Part 2 of 2
We’re picking up on the first part of ‘The Silent Contributors of Millennial Culture’ by spotlighting another four women whose technical work has contributed to the culture we know today.
Personal Computers: Mary Allen Wilkes
Imagine having to go to a library or internet cafe every time you have to use a computer. Without personal computers, where would we be? The internet, tech industries and jobs where people could work from home or remotely would not exist. Would online shopping exist or be where it is today? Imagine processing your banking transactions, inputting personal information, or trading your cryptocurrencies on a public computer. The lack of security in processing these transactions with sensitive information on a public computer is cringe-worthy to anyone. If it wasn’t for Mary Allen Wilkes, this could’ve been our reality.
Mary Allen Wilkes is best known for her design of the interactive operating system LAP6 for the LINC (Laboratory INstrument Computer), one of the earliest systems for the personal computer.¹ Not only was she the first person to create the ‘personal computer’, she was the first person to have and use a personal computer in her home.² Although computer programming was male-dominant at the time, she decided to pursue the a career in the field because it was open to women and on a dare from her geography teacher. After graduating Wellesley College, she worked at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory from 1959 to 1963.²
The struggles that Wilkes faced were mainly technical, because she had no prior training in coding — like many others in computing at the time.⁴ Although she quickly became a programming whiz, her codes often didn’t produce the result she wanted. Her background in psychology and experience symbolic logic which involves creating arguments and inferences by stringing together and/or statements in ways that resembles coding helped her career. In 1972, after leaving her mark, Wilkes left computer science and entered the Harvard University law school and went on to become an attorney in Cambridge, Massachusetts despite being discouraged by friends and colleagues to pursue law because of the challenges women faced in the field.⁵
‘Google-ing’: Karen Spärck Jones
How many times have you been stumped with a question at school or work and googled the answer? Need a new recipe? Looking for a new product? For the latest news? Don’t know something? Google it. We give a lot of credit to the search engine, but Karen Spärck Jones pioneered techniques that allow people to work with computers using ordinary words instead of equations or codes, a breakthrough that was important in the subsequent development of search engines.
Karen Spärck Jones, (August 26, 1935 – April 4, 2007) the recipient of the Ada Lovelace award in 2017, was a school teacher before going into computer science. One of her most important contributions was the concept of inverse document frequency (IDF) weighting in information retrieval, which she introduced in a 1972 paper.⁶ IDF helps score and rank a document’s importance in response to a user’s query, which is why the most relevant results are served to you in a search query. IDF is still used in most search engines today.
Although Jones was never discriminated, it took courage and tenacity to develop a leading academic career at a time when society’s expectations of women went little beyond their roles as wives and mothers. Throughout her career, Jones often campaigned for more women to join the computing field.
Hybrid Car Batteries: Annie Easley
Millennials are creating a demand for sustainable products, including electric and hybrid vehicles.⁷ When surveyed by Nielsen, 73% of millennials said they’d be willing to spend a little bit more on a product if they knew it was coming from an eco-friendly brand, compared to just 66% of the general public. Without the work of Annie Easley, eco-friendly vehicles may not have existed.
Annie Easley (April 23, 1933 — June 25, 2011) was a computer scientist, mathematician, and rocket scientist. She started her career as a ‘human computer’ after reading an article about twin sisters who worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). She was one out of four African-American employees at ‘The Lab’. Throughout her 34 year career, she contributed to a number of programs including developing and implemented code used in researching energy-conversion systems and analyzing alternative power technology-the battery technology used for early hybrid vehicles and the Centaur upper-stage rocket.⁸
Easley never set out to be a pioneer, she wanted to simply get the job done and believed in her ability. Even in the face of discrimination, she persevered. When ‘human computers’ were replaced with machines, Easley evolved with the technology, becoming a computer programmer using languages like the Formula Translating System (Fortran) and the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) to support NASA’s programs. She was also known her outreach programs with NASA — informing students about NASA’s work and inspiring female and minority students to consider careers in STEM. A champion of employee morale Easley was a team player, always emphasizing her appreciation and admiration for her colleagues.
User Interface and Intuitive Design: Susan Kare
The technology we interact with has been more intuitive than ever, and this change was influenced by Millennials. Millennials are the first digitally native generation and is the largest generation in American history, therefore they have large and increasing purchase power.⁹ If a brand wants to reach a younger audience, the user interface and design of the product has to be intuitive and aesthetically pleasing.¹⁰ Apple is an influential leader of UI — users don’t feel like they’re just looking at a screen, they feel as if they’re interacting with a whole world beyond it.¹¹ Susan Kare is responsible for some of Apple’s signature graphics to this day.
Susan Kare is an American artist and graphic artist who created many interface elements and typefaces for the Apple Macintosh in the 1980’s. Kare joined Apple Computers after receiving a call from Andy Hertzfeld to design the user interface graphics and fonts. Kare developed the idea that the graphics should be easily readable symbols that correlate to real world objects. Some iconic symbols she designed were the Apple clock, the pointer finger, the trash can and the command key which was inspired by a Swedish symbol for a castle.¹² After Apple, she went on to work as a designer for NeXT, Microsoft, Facebook and Pinterest. As of 2010, she heads a digital design practice in San Francisco and sells limited-edition, signed fine-art prints.
The challenges Kare faced revolved around her work experience. At the beginning of her career at Apple, she was faking it until she made it. She had never designed a computer icon or a typeface before, so she just winged it, never imagining that her work at Apple would become so revolutionary.¹³ MoMA honoured her work by adding her original Apple sketches to their permanent collection. “Design is for everyone, and Kare’s success proves that not only is great design universal, it often happens in spite of things like credentials and direct experience.” — John Brownlee in an article for Fast Company.¹⁴
The technical contributions of these women has changed how Millennials are using computers, find information and user interface design of everything from technology, products, websites and applications. User Interface was especially important when it came to designing the STK Mobile Wallet. “The overall user experience of blockchain and cryptocurrency has been notoriously unintuitive and unfriendly for average users. The space is filled with all jargons exclusive to people who are deeply passionate in the technology. It presented us a new realm of challenges. The wallet was designed to be intuitive and easy to use regardless of whether the user is new or experienced with crypto.” — Joanna Chen, STK UX Designer.
That’s it for our ‘The Silent Contributors of Millennial Culture’ mini series for Women in Tech. The contributions of these women have not only shaped Millennial Culture but the technology that allows cryptocurrencies to exist. We’ve since been able to build on the fundamentals of what they’ve built, enabling technology and blockchain to thrive. Is there someone else that has contributed to Millennial Culture that we should spotlight? Let us know what you think in the comments below!