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November 1999

Amazing Grace and Seymour: A visit with Sally Haerer

Sally Haerer has managed the Technical Support and Development Section in SCD since 1995. She credits "a great math teacher" in high school with sparking her interest in computers. She earned a B.S. in mathematics from Louisiana's Northwestern State University in 1968 and then finished an M.S. in statistics and computer science at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (USL) in 1971. Within a year she was on the faculty at the University of New Orleans, and she has taught computer science at USL as well as the University of Arkansas. She came to NCAR in 1989 after working as a software instructor/programmer/analyst with Cray Research.

At the end of this month, Sally moves to Oregon to begin the next chapter in her professional life as associate director of the Northwest Alliance for Computational Science and Engineering, operated by Oregon State University. She's looking forward to new challenges and to her return to an academic setting: "When I step on a college campus, there's a feeling, an aura--some kind of magic there." She adds, "I've always appreciated and valued NCAR and have been proud to work here all these years."

Having grown up with computing, Sally has endless tales to tell about the industry and the culture surrounding computers. Here are just a few, as told earlier this year to Norma LaMadrid and Jacque Marshall--including Sally's thoughts on two of the computing greats of this century, Grace Hopper and Seymour Cray.

I knew Fortran (and COBOL)

The first computer class I took was machine language in college in the mid-60s. I worked on an IBM 1620 computer. It had 64K of memory. Bytes. Not words. My watch probably has that now, and it's not even electronic.

It was a very different environment then. Boy, you couldn't make errors. If you had to add some instructions to your program, everything below that line changed. We actually learned how to plan programs.

Then I learned Fortran. This was a huge step forward, because one instruction might generate several symbolic instructions to pull off that operation. It was designed for scientific programming, so for eons all technical programs were Fortran by default.

We're now at a version called Fortran 90, but the language has seen some changes and revisions all through these years. It's funny--someone will reach back in time and say, "I knew Fortran IV," and someone else will say, "Well, I knew Fortran II!" Then I can say, "I knew Fortran." I don't know why we're competing with this; we should probably be denying it.

We're probably reaching a crisis where we don't know where we're going to get our programmers from. Universities aren't teaching Fortran any more. But any supercomputer center in the world is doing some high-level scientific programming, and the majority of their codes are Fortran.

After graduation from USL in 1971 (where I audited one course in COBOL for fun), I found a really good job programming in COBOL for a utility company. What the heck--it paid well, so I did their billing program, which is not Y2K compliant, I can attest. If it's still in use, they're in deep trouble.

Amazing Grace

Way back when, the student chapter of the Association of Computing Machinery at USL sponsored a talk by Grace Hopper. Nobody else on campus knew who the heck this woman was, but all of the computer-science nerds on campus trooped over there early to get a good seat. I was almost in front of the podium, and I was so excited.

She seemed such a big person in my mind. I didn't really expect how tiny she actually was. I don't remember a very old woman--I remember lots of wrinkles. Her Navy uniform was crisp. Picture perfect.

But I cannot tell you the impact of her presence. When you saw her eyes, you no longer saw old anywhere. They sparkled. They were on fire. You didn't see anything but sheer energy and intelligence. I've always been impressed with the level of respect and command she achieved. She was a rear admiral--in the Navy. I can imagine some big brute, looking down on those eyes, going, "Yes, ma'am! Right away, ma'am!"

"Amazing Grace," as she was affectionately called, stated in her talk that, being a very visual person, she always needed to see things. For example, what is a billionth of a second? One day one of her engineers got the idea: Show her how far electricity travels in a billionth of a second (nanosecond). She said, "They gave me this," then she reached down behind the podium and pulled out a foot-long wire and said, "This is how far electricity travels through this wire in one nanosecond." She had a whole stack of them, so she passed them around the room. So I got a wire. But then she went on to a millisecond. "I don't have enough money to give you all one of these," and she pulled up this huge coil of thick wire and said, "Here's a millisecond."

And she told the bug story. She talked about fixing a computer by finding a moth smashed in the relay switch. She taped it into the log book and wrote a note that she had "de-bugged" the computer--thus originating the expression "computer bug." Ah, confirmation!

I was walking by a case in the Smithsonian once, and I saw a log book with a moth taped in it. And I went, "Holy Moly!' I saw The First Bug. What could that dead moth be worth for a computer person?

Grace Hopper also has the claim to fame of inventing COBOL. But before that, she did something much bigger--she actually developed the first compiler, which allows you to write a program at a much higher level. The language she developed did not catch on as a major language, but the concept was truly genius. It carried software up one more level.

"My other computer is a Cray"

Seymour Cray is unquestionably the hardware guy, hands down.

I had an opportunity to go work at Cray Research, back in the days when if you wanted a supercomputer, you simply called Cray Research. I don't think the marketing people knew how to really sell--they just took the orders. There were no broad marketing advertisements. This was the time when Cray Research was unquestionably the king of the universe as far as supercomputers were concerned. They had their era. It was kind of fun to work for the company then.

I requested permission to attend the first Supercomputing conference in 1988, because I knew that Seymour Cray had agreed to give the keynote address. The stars must have been in my favor, because my request was granted.

All of the big computer companies thought Seymour Cray was a genius. Because he was. He was heralded as the father of supercomputing. But he was shy, and never seemed to know that he was incredibly important and incredibly respected. I used to hear stories from Chippewa [Falls, Wisconsin, the birthplace of Cray's company]: Seymour would just stroll into work with his overalls and his flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and go start playing with the engineers who were working on their chips and stuff. He was a really hands-on kind of inventor.

One day, after the Cray-3 had been delivered here to NCAR, he was standing right outside my office door. When he left, just for fun, I put a masking-tape X on that spot on the carpet. People would come in and say, "What's that on the floor?" I'd reply, "That's where Seymour stood. Right there." Well, us groupies had fun with it. Then the entire industry was devastated by his untimely death in 1996.

Amazing Grace Hopper and amazing Seymour Cray--these are two of my all-time heroes within this profession. They were huge contributors and inspirational leaders in software and hardware development. •Norma LaMadrid and Jacque Marshall

On the Web:

Grace Hopper

Grace Murray Hopper


Seymour Cray

A Tribute to Seymour Cray

Cray, Seymour

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall