By Everett Harper of Forbes.com

In 1975, a 34 year old black woman with a high school education, and three tween kids, sat with dread before her final exam. She had risked her job as a secretary at IBM, and her marriage to take the Introduction to Programming course — and it wasn’t going well. Before the final exam commenced, her instructor walked up to her and said, “Jackie, you seem like a lovely lady. Go home and take care of your kids. You are dismissed.” Jackie left class, sped down Harrigan Road in her brown Pontiac Catalina station wagon, to pick up her three sweaty kids from daycare before she got hit with a late fee. As the kids fought over the radio (“not Edmund Fitzgerald AGAIN”) she wondered if she would have a job the next day.

IBM, the forgotten diversity pioneer in technology

IBM was one of the most powerful companies in the world in the mid sixties through the seventies. The S/360 mainframe revolutionized computing, giving processing power previously available only to government and universities, and made it accessible to business. By 1971, the $8.3B company offered the full slate of free or nearly free benefits to its 270,000 person workforce — healthcare, scholarships, and nearly every engineering class under the sun. They hired women for managerial roles twice as fast as their employment growth, and as result 15% of their workforce were women in 1970. To give that context, the number of women at Facebook grew 4% from 2014 to 2017 while their employee base grew 43% [CNBC] Thomas Watson Jr., CEO of IBM, personally committed to inviting and recruiting African-Americans to “white-collar” jobs in the mid-sixties, and one of them, Mark Dean, designed the first PC.

Jackie’s husband Jim was one of those recruits. He trained first in the US Navy, running a radio transmitter and electronics shop on the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Independence. IBM recruited him to be a systems engineer in Poughkeepsie, NY in 1963. Jackie came with him, and soon had three kids in three years. She decided to go back to work in 1972 as a secretary for the old Selectrix typewriter division in East Fishkill, NY. Jackie was highly disciplined — be on time, prepare, focus, get things done. But she also noticed how much of the world was being run by men carrying boxes of punch cards and magnetic tape. She realized that she was sitting in the middle of the revolution. So she decided, no more typewriters — I want to be a programmer.

Despite the progressive environment, this was a bold statement in 1975. She was a black woman with a high school education from Westinghouse High School in the poor neighborhood of Homewood in Pittsburgh, PA. She had no extended family in small-town Hudson Valley, which still had KKK meeting announcements on AM radio alongside the VFW and PTA. But, “we understood that coming from a hard family life that we could do more. We knew that the money and the means was not there. But once we got to a place where education would be number one, then my kids could go far.” However, Jackie also knew when to take her opportunity — and that was Intro to Programming at IBM.

So you think you want to be a Programmer, Ms. Jackie?

 

For nine weeks, weekdays from 8am to 5pm, she took the class that had a reputation of being designed to “make or break” students. They started with Assembler and, “it was like a foreign language to me. Flowcharting seemed quite simple, yet putting that in code — programming language — was very difficult for me.” The class was diverse — 30% were women. While this might seem surprising, the number of women with computer science degrees was rising until the early 1980s.

Her classmates were recent college grads, having taken the higher math classes that Jackie lacked. There was one final drag on her ability to learn. “Even though my husband was a programmer, he was not supportive of me learning this skill.” As a result, when other students stayed after class to get help from instructors, or stay all night to finish assignments, Jackie had to pick up kids, shop for groceries, and make dinner. She fell way behind, failed her interim exams, and as the final exam approached, she was seriously demoralized.

“Most people who fail,” Jackie said, “go home and stay home.” Not her.

When she arrived at the IBM East Fishkill building, Edward Holden, her manager and sponsor, called her into his office. They talked about what she’d gone through in the course. At the end of the meeting he said, “Jackie, you have a job. Take the next few weeks, review programming, study what you need, and retake the exam.” With Holden’s encouragement and clearing her schedule, she found programming courses in PLS, PLI and APL at Duchess Community College, Marist College and took them all. “I was able to regroup, it wasn’t so foreign, and I knew what I was looking for and that helped.” This time she was ready.

Jackie Harper had a 25 year career as a programmer and then software coder at IBM. Her husband still wasn’t supportive, but she didn’t encounter resistance within IBM. “In fact, the guys seemed excited when a woman came in. They were happy when a woman made manager.” She worked floor control manufacturing systems, engineering design systems and eventually global services. She learned many of the assembly languages at IBM, then eventually db2 and early versions of SQL. The diligence to simply debug a program is astonishing to anyone who is working in modern software. When she came to the Truss office her stories raised a lot of eyebrows among our engineers about the things we now get to take for granted.

Leadership: creating space for others to do their best work

 

Since I first heard this story in 2012, I’ve wondered what made Ed Holden, a white male middle manager, stick his neck out for his black female secretary. As I researched this story, it is clear that the IBM ethos was a significant influence. This was a company that sponsored IBMers to go back to get a Ph.D without requiring them to return. Jackie recalled, “If you proved you were a worker, and could adapt to IBM’s unwritten rules: ‘don’t swear, don’t talk politics, don’t call names’, you could find a place at IBM.” (I added another unwritten rule: “suit, tie and hose”, and we laughed). Holden’s sponsorship was more than a gesture — it was an action, backed by institutional commitment, that demonstrated his belief that Jackie would rise to the occasion.

Jackie created space too, for herself and her kids. In the seventies, sending your black children to college was not a given, especially if neither parent had a college degree. Jackie’s particular genius was shifting the family framework to “where are you going to college”, instead of “will you go to college”. I never recall a day when college was an “if”, and that change in mental model has incalculable value in being an entrepreneur or leader. To me, one of the reasons STEM and inclusion programs are crucial is because they change “if I can” into “when I do” . I was raised in a legacy of leaders who remove obstacles and create space for others to excel — from Thomas Watson Jr. leading IBM, Ed Holden leading his team, and Jackie Harper leading her family. Now that’s part of my core purpose and how I lead my company at Truss.

My hope in writing this story is to invite women to tell their stories — of insight, ambition, perseverance and achievement — out loud! As Tiffani Bell, CEO of Human Utility, wrote on Twitter

Ultimately, this is the story of discovering that your mother is a badass. Lucky me. Happy Mother’s Day, Jacqueline Harper — programmer, coder, engineer.

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