Ada Lovelace Day (2)


Today is Ada Lovelace Day. Given that I’ve named my child after Ms. Lovelace, I feel obligated and honored to take part in the pledge to “highlight [a] women in technology” that I look up to.

While I’ve many present and past fabulous female colleagues, if I’m to choose one to write about it’s a no-brainer.

Jennifer Mankoff is an associate processor at the Human Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) at Carnegie Mellon University. Jen was my graduate advisor at Berkeley, seeing me through a master’s and PhD. Perhaps “nurse” is a better word, as she not only worked tirelessly with me to improve my abilities but at times literally cared for me when I was ill.

Jen is a whirling dervish. A good Samaritan. A force of nature.

Jen’s genius is her ability not only to handle adversity but to turn it on its head. When Jen was a graduate student at Georgia Tech, she suffered a severe injury to her hands that made it difficult for her to type more than about half-an-hour a day. For any student trying to write her PhD thesis, this would be a huge obstacle, but for a student studying computer science having such a limited ability to type could be devastating. Jen instead used this as an opportunity to teach herself how to break down tasks into small, well-defined chunks, map out a detailed course of action, and then relentlessly focus for the half-an-hour a day she had to work. She was able to complete her thesis on time using this approach, and she extrapolated from that success a methodology for working that has allowed her to pursue a mind-boggling array of world-class research projects while raising two children and fighting through a difficult, debilitating illness.

And this: Jen is honestly trying to change the world for the Good. She has pursued breakthrough research on improving access to digital technology for people who are disabled, and she started an ambitious sustainability project well before the Obama administration took such work mainstream. I am afraid that my disposition may be too cynical to believe that any technological innovation can be so utopist, but bless her for trying.

When my daughter, Ada, is older I will tell her stories about Jen, about how she fought for gender equality in faculty hiring practices at Berkeley, how she would conduct research meetings while nursing her newborn, how she worked with students at Berkeley to create an information service in the wake of 9/11, and many other stories. Ada will learn from Jen’s example how women can succeed in technology, obliterate misogyny, and still fulfill their familial desires.

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1 Comment

  1. Ruth Mankoff (her mom) says:

    I could tell you a lot more stories about Jen – but your summary is sweet and made me cry.
    thank you

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