Happy Birthday Grace Hopper: “Grandma COBOL”

This morning while listening to Writer’s Almanac segment on VPR, with Garrison Keillor, he mentioned that today, December 9th is the birthday of Grace Hopper (her 107th birthday).  One of her nicknames was “Grandma COBOL“, as she is credited for the invention of the computer programming language known as COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language).

Grace Hopper served as the technical consultant to a committee that defined the COBOL language.  She developed the first “compiler” for a computer programming language.  A compiler converts human-readable commands (letters, words, numbers and symbols) into computer code (machine readable code).  Before that, computers were programmed almost exclusively by numbers.  Her development of the compiler led later to the invention of COBOL.

Grace Hopper was a computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral.  She coined the phrase “debugging” a program, after a moth became stuck in a computer relay on the Mark II computer at a US Navy research lab.  Among her many accomplishments, she also worked on the team that developed the UNIVAC computer.  I had worked on a Sperry-Univac computer in 1978, after graduation from community college.

Later this morning, I noticed that Google’s homepage was paying tribute to Grace Hopper with a hand drawn picture of Grace Hopper working on what looks to be the console to an early and very large mainframe computer.

After I was reminded of Grace Hopper and the COBOL computer language, as I was commuting to my programming job an hour drive from Rutland, I thought back to when I learned COBOL.  My college instructor, Ms. Lesnau, at Macomb Community College (north of Detroit) taught me COBOL.  I took her COBOL I & II courses in the Spring and Fall semesters in 1977.  I later transferred to Michigan State University and graduated in December of 1981, during a recession.  The Data Processing manager at Ford Credit who hired me told me that I was one of the very few MSU computer science graduates who had any COBOL training or experience.  My two classes with Ms. Lesnau surely helped me get hired during a jobs recession!

I was able to locate my community college COBOL instructor via a Google search.  I called her today on my lunch hour, on the birthday of Grace Hopper.  Ms. Lesnau is now in her 80s.  Although she didn’t remember me at first, as we talked, and I mentioned the year (“Were you a day or evening student?”), and some of my fellow classmates and friends that I met in her class, she started to remember a few things about that time period.

I had a wonderful conversation with my COBOL college instructor.  She uses an I-Phone.  She was complaining about the Obama-Care websites.  She quipped, “Don’t they even test these programs before they put them into production?”  Grace Hopper would have called it “debugging”!

Although she now has health challenges, Ms. Lesnau over the phone seemed like she was still “sharp as a tack”.  Her favorite computer language was Assembly language!  She really enjoyed teaching.  I told her that she and other instructors at Macomb Community College were wonderful, and had real-world experience that the professors at Michigan State seemed to lack.  I told her I remembered that she was one of the first women “system analysts” at Chrysler, where she worked before teaching college computer courses.  She said she was chosen with other co-workers to learn COBOL, the first group at Chrysler to learn to program in COBOL.

Her advice to me is to do what you want before you get too old.  I told her I remember her words of wisdom about one of the commands in the COBOL language.  She taught us to avoid using GOTO statements, and the best practice was to PERFORM paragraphs (blocks of code) like today’s “function call”, instead of using GOTOs.  She also showed us the terrible command called “GOTO DEPENDING ON”, which basically allows you to ALTER the destination of a GOTO midstream in the program’s execution.  So at first the GOTO goes to point A in the code, but later on it goes to point B, depending on a specified condition.  Ms. Lesnau told her students she would show us this language command only once, we would do one exercise, and then told us we should never ever use this awful part of the language ever again!  In those days, people would read computer programs on greenbar paper (or punch cards), instead of terminals or computer screens.  So, you could really confuse a fellow co-worker later on if you ever used a “GOTO DEPENDING ON” in your program.  She got a good laugh when I recalled that story to her.

I will be sending her a Christmas card so that we can keep in touch.

My advice is to keep in contact with the college professors (and high school teachers) that really helped you out.  Don’t wait until it is too late.  Ms. Lesnau told me of another colleague, the college computer operations manager in the late 1970s, Mr. Rodriguez, who I worked for as a co-op student.  I learned he has passed on, and so I can’t thank him on Grace Hopper’s birthday.

Happy Birthday Grace Hopper!  Thank you Ms. Lesnau and Mr. Rodriguez, and many others, who got me started in the Data Processing / Information Technology profession!

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