: ‘You manage things; you lead people,’ and ‘Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, “We’ve always done it this way.” I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.’).” — Alex Martelli

“Grace Hopper has one of the clearest descriptions of what a nanosecond looks like in the form of a short piece of wire — the distance traveled by the speed of light in one nanosecond. It helped me visualize what a nanosecond means in computing and enabled me to share that same example with others.” — Paul Ferrill

“She invented the very successful programming language COBOL, is credited with discovering the first physical computer bug, and managed to achieve the rank or Rear Admiral.” — Mark Grand

“What woman working in tech today doesn’t have a little affection for Rear Admiral Dr. Hopper? She had a PhD in mathematics from Yale, joined the Navy to do her part in World War II, was a pioneer of computer programming, invented the first compiler, and helped develop the COBOL language. That’s hardcore. But as a Missing Manuals author for 10 years, the thing I love about her most was that she wrote the documentation for Harvard’s Mark I computer in the 1940s — the Manual of Operations for the Automatic Sequence-Controlled Calculator. It was 500 pages, probably one of the first computer books out there, and you know that thing had to have helped out quite a few early adopters. Knowledge is power.” — J.D. Biersdorfer



“Hypatia was almost certainly a universal genius, on the level of da Vinci, von Leibniz, or Goethe. She was the last head librarian of the great Library of Alexandria, including its laboratories and research facilities, before its destruction in 391 CE. She can be considered one of the first scientists and may well have anticipated by more than a thousand years the scientific method in her teaching of logic and mathematical analysis as applied to natural phenomena. It is likely that she understood the concept of elliptical orbits and a heliocentric solar system a thousand years before Kepler.

“This quote sums up her respect for evidence and her contempt for false-truth claims: ‘Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fantasies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them.’” — Robert Bruce Thompson

Liane’s Mom

“Her name I don’t know. I knew her as Liane’s mom, or Mrs. Pritikin.

“Liane was my best friend in high school, and I spent a lot of time at her house. Her mom wrote code for some classified project, something government related. She would talk about the puzzles and about code (even about the punch cards they were finally phasing out). She liked her job more than my mom liked her drafting job. Liane’s mom enjoyed being smart and successful. She wanted the same for us.

“She was a software engineer before I knew the term. She didn’t talk about harassment at work or being a woman in technology. She went to work, came home tired, and helped her daughter’s friend with physics homework.

“When Liane’s mom passed away, I cried. It was a loss. Is it too late to thank her for setting me on my path in technology?” — Elecia White

Pattie Maes

Pattie Maes

“As the advisor for Firefly (previously Ringo) at MIT, she could be considered one of the ‘inventors’ of big data — that project pioneered use of recommender systems for Internet web apps. That was a long while ago, and there have been so many inspirational projects since. I cannot find any reference of large scale use of machine learning on the Internet prior to Firefly.” — Paco Nathan

Alice Marwick

Alice Marwick

“Alice is a researcher and author of Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity & Branding in the Social Media Age (Yale 2013), a brilliant and insightful ethnography of the use of social media within the Bay Area technology community, and how these practices and value systems propagate out to the rest of the world.” — Scott Murray

Jennifer Pahlka

Jennifer Pahlka

“Teach a man to code, and he’ll get a job at Google. Teach 100 young men and women to code and send them out to cities all over the country, and they will change how our government works. Ada’s big contribution to society was inspiration and Jen is inspiring a generation.” — Carl Malamud

Kellyn Pot’vin

Kellyn Pot’Vin

“Kellyn Pot’Vin is the consulting member for the technical staff on the Strategic Customer Program for Enterprise Manager Group of Oracle. She specializes in environment optimization tuning and creating systems that are robust and enterprise level. She is also focused on WIT (Women in Technology) programs, currently running the WIT SIG for Rocky Mountain Oracle Users Group (RMOUG) and led a large number of WIT sessions in the US and Europe.” — Steven Feuerstein

Pamela Samuelson


“She has done more than anyone to bridge the gap between lawyers and technologists by explaining legal issues in a respectful manner rather than a patronizing one. She has worked for decades to advance the public interest in technology, writing dozens of articles about legal concerns for technologists, writing amicus briefs in important legal cases, and in training law students to bring good values to their work.” — Bob Glushko

Karen Sandler

Karen Sandler

“Karen came to the open source movement from a high-powered career at some of the most prestigious law firms in the United States. She has become instrumental in open source as the former executive director of the GNOME Foundation, former general counsel at the Software Freedom Law Center, and now executive director of the newly formed Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC).

“Through the SFC, Karen helps open source projects navigate IP law and other sticky issues. What strikes me is how she continues to be accessible and exceptionally friendly.” — Josh Simmons

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley

“Mary Shelley (1797–1851), the daughter of feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and wife of poet Percy Shelley, published Frankenstein in 1818. She was 20. So what’s so inspiring about Mary’s accomplishment? The essentially self-educated writer contributed one of the first works of science fiction — which also became one of the first bestselling books published by a woman. The cautionary tale about the limits of artificial life earned Mary a permanent place in literary history. And Frankenstein still serves as a spooky possibility as we venture into our technological futures.” — Sara Peyton

Kathy Sierra

Kathy Sierra

“Back in the early web days, she was one of the few people talking about making software work better for people, and explaining how to do it. She provided so many great ideas and departure points for product design. She made me think.” — Mark Madsen

Jeni Tenison

Jeni Tennison

“Jeni never fails to surprise me with her insight. Also, I am always astounded by the amount that she manages to achieve. Apart from being a technical leader in several fields, she is a thoroughly lovely and down-to-earth person.” — Adam Retter

Klara Dan von Neumann

Klara Dan von

“In December 1945, she visited her husband, John von Neumann, at Los Alamos, where he was working out how to program the nascent ENIAC to perform the calculations to design the hydrogen bomb. John took advantage of her intelligence to treat her as a guinea-pig, and she became one of the first programmers. [From Turing’s Cathedral:]’I learned how to translate algebraic equations into numerical forms, which in turn then have to be put into machine language in the order in which the machine has to calculate it…’ She enjoyed this work immensely, and ‘became one of the first ‘coders’.’

“She was not merely a coding monkey, however; she understood the ENIAC’s architecture very deeply and precisely, devised many expert techniques for improving a program’s efficiency, and became equally important as a teacher of others who wanted to use this and other early computers. I am old enough to have written machine code and to have used drum-based, slow computers where the exact placement of values in memory is crucial to efficiency, and I know just how she must have felt while programming — the way all of us feel, I hope. She was never publicly recognized for her place in computer history, and never ultimately found a life that was up to her intellectual and emotional gifts; she died by drowning, perhaps through suicide. She is a great unsung pioneer of the computer age.” — Matt Neuburg

Brianna Wu

Brianna Wu

“Awesome developer (Revolution 60) fighting the good fight for equality of women in tech and gaming.” — David E. Wheeler

Post topics: Software Engineering