This past weekend I finally got to see the movie “Hidden Figures” – the true story of three African American women in the 1960s who worked at NASA and helped send John Glenn into orbit, and safely back to earth. As you may know, I work at IBM, and IBM helped provide some resources for this movie, but this post is not about IBM’s part in the movie.
While the movie hit all the right points of making you feel good about people being given a chance to perform at their very best, people over coming the adversity of institutional racism, and the advancement of society as a whole, I did come away with a few other impressions. I loved this movies, and will certainly add it to my movie collection once it is available for purchase. It made me cry and swell with pride on the triumph of smart people achieving great things. Watching the closing credits to see how far the three women advanced in NASA, with many firsts among them, lifted my spirits after a long hard week of work.
Having said this, the other take away was that we, as a society, have not really advanced much and we have back slid in some areas. First, we have the constant advancement of technology and its impact on people’s jobs and livelihood. There are two groups of computers at NASA: The East (all white) and West (all African American). When the IBM computer starts getting installed, one of the characters, who have is also skilled in mechanical engineering, not only takes it upon hereself to fix some wiring (which has caused many delays in the getting the IBM computer installed and working) but also spends time to learn how to program in FORTRAN, as she sees that if she doesn’t learn she will lose her job. She not only teaches herself to program but she setups classes to reach the rest of the West computing group to program, there by saving their jobs. The East group does not do this, and ultimately has to come to her to get trained and get a few of the staff jobs in programming. We have seen this play out time and time again in our society, technology advances, and those who don’t retrain fall behind. A former IBMer I had the opportunity to work with years ago, recently posted a blog post on this thought as it relates to AI; – Thanks Irving Wladawsky-Berger. Navigating these transitions can be scary but as we’ve seen in the past, we’ve managed before.
Second, if we look at the tech industry we continue to hear about the disproportional amount of guys who are programmers and engineers. When we look back at history there are multiple great examples of women who did great things and we don’t celebrate enough to drive diversity in the industry. The creator of COBOL Dr. Grace Hopper was female and Ada Lovelace was instrumental in founding programming working with Charles Babbage. But somehow, the number of women in computing, mathmatics and science continues to be low. We need to celebrate achievements and continue to drive more and more of our talents kids and teenagers to these fields. If we don’t do this, will be able to make the next transition as technologies advance, or will we continue to fall back to more and more social disparities.
Finally, the 1960’s and 70’s drove the US to break down racial barriers. We had common goals and a rising social consciousness which got people to break down the Jim Crow laws, integrate schools and businesses, and focus on our raising all people out of problems caused by segregation. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing to now, we have been slowly resegrating parts of our society. We see this thru things like redlining and the drawings of congressional districts. This slow restablishing of social segregation, drives sterotypes and prejudices.
Hopefully, we can address all three of these society issues thru continued and renewed focus on learning and education. If we help all people learn to the maximum of their potential, we can establish a workforce ready for the new jobs of the future. As people work in these new jobs they will go to the areas where the jobs are (via social mobility) and hopefully this break down the tendency to restablish residential segregation.
As a kid, I was considered different because I liked school. As an adult I continue to love to learn. Hopefully movies like “Hidden Figures” will get more people to focus on the careers and technologies of the future.