Hacking the Glass Ceiling


 As we approach International Women’s Day this week and edge closer to the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage (okay, four years to go, but still, a remarkable moment), and as news and current events are sometimes focused on the negative facts and statistics related to the field of women and technology and especially women and venture capital, I feel particularly grateful to be working at Endgame- a technology company that has an amazing cast of phenomenal women—from our developers to scientists to business minds. Our team—not just our leadership, but our entire company- is dynamic and diverse. Of course, Endgame is not alone. At the Montgomery Summit, a technology conference that takes place March 9th-11th in Los Angeles, there is a session devoted to Female Founders of technology companies. I am thrilled to be taking part in this event, which highlights a group of remarkable women who have founded and are leading tech companies in a diverse set of industries.

As a prelude to the conference and the celebration of International Women’s Day, and in hopes of encouraging more girls to embrace the STEM disciplines in school and pursue a career in technology, I want to highlight some amazing women who have dedicated their lives to making a difference—as technologists and as entrepreneurs, because there is true cause for inspiration.

The list of technology heroines is long and hard to winnow. So many have dedicated their lives and technical genius to service and solving some of our hardest problems, especially in the field of security- cyber, information and national security. Many will never be acknowledged publicly, but below are a few who can be:

• Professor Dorothy Denning is not only teaching and working with the next generation of security vanguards at the Naval Postgraduate School, but she is also credited with the original idea of IDS back in 1986.

• Chien-Shiung Wu, the first female professor in Princeton’s physics department, earned a reputation as a pioneer of experimental physics, not only by disproving a “law” of nature (the Law of Conservation of Parity), but also in her work on the Manhattan Project. Wu’s discoveries earned her colleagues the Nobel Prize in physics.

• Lene Hau is Danish physicist who literally stopped light in its tracks. This critical process of manipulating coherent optical information by sharing information in light-form has important implications in the fields of quantum encryption and quantum computing.

• There are many visionary entrepreneurs like Sandy Lerner, co-founder of CISCO, Joan Lyman, co-founder of SecureWorks, and Helen Greiner, co-founder of iRobot and CEO of CyPhyWorks, who work tirelessly and brilliantly to deliver the solutions necessary to keep the world, and the people in it, safe.

• Window Snyder, a security and privacy specialist at Apple, Inc., significantly reduced the attack surface of Windows XP during her tenure at Microsoft, which led to a new way of thinking about threat modeling. She has many contemporaries who have also broken with stereotype and are having tremendous impact in making the technologies we interact with safer. Women like Jennifer Lesser Henley who heads up security operations at Facebook, and Katie Moussouris, Chief Policy Officer at HackerOne.

If we look further back in history, the list of amazing women in technology gets even longer. Many of the names may even surprise you:

• Ada Lovelace: The world’s first computer programmer and Lord Byron’s daughter (“She walks in Beauty, like the night/ Of cloudless climes and starry skies;/ And all that’s best of dark and bright/ Meet in her aspect and her eyes”), she has a day, a medal, a competition and most notably, a Department of Defense language named after her. Ada, the computer language, is a high-level programming language used for mission-critical applications in defense and commercial markets where there is low tolerance for bugs. And herein lies the admittedly tenuous connection to security– despite being a cumbersome language in some ways, “Ada churns out less buggy code” and buggy code remains the Achilles’ heel of security

• Hedy Lamarr: A contract star during MGM’s Golden Age, Hedy Lamarr was “the most beautiful woman in films,” an actress, dancer, singer, and dazzling goddess. She was also joint owner of US Patent 2,292,387, a secret communication system (frequency hopping) that serves as the basis for spread-spectrum communication technology, secure military communications, and mobile phone technology (CDMA). Famous for her quote, “Any girl can look glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid,” Hedy Lamarr’s legacy is that of a stunningly beautiful woman who refused to stand still. Thankfully, her refusal to accept society’s chosen role for her resulted in a very significant contribution to secure mobile communications.

• Rear Admiral Grace Hopper: Also known as the Grand Lady of Software, Amazing Grace, Grandma COBOL, and Admiral of the Cyber Sea, say hello to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, a “feisty old salt who gave off an aura of power.” She was a pioneer in information technology and computing before anyone knew what that meant. Embracing the unconventional, Admiral Grace believed the most damaging phrase in the English language is “We’ve always done it this way,” and to bring the point home, the clock in her office ran counterclockwise. Grace Hopper invented the first machine independent computer language and literally discovered the first computer “bug.” Hopper began her career in the Navy as the first programmer of the Mark I computer, the mechanical miracle of its day. The Mark I was a five ton, fifty foot long, glass-encased behemoth — a scientific miracle at the time, made of vacuum tubes, relays, rotating shafts and clutches with a memory for 72 numbers and the ability to perform 23-digit multiplication in four seconds. It contained over 750,000 components and was described as sounding like a “roomful of ladies knitting.” Unable to balance a checkbook (as she jokingly described herself), Hopper changed the computer industry by developing COBOL (common-business-oriented language), which made it possible for computers to respond to words rather than numbers. Admiral Hopper is also credited with coining the term “bug” when she traced an error in the Mark II to a moth trapped in a relay. The bug was carefully removed and taped to a daily log book- hence the term “computer bug” was born.

There is also a group of women who helped save the world with the work they did in cryptology/cryptanalysis during World War I and World War II. There were thousands of female scientists and thinkers who helped ensure Allied victory. I will only highlight a few, but they were emblematic of the many.

• Agnes Meyer Driscoll: Born in 1889, the “first lady of cryptology” studied mathematics and physics in college, when it was very atypical for a woman to do so. Miss Aggie, as she was known, was responsible for breaking a multitude of Japanese naval manual codes (the Red Book Code of the ‘20s, the Blue Book Code of the ‘30s, and the JN-25 Naval codes in the ‘40s) as well as a developer of early machine systems, such as the CM cipher machine.

• Elizebeth Friedman: Another cryptanalyst pioneer, with minimal mathematical training, she was able to decipher coded messages regardless of the language or complexity. During her career, she deciphered messages from ships at sea (during the Prohibition era, she deciphered over 12,000 rum-runner messages in a three-year period) to Chinese drug smugglers. An impatient, opinionated Quaker with a disdain for stupidity, she spent the early part of her career working as a hairdresser, a seamstress, a fashion consultant, and a high school principal. Her love of Shakespeare took her to Riverbank Laboratories, the only U.S. facility capable of exploiting and solving enciphered messages. There she worked on a project to prove that Sir Francis Bacon had authored Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets using a cipher that was supposed to have been contained within. She eventually went to work for the US government where she deciphered innumerable coded messages for the Coast Guard, the Bureau of Customs, the Bureau of Narcotics, the Bureau of Prohibition, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and the Department of Justice.

• Genevieve Grotjan: Another code breaker whose discovery in September 1940, a correlation in a series of intercepted Japanese coded messages, changed the course of history and allowed the U.S. Navy to build a “Purple” analog machine to decode Japanese diplomatic messages. This allowed Allied forces to continue reading coded Japanese missives throughout World War II. Prior to Grotjan's success, the Purple Code had proved so hard to break that William Friedman, the chief cryptologist at the US Army Signal Corps (and Elizebeth Friedman’s husband), suffered a breakdown trying to break it. So as we approach International Women’s Day and as we reflect on the many amazing women who have made a difference throughout history, I hope everyone joins me in celebrating these stories, finding inspiration, and most importantly, sharing that inspiration with the next generation in the hopes that they, too, might find themselves in the position of using their intellect, their skills, and their spirit to change the world for the better.