Ada Lovelace Day: Thanks, Mom

Today is Ada Lovelace day, “an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science.”

It’s named after an English math prodigy (and daughter of Lord Byron), who died in her mid-thirties and before her contributions were properly recognized. In 2009, Suw Charman-Anderson proposed Ada Lovelace day and wrote “I will publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire but only if 1,000 other people will do the same.”

I’m in this year. But I’m not going to blog about any of the high-profile women in technology. Instead, I’m going to follow the day’s instructions by writing about the person who first got me interested in the world of technology, who happens to be a woman and happens to be my mom, Nancy Haller.

After my parents separated when I was 10 or 11 my mom went back to school at nights for an accounting degree, and her coursework included a computer programming class. In those days this entailed mainframes, batch processing, and punch cards, which she would sometimes bring home. I vividly remember sitting at our dining room table with her one night, fiddling with the cards, and asking a series of annoying-kid questions.

“Mom, what are computers for?”

“Lots of things. I just wrote a program that prints out a list of all the students in a class.”

“So they’re big typewriters?”

“No, they do a lot more than that. See, this list is in alphabetical order.”

“So they’re typewriters that alphabetize?”

“They can do math, too.”

“Can I give you my homework for them to do?”

Instead of getting exasperated or shooing me away, she kept trying to answer my questions; she respected me and my curiosity enough to do so. To this day I remember walking away from that conversation without a clear idea of what computers actually were and did, but being very interested in finding out more. More than 30 years later, I still am.

One of the great things any of us can achieve is to awaken an intellectual passion in someone else, to lock in someone’s curiosity so deeply that it stays engaged for decades. My mom did this for me, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of other things she did, by showing me how to be curious about technology, and how to go about satisfying that curiosity via education and tenacity.

I find my own words completely inadequate to express how I feel about that, so I’ll use someone else’s. The poet and sage Mary Oliver wrote in “North Country” that “There is no way to be sufficiently grateful for the gifts we are given…” She ends another poem, “The Summer Day,” with the piercing question “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Mom, there’s no way I’ll ever be sufficiently grateful for showing me an answer to that question when I was just a kid. May every child, girl or boy, have someone like you. Happy Ada Lovelace day.