On Heroes

Recently, someone multiple generations ahead of me and well respected in Silicon Valley told me that I’m a pioneer. The implication was that I’m the first to look like I do and do what I do professionally. That I’m creating a new path for future generations to follow. That’s a lot of pressure to put on the shoulders of someone still establishing herself - it’s also an incorrect assertion that discredits the achievements made by my predecessors. I can’t entirely fault this individual’s ignorance. The historical contributions of minorities and women in America haven’t been remembered with particular clarity and have often been purposefully denied their due credit.

In a continuing series, I’ll highlight newfound heroes of mine. Each hero is someone that I did not know existed until recently, whose achievements were not mentioned in any of my textbooks. This inaugural post of the series begins with Annie Jean Easley, an African-American computer programmer, mathematician, and aerospace engineer who worked at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which became the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from 1955 - 1989. I first found out about Easley last month on Twitter1 of all places. Easley’s early contributions to modern technology are obscure - but that’s the point. I need history. I need me being a software engineer to be unremarkable in comparison to what has already been achieved by women of color.

Having visible examples of people that look like you in an aspirational professional field is powerful. By merely existing, these examples prove there is an achievable pathway to that field. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Yvonne Cagle, a NASA astronaut. After introductions, I spoke with Dr. Cagle about how I recently learned of Easley’s career at NASA. A career Dr. Cagle had not known existed. When Dr. Cagle saw Easley’s Wikipedia photo, she had a tangible emotional reaction. And she wasn’t alone. Every person of color that I introduced to Easley had a combination of excitement, hurt, and sadness overcome their faces. The disappointed look of feeling denied the opportunity for a role model accompanying surprise that a woman of color worked in STEM at NASA during the fifties and sixties. A black female friend of mine who interned at NASA said it best, “This is amazing. Especially since I want(ed) to work for NASA and be an astronaut. [Had I known she existed] she would have made me think more seriously about it.”

Easley began her career as a human computer, assigned to perform mathematical computations for the engineers and scientists working at NACA. Math had always come easy to Easley, who graduated valedictorian of her high school, but was not a profession she considered pursuing. Instead, becoming a nurse or teacher was encouraged because of the ease of finding a job after school. Easley planned to be a nurse, until a marriage and move to Cleveland forced the end of her coursework. While deciding what to do next, she saw a newspaper article about twin sisters who worked as computers at NACA. Within two weeks, Easley had the same position.

Without a degree, Easley was “considered a subprofessional,”2 so she worked and went to school full-time, pursuing a degree in Mathematics. After completing her degree and with almost two decades of professional experience, Easley was told by management at NASA that she would need additional training before moving out of the Computer Services Division to “become a professional.” A requirement that wasn’t needed for new hires.

With her degree and additional training, Easley moved into the Energy Directorate. A move that sounds simpler than it was, as Easley almost left NASA because she was told there was absolutely no other group she could join. By then, computer machines had arrived and Easley’s title switched to mathematician. She began doing Symbolic Optimal Assembly Programming (SOAP) on punch card IBM 650 and then 740 machines to assist her computations. She also programmed in FORTRAN “for years and years and years.”

Each systemic microaggression Easley faced, she met with poise and tenacity. Her motto was “if I can’t work with you, I will work around you.” When her supervisor refused to find out if NASA would help pay for her Mathematics degree - a luxury known to be afforded to other employees - Easley paid her own way. When management at NASA refused to give her paid leave like another co-worker to finish the remaining four courses of her degree, Easley took unpaid leave. When Easley was cut out of a photo taken of the six people who worked on a project, she didn’t let that discouragement affect her life. And after 34 years without a single promotion, because she “just didn’t fit someone’s requirements,” Easley had wonderful things to say about her four decades in the industry. She witnessed the computer revolution, and its direct impact on scientific research. She felt happy to have been a part of NASA and worked, for example, on the research that led to the batteries in hybrid cars - but was equally excited to be learning how to snowboard at age 68. She lived a full life that wasn’t defined by her “life’s career.”3

As Dr. Cagle told me, Easley is one of the “gems in the dust. We can’t afford for them to be forgotten.“

1. which sometimes does not live up to its reputation as a cesspool of anonymous human depravity. ↩︎

2. Unattributed quotes are Easley’s own words, from her oral history. ↩︎

3. Easley’s career is significant, particularly to a young person of color considering pursuing a STEM field. Her biography needs to be written. ↩︎

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