Happy Computer Science Education Week! My name is Gene Luen Yang and I’m a comic book writer. I write DC Comics’ monthly Superman series and the Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels from Dark Horse Comics. With Hour of Code just around the corner, I wanted to write a piece exploring the remarkable, and not widely known, history of women in programming.
Right now I’m working on a graphic novel series called Secret Coders with my friend Mike Holmes. Secret Coders is about a group of seventh graders who discover a secret school that teaches coding. The first volume was just released by First Second Books this past September. The next will be out in August 2016, and there will be six volumes in all.
Mike and I are hoping that as our protagonists learn to code, our readers will too.
Because I’m writing these books, I’ve been thinking a lot about coding. Specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about women who code.
The First Book of A Graphic Novel Series that Teaches Coding
Before getting into comics, I was a coder. When I got my Computer Science degree from U.C. Berkeley in mid-90's, my coding classes were always nearly all-male. In a class of three hundred students, there would be maybe a handful of women. And as a college kid, I didn’t think about this imbalance all that much. I just accepted it as The Way Things Were.
I didn't realize until I was much older that this was really weird, especially given the history of Computer Science. In the early days of computers, coding was considered a "woman's profession." The very first coder in the world was a woman, an English mathematician by the name of Ada Lovelace. The ENIAC, the first general-purpose computer, was programmed by an all-female team. Most early coders were women.
Ada of History
This wasn't for very good reasons. Back then, people thought the hardware was the important part of a computer, so the men worked on that. The software wasn't as important, so that was given to the women. Now, we know differently. The software is at least as important as the hardware, if not more.
But because of this history, the discipline of coding is built on a foundation laid by women. For example, the compiler, a piece of software that allows humans to program in a language they can easily read, was invented by a woman by the name of Grace Murray Hopper. Hopper fundamentally changed the way we code. Without her, the complex software that we use every day would simply not have been possible.
I'm not really sure what happened along the way, how coding came to be dominated by men, but things do seem to be changing back. Organizations like Girls Who Code are gaining steam, and more young women are signing up for coding classes.
More women who code are showing up in our stories as well.
A Really Cool Picture Book About The World’s First Coder
Recently, author Laurie Wallmark and illustrator April Chu tell the story of the world’s first coder in a picture book called Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine. Lovelace also stars in a brand-new middle-grade series called The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, where she teams up with novelist Mary Shelley to solve mysteries. Jordan Stratford, the author of the series, describes it as "Ada Lovelace fanfic." It totally is.
A Really Cool Mystery Series About The World’s First Coder
Women who code have also inspired me. Hopper, the main character of Secret Coders, takes her name and parts of her personality from Grace Murray Hopper.
Hopper from Secret Coders, drawn by Mike Holmes
And in Superman #41, I introduce a character to the DC Universe named Ada Amoragujeta. The Ada of DC Comics is an homage to the Ada of history. (“Amoragujeta” is a somewhat clumsy translation of "Lovelace" to Spanish.) This Ada goes by her hacker name Condesa ("Countess" in Spanish) and she has a superpower: she can talk to computers the way Aquaman can talk to fish.
Ada of DC Comics, drawn by John Romita Jr.
I created Hopper and Condesa for two reasons. First, I hope they’ll inspire comic book readers, especially female comic book readers, to give coding a try. And what better way than participating in Hour of Code?
Second, I wanted to acknowledge a debt. You see, I was introduced to Computer Science by a woman. My mother was a software developer for over three decades, and she was the one who signed me up for my very first coding class.
My wife and I now have four children, three of whom are daughters. Recently, our oldest daughter has gotten interested in coding. She makes turtle art on our computer and draws colorful maps for her Ozobot to follow. She loves playing ThinkFun’s Code Master board game (click here to play it online for free!).
Someday, she may decide to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps and become a coder. And because of events like Hour of Code, because of companies like ThinkFun, because of educators and authors and artists who care about coding, there will be more than just a handful of women in her college classes.
About the Author
Many thanks to Gene Luen Yang for taking the time to write this guest post! He is, as described above, the writer of DC Comics' Superman and Dark Horse Comics' Avatar: The Last Airbender.
You can find him on Twitter @geneluenyang
Want to read more about women who code and programming for kids? Click here to see all our posts on the topic.