The Moon & The Birth of Software Engineering

Written by Audrey Ling
Posted on 14 November 2016 in Coding

There are a few things in life that probably didn’t occur to us unless someone explicitly tell us about it.

We take things for granted.

It’s like how we look at Disneyland today and assume that Mr Walt Disney had waltz-ed his way to his empire. Well, he was rejected 300 times.

It’s like how JK Rowling row-ed her way to fame with her Hogwarts and the four-eyed, lightning shape scarred Harry. Well, she was once on welfare, had severe depression and contemplated suicide.

I guess, before every ra-ra that we see today, there was a long silent struggle, a lonely one without much support and a humbling experience behind every single successes and fame.

Let me introduce to you our next celebrity who had a long history of being oversighted, being called the “illegitimate stepchild”, being laughed at and being seen as nothing serious.

Say hello to “Software Engineering” – the illegitimate stepchild of Engineering. 

It’s not a person, but who said that only people can experience neglect?

Today, everyone’s talking about coding, software engineering, software development and computational thinking being a necessity to survive in the new economy.

But just half a century ago, people barely bat an eye when they hear about it.

Let me share with you, The relatively young history of Software Engineering.

Today, when we speak about software engineering or programming, we think about “Rockstar”, “Billionaire”, “Mark Zuckerberg”, “the field you should get into if you want to be a millionaire”, “…or work at Google”, “…or Facebook”, “technopreneur”, “Silicon Valley”…

Just a couple of years back, it was associated with “nerdy men”, “high-spec computers”, “fancy keyboards”. (I remembered that Computer Science students were once stereotyped as the uncool crowd).

How about 40 – 50 years ago?

People would ask you:

  • “What the heck is software engineering?”
  • “Isn’t it a woman’s job with all the punched cards and stuff?”
  • “Oh come on, calling it “engineering”? It’s not even science!”

Shocking, isn’t it?

Let’s have a chronological account of our dear friend here and talk about its struggles to have a place in this world.

The first sign of “life” started in 1800s…

The first idea of “computer” was by Charles Babbage in the 1800s. Well, he basically came up and say, “YO GUYS! I created this machine that helps you calculate stuff!”

During this period of time, Ada Lovelace fell head over heels for this fascinating machine. She saw it as an analytical engine that can develop and tabulate any functions.

This means that instead of having the machine to calculate for you, it can compute and compose. In layman’s terms, instead of playing the piano based on what the teacher tells you to, you create, compose and play your own music. That was how she saw the potential of the machine.

She wrote the first ever algorithm in her Notes to complement Babbage’s machine.

bernoulli-number-algorithm

That was in the 1800s, the project died off due to lack of funds.

War begets innovation, the 2nd sign of “life”

Then came World War II.

When there is war, you will very often find technological advancement coming along with it. When governments are desperate, they’d fund anything that can help them win the war.

Watch the movie about Alan Turing, how he played a big role in minimizing casualties during WWII by his efforts to decode the German’s Enigma. Subsequently, his Turing machine paved way for today’s Artificial Intelligence.

In the meantime, he has also influenced the development of this fancy thing called “Colossus”. These computers deciphered the German’s radio teleprinter messages and had contributed greatly during wartime.

colossus-and-the-operators

So, how did all these make way for software engineering or programming to become what it is today?

HAHA. Nothing.

Because after WWII, software engineering/ programming is back to being the lonely child shoved into the closet once more while he see his brothers being celebrated as wartime heroes.

During WWII, women were the ones doing “programming”. Fortunately or unfortunately, gender does play a role in how the masses view programming.

Furthermore, it was seen as a job that “lack complexity”. People saw it as just punched cards and paper tapes – how on earth can you call that “engineering” when people associate engineering with big machines, big tanks, big cars, big rockets?

programming-punched-cards

So you must be asking me, what changed?

Don’t be impatience. Next came the Cold War.

The superpowers of the world trying to outdo each other. USA and Soviet Union were eyeing the next big thing…

The race to the moon… and our friend got its name

apollo-11-neil-moon-landing

We all know how it turned out to be. The sight of Apollo 11 lifting off earth was an engineering feat. Neil Armstrong from USA is the first man who set foot on the moon.

That’s all we remember about moon landing.

There are more to it. The landing was failing and our friend came to the rescue.

In the 1960s, the term “software engineering” has not existed. This lady called Margaret Hamilton. was hired as one of the programmers at MIT and subsequently was involved in the Apollo space program.

She was the one who gave the name “software engineering” to our friend, and she actively used it despite receiving ridicule.

When I first got into it, nobody knew what it was that we were doing. It was like the Wild West. There was no course in it. They didn’t teach it.

– Margaret Hamilton

It was like a blank canvas and they would learn programming on the job and define what software engineering will look like.

You’ve no idea how substantial this was. It was ODDS DEFYING.

In such a prejudiced environment where “programming” was seen as a “woman’s job” (there’s no glory back in those days when people call it a ‘woman’s job’), a group of male programmers and a female programmer were defining what it meant to be a software engineer.

During the Apollo mission, what people saw with their own eyes were were punching holes in stacks of punched cards. How can punching holes help with flying to space?

That was why, this little department was not given much emphasis as compared to the other engineering teams that dealt with the big toys.

People had no idea that these men and well, a woman, were creating the very thing that made today’s world possible.

They would test their codes over and over again (imagine punching stacks and stacks of cards…) before the actual launch and only when the code is solid, the “Little Old Ladies” will thread copper wires through magnetic rings.

Here’s a clip of the “Little Old Ladies”… such a deragotory name. Can you imagine how sexist the community was back then?

Software Engineering wasn’t taken seriously until…

That amazing rocket that landed on the moon, actually had a near miss.

Apollo 11 was revered as the world’s most popular space exploration mission today because it was a breakthrough. It was the very first time we landed on the yellow round thing we stare at every night while listening to “moon river”.

The final phrase of landing was almost impossible. They wanted to abort it due to an error on the ship. Hamilton’s program kicked it and they were able to recover from the error and land safely.

Regular people do not even have any idea that programming was even involved in Apollo 11 or even the concept of software engineering itself. All they know is that NASA built a giant rocket, put people in it, and blasted it straight to the moon. People walked on moon, USA won the race.

Margaret Hamilton was granted NASA Exceptional Space Act Award for her scientific and technical contribution in 2003… after many many years.

Here’s Hamilton with her team’s stash and stash of code…

margaret-hamilton-apollo-code

Though the glory was quite a quiet one, it has created change. People started seeing its potential.

Computer science and software engineering were introduced in schools later on. Then we hear about the emergence of IBM, Microsoft, Apple… then, facebook, google etc etc. Software engineering has seen gained momentum to achieve where it is today.

It’s a Boy’s Club today… but with substantial women’s influence

Just like a lot of famous people out there, “software engineering” started with very humble beginnings and with plenty of struggle. It is like a rag to riches sorta story.

Today, people see “software engineering” as a boy’s club. In the past and even today, we can’t deny that males have dominated this scene.

But remember that behind every success, there will always be a woman.

And in the case of programming and software engineering, there were plenty of women’s touches. We have Ada Lovelace, the unnamed women who programmed during WWII, the “Little Old Ladies”, and of course, Margaret Hamilton.

From its birth, its identity to its christening was all influence by women.

The story of Apollo 11 and the code that landed the rocket on the moon.

When the ship was landing, there was a problem.

The lander’s radar had overloaded the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), and it caused an overflow in its operations.

Due to the limitation of the processing power of the AGC, it could not process information in real-time as it was being overloaded.

No real-time results = driving blindly = dangerous.

The Apollo 11 team contemplated to abort the moon landing.

Fortunately, Hamilton’s program recognised the error and reacted to the issue. It immediately started alarms, and provided the crew an emergency message on the lander’s display. The team was able to recognize the issue, which led them to landing safely on the moon.

By the way, the AGC has only 64KB of memory and has a processing power of 2.048Mhz. Our iPhones today have 16GB, 32GB, 64GB, 128GB and an iPhone 6 has a processing power of 1.4GHz (that’s like… 600x more powerful than AGC).

It wasn’t an easy task.

We have better technology today than before, but humankind hasn’t progress as fast…

Today we have it easier. Our computers have amazing processing power, we have a lot more technology available to us at our finger tips.

The possibilities are endless but we are still only fixated with the stuff that we can hold and see. Just like how people only saw the rocket, but neglected the “softer” parts of engineering.

Just like how we look at the iPhone, and yet we do not even bother to use it for something bigger.

We talk about the phone’s look and feel, yet we never talk much about how the little apps in the phone has transformed our lives.

Marc Andreessen said back in 2011, software is “eating the world”. Many people do not realise that software engineering has brought so much advancement to all industries, from agriculture to your movies you watch on NETFLIX.

Why?

That’s because we take things for granted.

Today, we could easily hear people talking about software engineering, artificial intelligence and machine learning. The possibilities are endless yet people are not exactly taking the action to truly understand how it will impact them.

People say, ignorance is bliss. You can still afford to be ignorant today, but one day, when you realise that everything around you are managed by computers and robots, it would have been too late.

Yesterday moon landing, tomorrow??

It is fortunate that almost everybody can learn programming today even without going to high school and college. You can just start small, and work your way through studying it.

With the internet alone, you can learn programming with Codecademy. If not, you can always join a coding bootcamp and pick up programming in just a matter of weeks.

And with enough mastery of coding/ programming, maybe one day, we’ll be building our own spaceships like the ones in Star Wars and Star Trek.

A far fetched idea?

After The Simpsons predicted the win of Donald Trump as President 16 years ago, this is probably not such a far fetched idea anymore.

Today we’re already talking about settling on Mars. Tomorrow… hopefully flying our own spaceships. 🙂

Does gender matters?

Back then and today, it is still such a boy’s club! Is it because software engineering is inherently a boy’s thing?

No! There is no definite gender advantage in programming.

As long as you have your passion burning and a fixed goal that you want to achieve, you can become successful with software engineering.

In just half a century, we see how our world has changed. Now both men and women are given more opportunities to pursue their dreams than ever before.

It’s time to set the gender issue aside and ask ourselves, “How can we bring more advancement to the human race?”

Knowledge is power…

If you want to know more about how else you can be a part of this ecosystem, the first step is to educate yourself.

As mentioned, there are plenty of free resources online such as Codecademy. Or if you want to join us to learn coding, do drop by NEXT Academy and check out our web development course and iOS mobile development course.

It can be your first step into the crazy world of technology.

If you would like to learn more about what other students think about us and even to listen to their stories, please feel free to check out NEXT Academy Reviews or NEXT Academy stories.

…if you want to know more about the bootcamps we have…

Be it building your MVP/ prototype or learning how to market your business, here are some resources which you should definitely check out.


Also published on Medium.


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