My granny is a programmer

Posted by Mariia Mykhailova on June 6, 2012

I'm a third-generation female programmer: my grandmother was the first programmer in the family, my mother followed the example, and now I continue the tradition. My granny's career started half a century ago in the Soviet Union; and here is her story.

1954-1959. Higher education

Grandmother was born in Dneprodzerzhinsk, a city in Central Ukraine. To get a proper higher education, she had to relocate to another city; after consulting the enrollee's reference book which listed all universities, departments and majors she chose Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv and moved to Kyiv. Enrollment competition used to be severe in those days, but Grandmother graduated from high school with honors (called "silver medal" in Soviet countries), and thus had to pass only a brief interview.

The Faculty of Cybernetics wasn't created until 1969; meanwhile it was the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics that trained professionals in mathematics and theoretical physics, and later programmers. The students chose their major after two years of studies. My granny's year was the first one in which one could major in "computational mathematics". The curriculum included some brand-new theoretical courses: programming, design of analog and digital computers, computational methods (mostly methods of solving differential equations and linear algebra problems) etc. The lectures were attended not only by students, but also by employees of the Computational Center of the Academy of Science of Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic - often there was no other source of this advanced knowledge.

The list of courses as given in degree certificate (in Ukrainian)

Getting practical training was trickier. The computers (called "electronical computing machines" in those days) were very large and expensive, and the university couldn't afford one. That's why during the school year the studies focused on theoretical topics, and in summer the students went to places which had computers for an internship.

Grandmother spent the summer after the third year of studies at Kiev Institute of Electrotechnology which had a computer called MESM. Of course, the students didn't work on real-life problems. Actually, I strongly suspect that MESM staff would prefer to deny students from working on the computer itself: at the very beginning of the internship some compassionate student took pity of the unkempt device and dusted it. After this the contacts of all dusted tubes distuned and had to be tuned again. The students spent time doing training tasks, including "game development" - a student chose a game, typically something like Tic-tac-toe, read through magazines which described the algorithms of the game and coded them. After this he or she could submit the program to be executed on the computer and get back its output to check how it did.

After the fourth year Grandmother went to Moscow for an internship at Moscow State University, which had a computer of its own - Strela. The tasks solved there were more serious but still educational ones, mostly from linear algebra.

At about that time the Western world witnessed creation of the first high-level programming languages - Algol and Fortran. Kiev computing community learned about them from Glushkov's lectures, but they weren't used until much later. Meanwhile all programs were written in computer-dependent machine codes.

1959 - 1965. The Computational Center of the Academy of Science of Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic

After graduation Grandmother joined the Computational Center - first as an engineer, then as a senior engineer and finally as a lead engineer. At those times the Center employed about 300 people: programmers, technicians, analog computers specialists (most people worked with digital computers) and testers who checked program results against results obtained by hand using Rheinmetalls (German electromechanical computing machines).

Some of these people were busy with developing new models of computers, others (including Grandmother) did what nowadays would be called outsourcing. The Center did work for companies which needed numerical solutions to some practical problems, the companies' representatives created a formal definition of a problem, and the Center's engineers solved it and coded the solution. For example, one of the tasks involved calculating the optimal mode for Bessemer converters, and Grandmother focused on problems of structural mechanics.

The Center developed its computers itself - first it was "Kiev", and then BESM. This was a world of machine codes, punch cards (and before them there were punch tapes produced from exposed film tapes) and lots of stories the likes of which you won't hear today. Nervous people or people lost in reverie shuffled packs of unmarked punch cards, earning most furious reactions from punch cards owners. Guided tours for people who were strange to concepts of computing which aimed to explain the principles of computer's functioning. Once there was a man who asked the same question over and over; after yet another explanation, when the guide was on the brink of an outburst, the man clamored: "Don't explain this stuff to me, I got it, but it" - he pointed at the peacefully humming machine - "how does it understand?".

Available machine time was always scarce, so programmers often stayed up late into the night to grab some extra time, while the punch card lab (a place where one could modify their punch cards using conventional machinery) closed at the end of the day. At night one had to edit their cards by hand - cut out the extra holes and paper over the excessive ones (using leftover pieces of card from conventional punching). The technicians disapproved this technique - the holes cut extra could be tolerated, but the ones with pieces of card glued to them were dangerous - these pieces could fall off inside the input device and damage it. In these wars the victory usually stayed with the light side of the Force - that is, the programmers.

1965 - 1988. Regional scientific-research institute of experimental design (RSRIED - the translation and abbreviation is not official, I just made it for this blog post)

1988 - 1996. Scientific-research institute of architecture and urban planning theory (SRIAUPT - same here)

Grandma's photo

In 1965 Grandmother joined RSRIED as a Chief Specialist, later Chief Design Engineer. This company spent less time outsourcing and focused on solving its own tasks - designing apartment and public buildings, programming structural modeling methods and automating design tasks (that is, development of specialized plotting tools like AutoCAD).

Available machine time still was a problem on itself. Partially it was taken on lease at the aforementioned Center, and partially it was granted by a computer owned by RSRIED - Nairi. It was originally Armenian, and it allowed to enter programs not only in machine codes but also in an internal programming language - Cyrillic but with a certain accent. This very accent was the cause of the following anecdote. Once a set of programs was written, debugged and declared ready for use, it was aggregated and published as printed brochures, which later were used to transfer the programs to other machines or for further use within the authoring company. Publishing these brochures was an important thing, so they were always carefully proofread before passing them on to the printing office. Once such collection of Nairi programs got a proofreader who had a rather vague idea of programming, especially in this language, but took to heart the quality of the Russian language within the ranks of the engineers. As a result of his proof-reading, the "corrected" texts were flawless with respect to grammar, but absolutely defunct as Nairi programs.

The job of a programmer implied frequent business trips - to USSR cities to visit customer companies (to clarify the problem statements they provided) as well as to other countries to share experiences. Of course, most people were eligible only for travelling to the countries of the Socialist block, all communication with capitalist countries was performed at the highest management level, but trips to Bulgaria and guests from Hungary and Czechoslovakia added a nice change to daily routine.

It's hard to say how exotic the job of a programmer looked to outsiders at those times - Grandmother's husband and friend all had the same job or a relevant one. However, we can say for sure that there was no special attitude toward women in the job - there were plenty of them, and it never made an impression. Evidently, all this "wow, a girl can code!" stuff is a later achievement :-)

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