Ada Lovelace’s Lesson For Women

Sharon Wienbar joined Hackbright Academy, the leading engineering school for women, as CEO in November of 2015. With a bachelor’s and master’s degree in engineering from Harvard and an MBA from Stanford, Sharon had served mostly on tech boards of directors for over a decade — until she met with Hackbright co-founder David J. Phillips to discuss an article she was working on about women in engineering. Several hours of mind-melding later, Sharon realized she wanted to be a hands-on leader at Hackbright. Phillips traded up to chairman and gave her the CEO seat.

Sharon fervently believes in changing the ratio of women in software engineering. Not by quotas, by demand, or by shaming, but by giving capable, motivated women the environment and training they need, and working with the best tech companies to hire them into the industry.


An engraving of Ada at age 4.

Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace was an exceptional woman who, for her time, was also lucky. In her era, people learned from tutors and mentors. Only a tiny percentage of the population went through formal schooling. Only the highest upper-class people had access to extensive education.

Ada was lucky in that she was born into a keenly intellectual family, one that cultivated her interest in many very different fields. The daughter of a poet, she was deeply interested in mathematics. She was encouraged to flourish in both.

A supportive environment

This combination of poetry and mathematics enabled Ada to have the insight that her dear friend Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine could perform calculations on things that were not just numbers. She postulated that it could operate on musical notes.

Ada Lovelace, age 20

Portrait of Ada at age 20.

What’s different today is that most people, at least in the United States, have access to education as a fundamental human right. We’re also seeing much more of an infusion of computer science concepts into the curriculum at an early age.

But I wish people would also understand the creative aspect of programming. Ada was fascinated with flight, and in the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci devoted serious time at age 12 to designing a pair of steam-powered wings, documenting and illustrating her findings in a guide called “Flyology.” Today, when we evaluate Hackbright Academy applicants, what signals “she’s one of us” is that she’s likewise a maker. That means having a vision for something you want to make, and following the creative process to realize that vision. Even if you can’t’ quite fly, you’ve created a pair of wings.

The desire to create

Charles Babbage's Difference Engine, built 1991 London Science Museum

Ada’s algorithm was used for Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, a design on paper which was finally built in 1991.

I discovered that the creative drive isn’t in everyone years ago at Adobe, when I participated in a focus group to understand why our Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop did so well among Apple Mac users, but never gained any market share on the PC. We asked our Mac users, professional designers, “When is a project done?” They answered, “I have a vision in my mind’s eye. It’s done when it matches that.” The designers who used PCs looked at us like we were idiots: “When is a project done? It’s done at the deadline!”

I saw that there are creative people who are professionals, and there are professionals who begrudgingly have to be creative.


This is it: The first machine algorithm on record. Ada’s 1842 description of a method for generating Bernoulli numbers with Babbage’s machine, which had yet to be built.

Programming is unquestionably creative work.Programming is unquestionably creative work. Today, creativity is often cultivated in girls, but it isn’t always presented as something that can be expressed in code. Let’s understand that knitting, sewing, gardening, and programming are more alike than they imagine.  But my daughter, a liberal-arts major, once explained to me why she was taking a computer science class: “It’s a life skill, like baking.” With software spreading into every aspect of our lives, knowing how code works is like knowing how your meal was made, and can be just as enjoyable to do yourself.

Perhaps the gender gap in software engineers is because programming isn’t currently seen as collaborative work, the way it was 75 years ago at Bletchley Park. There, where everyone worked together to program giant vacuum tube-driven computers and decipher encrypted messages, over two-thirds of the programmers were women.

Sharon Wienbar

Hackbright Academy CEO Sharon Wienbar

The personal computer explosion of the 1980s recast programming as a solo effort, which attracted a predominantly male culture. But today distributed apps, Web apps, and agile development have made software development much more of a group activity again. A promising software engineer needn’t be a guy in sweats in a basement, whose only friend is his Xbox.

We can take advantage of our new collaborative environments to foster coding creativity in women, just as Ada’s environment supported her to craft the world’s first known computational algorithm. In doing so, Ada Lovelace started us off with an important lesson: Code is for women, too. We don’t have to pinkify it. We shouldn’t.

In this video interview, Sharon expands on why she joined Hackbright, and what she believes should be done to #changetheratio of women in software engineering.

Interested in learning more about Hackbright Academy? Join us for an Information Session to learn about our 12-week software engineering fellowship for women tomorrow, October 12th. Attend in person or remotely via livestream.

Inside the Mind of Hackbright’s Director of Admissions

Dori GrantHi! I’m Dori Grant, Director of Admissions here at Hackbright Academy. Prospective students often ask what they need to include in their applications in order to be invited to an interview at Hackbright, while even more ask exactly what it takes to be admitted into our 12-week Software Engineering FellowshipInstead of just focusing on how to get admitted, first consider what it takes to be a successful Hackbright graduate, then ask yourself if you think this program is right for you. Here are four characteristics I often see in our successful applicants and graduates:

Technical Preparation

Our students are encouraged to explore the world of computer science and programming before entering into the fellowship. Those who enter the program with at least a few months of academic practice, whether through online coursework or in-person classes, are more comfortable and confident from the beginning. Not only do they gain insight into the field they’re trying to enter, but they come to the program with an understanding of the basic concepts we teach and are ready to advance their technical knowledge-base from day one. 

Collaboration and Communication 

We find that students who have experience working with, or even managing, a team tend to do well in our program. A high level of pair programming occurs throughout the academic portion of the fellowship, which relies largely on the ability to collaborate and communicate effectively with others. For those students who are more accustomed to working independently but would like to join a program that emphasizes team practice, the fellowship is a good fit.

Passion for Problem Solving and Analysis

Students who do well in our program have a passion for problem solving and analyzing information. They like a good puzzle, they’re curious and enjoy asking why something works (or doesn’t). They’re comfortable analyzing information, learning new and complex ideas, and discussing those ideas in detail.

Solve all the programming problems optimized

Resiliency and Resourcefulness

Students with a strong sense of independence, responsibility, and accountability do well in our program. They’re willing and able to discuss their shortcomings and ways they can improve as easily as they can highlight their successes. Self-reflection and accountability are crucial characteristics for students to possess in order to be effective teammates and successful learners.

Given that information, ask yourself, “Am I that person?” Do you see yourself committed to developing and growing into a programmer, enhancing your skill set along the way? If you say “Yes, that’s me!” then congratulations! Now it’s time to submit your application, but hurry! The deadline for our upcoming fellowship is quickly approaching – applications are due Nov 1.  I encourage you to reach out with any questions you may have regarding the process and look forward to reading your application soon!


Kickstart Your New Career by Learning to Code

Browsing Hackbright’s course offerings  for the fourth time this month, but just can’t bring yourself to make the plunge? We get it. Learning a challenging skill set and striking out on a new career path is a huge decision to make, especially if you’re already comfortable at your current job. If you feel like you need a little push, or if the self-doubt demons are breathing down your neck, consider the ways that learning to code could give your life an upgrade. Here are just a few:

You’ll get to be a little selective.

In today’s market, jobs can seem harder to come by than ever before. A lot of smart, creative job seekers can find it difficult to demonstrate their marketable skills to employers. That means that when you’re offered a job, there’s a lot of pressure to take it- even if it’s not the best fit.

Learning to code gives you a definite edge over other applicants. Employers love to see that you’ve taken the initiative to learn a challenging skill set; what’s even better is that this particular skill set is always in high demand. Having an edge over your competition allows you to be a bit more flexible, giving you more time to find the best match in terms of your interests, compatibility with the company’s culture, and your long-term career goals.

You’ll start earning the big bucks.

There’s no question that software developers get paid competitive wages. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median developer’s salary at $100,690 a year, which is substantially higher than the national average. While it’s certainly not the only valuable thing about learning to code, being well-compensated for solving important, real-world problems is always a good thing.

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You’ll get to do what you really want at work.

Tech companies tend to prioritize efficiency in creative ways, so instead of days full of wall-to-wall meetings, you can look forward to more flexible, functional work hours and meaningful communication with co-workers.

elf meetings

Not all programmers work in chilled-out office environments, but employers will definitely want to get the most out of your creative brain. When you think about it, a lot of today’s most valuable innovations are the result of hardworking software developers, and that means that your team WILL give you the time you need to do what programmers do best: make amazing stuff!


Learn all about our upcoming 12-week software engineering fellowship at the Info Session on July 13! Get a head start on your application and RSVP below to join us in person or remotely!