Throughout the history of software engineering and computer science, there have been people whose ingenuity, hard work, and great ideas and vision created the foundation that our modern, all-digital world stands on. These men and women are the coders who changed the world forever.
The man who made the computer personal
Bill Gates created his first piece of software at age 13. Later in life, Gates learned a popular programming language called BASIC, which was used for large terminals and machines. However, he saw the potential for smaller computers that an average person could use: so he adapted this language for use in ‘microcomputers’. The system he created was the precursor to his later software that he created, MS-DOS, which was licenced to IBM for use in their machines. This partnership with the industry leader in computer hardware cemented the identity of a “personal computer” as a IBM machine running a Microsoft operating system. Windows 95 in particular is celebrated as a revolutionary step forward in computers, allowing plug-and-play functionality and multitasking on one device – features that we take for granted today. Thanks to his expertise in software and his business acumen, Gates is one of the world’s richest men; and today, he is also one of its biggest philanthropists, providing hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and humanitarian assistance through his foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The grandfather of the World Wide Web.
Tim Berners-Lee worked as a computer software engineer in the UK after graduating from the University of Oxford. During his early career, Berners-Lee worked at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), where he created an information storage and retrieval system for his own use. This basic piece of software – which he called “Enquire” – was an early prototype of a technique known today as hypertext. Berners-Lee eventually developed this prototype for CERN into a ‘global hypertext document’, which used the internet to allow researchers and users to share and retrieve whatever information they wanted with just a click, and without having to distribute files or email download links. This was revolutionary at the time, and it was Berners-Lee who wrote the code for the first Web server and the first Web client, laying down the very foundations for the world wide web as we know it today. What started as just a telephone directory at CERN is now the complex global computer network that’s letting you read these words – and Berners-Lee released this code for free use the world, allowing anyone to create websites or web applications without needing to pay him a cent.
A new age for women in tech
A graduate of Vanderbilt University, Kimberly Bryant is one of the leading figures in diversifying the field of computer programming. An expert in electronics and biotechnology, Bryant worked for over 25 years in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, for some of the biggest companies in the world, including Genentech, Merck, and Pfizer. However, Bryant’s most inspirational accomplishment is her dedication to upliftment and education: in 2011, she created Black Girls Code, a non-profit organization dedicated to changing the face of technology by introducing girls of color (ages 7-17) to the fields of technology and computer science. Today, Black Girls Code teaches programming and entrepreneurial skills to thousands of girls across the US and in South Africa, and has grown to 19 chapters operating with international recognition.
The man who put the ‘personal’ in PC
Steve Wozniak is a computer scientist and programmer who worked with his partner Steve Jobs to create the Apple I computer. At the time, the computer market was dominated by corporate giants selling clunky machines with interfaces that required the user to be a technical expert just to use. Apple was a David to this Goliath: starting in a garage with a sold car and calculator as start-up capital, their design-focus on the user experience ushered in a new era of computers. In Apple’s eye, PCs didn’t need to be confusing hulks with bland, confusing interfaces, but devices that the user could intuitively use for their own purposes, with little effort. The devices that he built (combined with Job’s marketing expertise and love of aesthetics) were a hit, helping the company to break market records with its meteoric rise to computer dominance. Today, Apple is so big that most people don’t think of the fruit first.
Making software safe and reliable – even on the moon
Margaret Hamilton’s work in error prevention and fault tolerance was a central part in taking software that could land you on the moon and turning it into software that could land you on the moon with high safety margins time and time again.
Coming from a background in abstract mathematics, Hamilton worked in meteorology. With her expertise in maths and programming, Hamilton created software that could predict weather conditions. Later, Hamilton worked in military research labs, further developing her weather prediction systems. This experience came in use when she moved to NASA and started working on the computer systems used in the space program. The asynchronous flight software she created with her team was crucial to catching and preventing an error during the Apollo 11 moon landing which could have caused a disaster. In the beginning of her career, “software engineering” wasn’t its own discipline, and instead something you picked up on the job as you worked; but through Hamilton’s legacy and accomplishments, it became a highly respected field of expertise on its own standing. Today, Hamilton is considered one of the great pioneers of software engineering.
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