The Frame

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'Community' star Gillian Jacobs goes behind camera with film on tech pioneer Grace Hopper

by Michelle Lanz | The Frame

Lt. Grace Murray Hopper sitting at her desk. 1947 [?]. NMAH Archives Center

When you think of computer science pioneers, the names Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are probably some of the first that come to mind.

But both of these men owe a lot to the work of Grace Hopper.

Hopper was a mathematician, a rear admiral in the Navy during World War II and a pioneer of computer science. She’s credited with developing early programming languages such as COBOL, which is still being used today.  

Thanks to the new short documentary called "The Queen of Code," Hopper’s largely unknown story is finally being told to a wider audience.

The film was directed by actress Gillian Jacobs, who is best known for her on-screen roles as Britta Perry on “Community” and Mimi-Rose Howard on “Girls.” "The Queen of Code" marks her first foray into documentary filmmaking.

When Jacobs stopped by The Frame, host John Horn asked her about Grace Hopper's unlikely journey, her status as an inspirational figure today, and the parallels between the computer science world and Hollywood.

Interview Highlights:

How did Grace Hopper go from being a math professor at Vassar to a computer science pioneer?

World War II came about, and Pearl Harbor really shook her and she wanted to help out. Her grandfather had been a Rear Admiral, so she was drawn to the Navy. The Navy rejected her, actually, several times, because she was too old — she was about 37 — and they thought she was underweight, but she persisted and she convinced Vassar and the Navy to let her join.

I don't think they quite knew what to do with her initially, but then assigned her to this secret computer called Mark 1 that was at Harvard. She was the only female working on the computer, the only female coder, and initially she was met with a lot of resistance. But she was so skilled and so deft at navigating the environment of Harvard and Mark 1 that she quickly became a valued member of the team.

She passed away in 1992, but she's also a hero for so many women who are interested in computing and math. In fact, you have an interview at the end of the documentary with the Chief Technology Officer of the United States, and she's a woman who looks like she's in her mid-40s, and I suspect she was also a disciple or knew about Grace Hopper's work?

Yeah, Megan Smith is the Chief Technology Officer of the United States. [laughs] I have her business card, which is pretty great — thick stock with a wonderful, laminated seal of the United States. Megan Smith is incredibly eloquent and so inspiring to young girls.

I met her at last year's Grace Hopper celebration, which is the largest gathering of women in technology, and girls and women were just flocking to her like she was Mick Jagger at an after-party. It was crazy, they just lit up and she was so personable and warm and took the time to speak to all of them. She wonderfully articulates Grace Hopper's importance in my doc.

Why do you think it's important that we remember somebody like Grace Hopper? Why isn't her story well-known?

It's an interesting paradox, because on the one hand she's the most well-known woman in technology — she does have a celebration named after her — but when I went around and asked women if they could talk about the specifics of her life, very few of them knew anything about the actual woman. So she's become a masthead, a figurehead, without any real detail about her own life and accomplishments.

For every young girl out there that's being told that she can't code, that it's a man's profession, that women aren't naturally inclined towards math and science, not only Grace Hopper but a whole group of women really defined what is now thought of as coding. No girl out there should think she can't do it, because before [they were] even born, Grace Hopper was inventing COBOL.

As you're making this documentary, were you thinking about your own profession, about acting and filmmaking? Hollywood is notoriously male-driven, so are you thinking about that imbalance as well?

I hadn't really thought about this in a long time, but I went to Juilliard and they always accepted half the number of women as they did men because there were so few parts for women in plays. That was a message that was sent to us at the very beginning of our careers, that there were always going to be fewer parts for us and we'd have to fight harder to get them, and it's continued that way. Certainly that's true for female writers and directors as well. I do see some improvement in the last five years, but the numbers are still really bad.

Is there a difference between the sorts of roles you want to play and the roles you're offered?

[laughs] The answer would be a resounding yes for 99 percent of actors you could interview. Sure, of course. I think it's always interesting to look at the way you see yourself versus the way that people see you.

Initially, when I started working out of college, I almost exclusively played runaway teen girls with drug problems, but I'm pretty straight-laced and buttoned-up in my own life, so I couldn't understand why I kept being offered these roles. On one hand, it says something about roles for women that I've played a fair number of strippers, as have a lot of my friends, but it's fun that I get to play people that are so different from myself. That's the fun of TV — it can develop and change.

If I look at the character, Britta, that I play on "Community," it's been a whole arc and a journey from her in the pilot to her in season six, so that's the fun of a long-running TV show. But yeah, I think that Judi Dench really should just hang up her hat — it's time for me to be in "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."

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