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Dorothy Vaughn and the Automation of Tech

Dorothy Vaughn and the Automation of Tech
Picture taken from http://lsuscienceblog.squarespace.com/blog/2017/3/3/making-space-for-women-and-minorities-in-stem
The future of tech is constantly being written by the newest algorithms, startups/big tech companies, and developers around the world. With machine learning taking the world by storm, it’s easy to wonder, what will happen to humans and their work? Will we all be eventually replaced and robots do all of the work? Will Skynet finally take over and kill us all?!?! Well I hope that this post and specifically a scene from Hidden Figures will both calm you and your skynet fears with a new hope about the workforce in the years to come…

A Blast From The Past 🚀

You may be wondering, what does the oscar-worthy film, Hidden Figures have to do with the future of tech and the workforce. Before I explore the connection between the two, if you have not see the movie, STOP HERE. I will be talking about at great length, a specific scene from the film. You have been forewarned…

In Hidden Figures, Octavia Spencer’s character, Ms. Dorothy Vaughn witnesses that NASA has purchased an IBM mainframe computer. This computer will be able to perform computations that her and other “human computers” (those who did the mathematical calculations for each mission of NASA) would normally complete in a weeks time, the IBM machine will be able to do in a day’s time or less. To get an idea of what mainframe computers looked like in the 1960’s, the computers took up a whole room, like the one below. While this technology was very promising, Dorothy Vaughn and her colleagues were soon to be out of a job.

A Mainframe Computer in the 60's

I hope what I shared about this particular scene from Hidden Figures and the dilemma that faced Dorothy Vaughn and other “human computers”, strikes a chord with what is happening in today’s new data-driven world. The reality being: Hard-working people getting replaced by smarter technologies and software and thus are struggling to find a job in the current job market/economy. In an article by Wired, the American Trucking Association predicts that the trucking industry “could be [cut] short 240,000 drivers by 2022 (there are roughly three million full-time drivers in the US; read more here).” This move towards automation (technology that needs very little or no human interaction at all) is affecting every industry globally, and will continue in years to come. In light of this, interestingly Dorothy Vaughn showed us how to properly handle the future of tech automation without retreating in fear of the technology itself. Maybe we should look to Ms. Vaughn to teach us a thing or two…

Synergy is a Powerful Thing (a.k.a. #MsVaughnTaughtUs)

Picture taken from https://www.ibm.com/thought-leadership/hidden-figures/?cm_mmca1=000005IT&cm_mmca2=10002562

Thankfully, the story of Ms. Vaughn and her “human computer” counterparts doesn’t end in them losing their jobs. The story progresses to show that Dorothy Vaughn (during the hatred/bigotry of the civil rights era and being hard pressed to be welcomed in a library because of the color of her skin) goes to the nearest library in Hampton, Virginia. At this library, Dorothy Vaughn does something remarkable: she finds a book on FORTRAN. FORTRAN in its inception was a programming language that was used to compute mathematical formulas in the 50’s. Why is this important? Though NASA bought the Goliath-like machine, no one including the top NASA engineers, knew how to work it or even simply, turn it on. Dorothy Vaughn seeing the machine figured out not only how to turn it on, but how to code in the programming language that the computer would understand. Which leads to this thought: With technology cutting away some jobs in the present and near future, this inversely leads to a creation of new kinds of jobs. Jobs where those who can solve interesting, difficult problems with the aid of computers, will and can secure a job in the new economy. Dorothy Vaughn knew this reality to be forthcoming: that her job was in jeopardy. Instead of being fearful of the future, she took the future head on and in her own hands, by learning the technology of the future (hence, #MsVaughntaughtus). This wasn’t a selfish endeavor either.

When I Win, The Whole Team Wins

Picture taken from http://www.scpr.org/news/2017/01/13/68124/hidden-figures-star-octavia-spencer-hosts-free-scr/

After Dorothy Vaughn learned FORTRAN, she taught the women that she managed FORTRAN too. Dorothy Vaughn demonstrated that the education she received was for her other colleagues as much as it was for herself. She could’ve just kept the knowledge of FORTRAN to herself and allowed the other women a part of the “human computers” group lose their jobs; however, she didn’t. Rather she taught the women FORTRAN, and in doing so communicated that “When I Win, The Whole Team Wins”. Thus, when NASA needed engineers to program the new computer to do calculations, Ms. Vaughn and her ladies were ready to adapt quickly to their new roles at NASA. Now, while we are far removed from mainframe computers taking up whole buildings to computers that that lie on our wrists, in our hand with smartphones, and the like, the internet has presented the idea that anybody can learn anything and also pass that knowledge along to others via videos and blogs such as this one.

It’s worth noting that college degrees, while they are still extremely important, may be decreasing in significance as experience-based employees are increasing in the tech field, read more HERE.

While there is an increase in automation currently, there is also an increase demand of an “augmented workforce” or people who can work with technologies which are doing the “heavy lifting” (automation of normal, mundane tasks). A recent Wall Street Journal article talks about how “amazon’s use of advanced warehouse technologies illustrates how robotics, cognitive computing, and flexible human workforce strategies can combine to maximize efficiencies and productivity while creating new jobs” (read more here). Dorothy Vaughn and her colleagues knew a new age of technology was dawning, but that did not stop them for evolving with the times. They were not afraid of an augmented workforce, they jumped right in to it!

There is Hope!

If you are looking to get into the tech community but you don’t have a degree in computer science or any of the STEM fields or don’t have a degree at all, not to worry! Hopefully these resources below can help and remember: #MsVaughntaughtus

P.S. I would strongly suggest checking out TechHire HERE. TechHire is an initiative of Opportunity@Work whose mission is to expand access to career opportunities so that all Americans can work, learn, and earn to their full potential in a dynamic economy

Free Resources (***there are plenty of more free resources that are just as good as paid resources***)


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