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037 – Fortran reveals Hidden Figures

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 30, 2019
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

Dorothy Vaughan was a mathematician who worked for NASA during the 1960s. Her story provides an excellent example of the importance of continually learning and effectively responding to disruption.

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Happy New Year! We took two weeks off over the holiday period to relax and recharge. Now, we’re back and ready for a big year! 

Here is the first episode of Anecdotally Speaking for 2019! This year, we’re excited to hear more stories from guests all over the world who have completed our training programs. But before we do, we’d like to share a few stories we’ve discovered and rediscovered over our short break. 

In this episode, Mark shares the story of Dorothy Vaughan, a mathematician who worked as a ‘human computer’ for NASA during the 1960s. When NASA installed their first IBM mainframe computer, Dorothy feared she and her team would soon become redundant, but predicted NASA’s need for a programming team. She taught herself the FORTRAN programming language, then taught it to her team, who became NASA’s programming team. The true story features in the 2016 film Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi. 

The documentary Shawn mentions in this episode is The Dawn Wall. The TED Talk he mentions can be found here.

To check out our newly released public event calendar, click here. 

For your storybank

Tags: change, disruption, initiative, learning, long-term planning

In the early 1960s, Dorothy Vaughan, an African American woman, was working as a ‘human computer’ for NASA. She was based in their Langley Research Centre. 

Dorothy was the informal leader of a group of ‘human computers’. They were responsible for completing the very complicated manual mathematical calculations which supported NASA’s space program.

One day, NASA installed a brand new IBM mainframe computer. It took up an entire room. No one really knew how it worked, but a group of IBM technicians were on site for some time setting it up. 

Dorothy saw the computer, and spoke to the technicians, and realised the computer would soon replace her and her team. The computer could automatically complete the calculations they were responsible for.

Dorothy kept this knowledge to herself, but decided to learn as much as she could about the machine after hours. She learnt that it used a programming language known as FORTRAN, and that NASA would need a programming team to use it.

Dorothy decided to learn FORTRAN. She visited her local library, but the only book on FORTRAN was in the whites only section. Her only option was to steal the book. She did, and eventually taught herself the language, practicing her programming after hours on the IBM machine. She then taught her team. 

When NASA announced their need for a programming team to their employees, Dorothy raised her hand.

She said, “You don’t need a team, you have a team. Your human computers, they all know how to program this machine”.

The human computers then became NASA’s programming team, and Dorothy their supervisor.

Podcast Transcript

Shawn:

So welcome back to Anecdotally Speaking, our podcast to help you build your business story repertoire. Hi, I’m Shawn Callahan.

Mark:

And I’m Mark Schenk.

Shawn:

So welcome back everyone.  Hey, it’s 2019, happy new year.  Hope you had a great sort of break and had a bit of a rest.  I know Mark and I did.  We got away a little bit, didn’t we?

Mark:

Yeah it was fantastic and recharged, ready for a big 2019.

Shawn:

Absolutely.  So, we’re back with some more stories for you, stories you can use to build up that repertoire and really tell anywhere in a business setting and one of the things that I’m really keen for us to do this year, Mark, is to get a few more interviews from different people.  You know, our customers who are having you know, sort of I guess, making great progress with their business storytelling.  So that is on its way.  But let’s jump straight into the story, right.  Now, Mark I believe you’ve got one for us.  Why don’t you set it up and kick it off?

Mark:

Okay, so today’s story is one that’s taken from a movie.  In this case, it’s the 2016 movie, Hidden Figures.  The movie is directed by Theodore Melfi and it’s a historical story but it’s, it’s not historically accurate.  There are some, they’ve taken some poetic licences with some bits of the story.

Shawn:

Well that’s most movies unless it’s a documentary, right?

Mark:

Yeah, so I’m going to talk about one thread from the movie and the context is that it’s the early 1960s and NASA are involved in the space race with the Russians and it’s putting a lot of effort into getting spaceships into orbit around Earth and getting them safely back.  NASA had a research centre in Langley and there was a team of people who did the calculations, manual calculations of flight trajectory, re-entry speeds, heat absorption, all this very, very complicated, they invented some mathematical approaches to deal with some of the stuff.  And the, this was a team of African American women and they were, they were expert mathematicians performing all these complex calculations supporting the space program.  So, they’re pretty smart.

Shawn:

Clearly, clearly.

Mark:

They’re pretty smart people.  Now it’s not the best working environment.  They’re working in a gender and a racially segregated working environment so there’s also a lot less opportunities for advancement for the African American women and for example, this team of computers and they called them, computers.

Shawn:

What, the people actually doing the calculations?

Mark:

The women who were doing the calculations, “Oh I’m a computer”.

Shawn:

They’re human computers.

Mark:

Yeah, absolutely.  Now, the head of the group is a lady called Dorothy Vaughn.  And I say head of the group, she’s the unofficial head because she’s African American woman, she’s not been formally appointed to the supervisor role.  So, this team’s doing their work, been doing it for a few years, they’re really good at it.  But in those early 1960s, the early days of computers and NASA installed a brand-new IBM mainframe computer.

Shawn:

Aha.

Mark:

Put it into its own room and in those early days, no one knew what a computer was, no one knew how it worked.  And so they had some IBM technicians who were in there playing with it, getting it set up, and Dorothy saw this and Dorothy saw that that computer as she’d learn more about it, because she would, she just went and talked to the technicians and talking, “What can it do?”, etcetera and she realised, after a little while, that this computer was going to replace her entire team.  And so, all the manual calculations that they did would be done automatically by this, by this machine.  She saw that her team, her world, were about to be disrupted.  But she didn’t tell anyone, she just kept it to herself and what she did is she just learned as much as she could about the machine.  She was the only one who initially was able to figure out how to turn it on for example.

Shawn:

Yeah well that’s a good start, isn’t it?

Mark:

She was playing with it after hours, again, talking to the technicians and she realised that it was, it had a programming language that enabled it to use its computing power and that language was Fortran.  Now, I know you and I know Fortran because that was your first computing language, I understand?

Shawn:

Scarily, yes.

Mark:

I actually learned basic first and then Cobol, I never graduated to Fortran, thank goodness. So, Dorothy sees that she’s about to be disrupted as is all the members of her team and she decides to do something about it, she decides to learn how to program in Fortran.  So, she goes to the local library and she goes, she looks for a book on programming and library did have a book on programming Fortran but she wasn’t allowed to borrow it because it was in the ‘Whites Only’ section.

Shawn:

Get out.

Mark:

Yeah.  So, she stole it.  Stuck it in her jumper, walked out.  Teaches herself how to program in Fortran.  Practices after hours on the IBM machine and gets it working.  Starts figuring out how to do some basic stuff and it’s kind of good so she teaches herself how to program Fortran.  And I don’t know about you but like, that’s no small thing.

Shawn:

Exactly.

Mark:

It’s no small thing learning Fortran from a book with no one to show you how to do it.  She becomes sufficiently competent that she teaches her team how to program in Fortran and sometime later, NASA realise that they need a programming team to run this monstrosity of a machine that they’ve invested in and they didn’t have a team.  Of course, until Dorothy put up her hand and said, “You do have a team.  These computers.  The human computers, they are your programming team.  They all know how to program in Fortran and so she became the supervisor of the brand-new NASA programming team and thirty of her human computers, of her team, became the programming team for the IBM mainframe.  And so, she, by taking the initiative, essentially saved her team from disruption.

Shawn:

Wow, that’s great.  I love that story.  That’s lovely.  I did love that movie you know, it was just a cracker of a movie.  If you haven’t seen it, get out and see Hidden Figures, I’m sure you can get it on I Tunes or something like that.

Mark:

Yeah because and this thread here, this is only one of the threads.

Shawn:

Yeah, it’s about three women, right?

Mark:

Exactly.

Shawn:

Three of these maths brilliant people, so, it’s fantastic.  Great, okay.  So, let’s think about that story.  What are the things in that story that really make it work?

Mark:

Yeah. Why does it work, what makes it good?  Well, I’m going to start with thinking about one of the limitations of using that story.

Shawn:

Right.

Mark:

And that is that Hidden Figures is not a hugely well-known movie.  It’s not like Star Wars, you know, that sort of thing.

Shawn:

Sure.

Mark:

Where everybody knows the plot line and you can just say, “When Obi Wan Kenobi gets killed”.

Shawn:

Yeah.

Mark:

Pretty, you know, most people, a lot of people have got a good idea of what that is.  You might need, because Hidden Figures is not as well known, you might need to give a bit more detail, you need to have more background.

Shawn:

Yes.

Mark:

With very, very well-known movies, you can pretty much leap straight into the action.

Shawn:

Yeah, yeah.  I think one of the other really strong parts is it’s a real story, you know?  It’s actually happened.  So, you’re recounting a little bit of history, a little slice of history.  But you know, like any sort of history, it’s so nice when you can bring it down to one specific person, facing one specific situation and how they overcome it.  I mean, it’s got those elements.  There’s definitely an obstacle for her to overcome and you know, we know that that makes for a better story, right?

Mark:

Yeah, the high stakes thing.

Shawn:

Yes.  I think the other thing which I like about it is that, it’s not just about her.  It’s actually her helping her team as well.  I mean yeah, she clearly you know, sort of put herself in a great position to do that but she was always thinking in the back of her mind, you know?  I watched a movie just recently called, ‘The Dawn Wall’, right.  It’s a documentary of this crazy fellow who is a rock climber and he works out the way to climb up the rock wall.  This massive rock wall, it’s like 3000 feet high in the Yosemite National Park, right.  And he does it with this other guy.  And the great thing about, this is a bit of a spoiler alert actually, but the great thing about the story is that it gets to a point where his partner can’t you know, get past this one part of the wall and he must’ve had like, I don’t know, twenty, thirty goes at it, fail, fail, fail, right.  And then finally, his buddy comes back down and says, “No, I’m going to wait here until you get over that and we’re not going to get to the top until we do it together”.  You know, you just felt like, “Hey, this is, there’s this guy, we’re in it together” right.  You know, he could have easily gone up and finished it.

Mark:

Yeah.

Shawn:

So, I think, those sort of elements of people helping other people, that is you know, it’s a characteristic in humans that we really appreciate.

Mark:

You bet ya! And I’m assuming in that movie, ‘The Dawn Wall’, that they were not, they must have had ropes because you don’t fail to, on a climb like that twenty times.

Shawn:

Yeah, they had ropes but they do free climb, so they’re not using the ropes to climb.  Yeah, they fall off many, many times.  They actually spent like three weeks on this one. Anyway, I’m diverting. Let’s get it back to Hidden Figures.

Mark:

So, back to Hidden Figures, one of the things that’s great about this story is that it’s an underdog.

Shawn:

Yeah.

Mark:

It’s against the odds.

Shawn:

She’s up against it, right?

Mark:

Yep.

Shawn:

She’s up against the culture, she’s up against the you know, attitudes, all that is really pushing against her so she has to do it like a subterfuge right?

Mark:

Yep.

Shawn:

At night time, after hours, etcetera.

Mark:

Another thing I like about that is kind of the, when I recall when I first watched the movie, my surprise at the fact that those calculations, those incredibly complex mathematical calculations were being done manually.  Slide rules, paper, pages and pages and pages and pages of calculations that needed to be checked and rechecked because they were being used as the basis of sending a spaceship into, a spacecraft into space.

Shawn:

Yes, yeah.  There’s a lot of pencil and paper there.

Mark:

Oh yeah.

Shawn:

Hey, yeah so, I think they’re some of the things that make it work but in terms of making it even better, I watched a TED video on the weekend and it was Malcolm Gladwell talking about essentially the invention and use of a bomb site.  Bomb siting. How do you use that?

Mark:

Oh, so the site that they use in a bomber to figure out…

Shawn:

To drop bombs.  But the thing I noticed about, and he’s such a great storyteller, he’s a bit really understated sort of guy but what he does at the beginning which I think is really powerful, is that he gives you a snapshot image so you can picture the person, right.  So, he’s talking about this Swiss guy and he says he’s a very upstanding Swiss guy with a Swiss moustache and very you know, he’s an engineer and he builds up the character of the person a little bit and I think in that story it actually, to know she was middle-aged, know a little bit more about her as a person I think would make it even better.

Mark:

Yeah, indeed, indeed.  We love to know the character so that we can relate to it.

Shawn:

Yeah, yeah.

Mark:

So definitely, making the story better by adding the character.  Now, I just want to go back, you said that you were talking about Malcolm Gladwell describing the bomb site, his bomb site, is that correct?  Because you really threw me for that because that’s the term I use to describe my daughter’s bedroom.

Shawn:

Oh, the bomb site, right, okay. Yeah, you know, so go and have a look at that story, it’s a really, it’s a cracker.  It’s got a really good point at the end too.

Mark:

And another thing you could do is to talk about the computer, how huge it was.

Shawn:

Yes.

Mark:

It was like it took up the entire floor of a building.  The room was environmentally sealed.  It’s incredibly imposing.

Shawn:

Yeah, all those fluorescent lights and you know, the machine sitting into this big room sort of by itself, you know.

Mark:

An enormous hum of transistors and resistors and…

Shawn:

Yeah, that’s right.  Exactly.  So, there’s that picture of the computer.  Which is kind of like the antagonist in this story, right?  You know, so you know, that’s what she’s up against.  The, I think the other thing that you know, could make the story you know, even better, I guess it’s just how much and this is a choice thing more than anything, but how much do you build the drama of the computer being the bad guy?  Right?  And I think we’ll talk about this later but I think there’s an opportunity there to build it up so that when she overcomes that, you go, “Okay well that’s a big thing that she’s overcome”.  But I think, I love the story.

Mark:

There were a number of ways she could…

Shawn:

These are just little things you could do, right?

Mark:

So, there were a number of ways you could make that story even better.

Shawn:

Yeah.

Mark:

Great, great.  Now, let’s talk about application because the idea of this podcast is that we give people stories that they can use in a business situation.  So, what’s a business situation where we might use this story?

Shawn:

Well I think you know, if you were doing a leadership development program and you just wanted to give people that sense of what you needed to do to tackle disruption in the workplace, you know.  If they’ve seen it in the 1960s with computers, imagine what we see today, you know in terms of you know, new businesses just coming out of nowhere and become major competitors or whatever that disruption might be.  But just her attitude.  I love the fact that A) she didn’t you know, sort of put out this you know, warning to all of her staff that a terrible thing is going to happen.  No, she just took action and turned it around and so she had these people you know, sort of following her into a better world that she was helping create.  So to me, that would be one of the areas I’d look to.

Mark:

And a great example of leadership.

Shawn:

Yeah.

Mark:

You could use it.

Shawn:

And tackling disruption.

Mark:

Yeah. I guess there’s another, or there’s a range of different things you could illustrate using that story.  Things like, the importance of taking the initiative when something bad happens.  It’s how you respond to it that matters.

Shawn:

Yes.

Mark:

And this, this lady chose a growth mindset.  She chose to tackle this by taking it head on and doing something about it.

Shawn:

Yeah.  I guess and the growth mindset too, that idea of, it’s important to be continually learning, right.  You don’t sort of say, “Oh yeah, I did my degree, I did my training and I’m done”.  It is no, you’re learning all the time.  She was you know, from the movie, I would have picked her as a middle-aged women, kids, you know, probably you know, 8-10 or something like that and so she was learning a whole new computer language at that age and that’s what you’ve got to do.  And the pace of it has stepped up you know the amount of learning you have to do. So yeah that would be another one.

Mark:

And of course, using it in an inspirational way and in fact, when we came across the, this specific story for the first time, it was being used by a CEO as part of a speech to try to inspire people to be on the lookout for and respond effectively to disruptions.

Shawn:

Yeah.

Mark:

And it was an interesting story that we heard because there was an outgoing CEO and an incoming CEO and we heard about it because the incoming CEO called us after the event.  He’d had a beautiful slide deck, he had a very well-crafted presentation, had a lot of effort put into it from a graphic design perspective, really comprehensive graphs.

Shawn:

Lots of graphs.

Mark:

Lots of graphs, lots of facts and data.  But after the session, no one was talking about his presentation.  Everyone was talking about the outgoing CEO because the outgoing CEO had told this story and he’d said at the end, his point was, “Folks, there’s a lot of things out there that are going to disrupt the businesses that we work with.  We need to figure out how to respond to that.  We need to be aware of those things happening and we need to figure out what’s our Fortran.  Think about that.  What’s our Fortran?”

Shawn:

Yeah, that’s it.  And it became a catchphrase, didn’t it?

Mark:

Exactly, people were talking, “Yeah, what is our Fortran?” and they were sending messages on the Yammer site saying, “Ah we got our team together and we worked out our Fortran to be dot, dot, dot”, you know?  It was just this language that just started to build up there and the incoming CEO just went, “Oh my God…

Shawn:

“No one’s talking about what I said”.

Mark:

My presentation at all, you know.”  And it’s the difference between a really well-crafted presentation and an effective story.

Shawn:

Now it’s not an either-or thing as well.

Mark:

That’s right.

Shawn:

I think this is the thing people sometimes mistake, they think oh you have to have it all story and what about all the facts and the details and the graphics?  No, no.  A really top-notch presenter in a business setting has those graphs, but they tell a story about them.  You know, and they add other stories to add that you know, richness and excitement and memorability to it.  So, I think you know, getting that nice combination is vital.

Mark:

Indeed. It’s everything in moderation and the big opportunity for business, for people in business, is to bring a little bit more story into their communications, into their presentations.

Shawn:

Yeah, yeah, definitely.  What else?  Are there any other places we would use it, Mark?

Mark:

I think that pretty much covers it.  So, one thing in this discussion that’s revealed to me is that it is in fact quite a versatile story.

Shawn:

Yeah, yeah.

Mark:

And I could easily see, I’m running a leadership program in Kuala Lumpur next week and I can easily see this story…

Shawn:

How you can share this story.

Mark:

Being used as part of that.

Shawn:

Good, excellent.

(music)

Shawn:

Okay now,

Mark:

Ratings.

Shawn:

Yeah ratings.  I think we give this a rating since you told it I get to kick off and you know, again, just reminder it’s 2019, you know, what do we have to remember about our ratings? I think it’s about usefulness, you know, impact, the relatability, tell ability.

Mark:

Is there such a word? Just made that up.  I really love this, I love actually telling stories of movies so I’m giving it an eight, eight out of ten.

Shawn:

Okay.

Mark:

I think this is a cracker of a story to have in your back pocket.  Put it in your story bank, absolutely.

Shawn:

Indeed.  And to do that, all you need to do is to go to our, our blog page, there is a transcription of these stories so you can just cut and paste it straight into your story bank.

Mark:

Yes.

Shawn:

Now my rating.  I’m very tempted to give it an eight but I don’t want to seem, you know I don’t want to…but I will.  I’m going to.

Mark:

Give it an eight.

Shawn:

I’ll give it an eight.

Mark:

If that’s what you think it is.

Shawn:

Yeah.

Mark:

Okay.

Shawn:

I like the story, I like the overcoming the against the odds nature of it.

Mark:

Yeah.

Shawn:

And its versatility and I think you can tell it pretty quickly.

Mark:

Yeah. Good.

Shawn:

Fantastic.  Now, I recommend people go out and watch Hidden Figures.

Mark:

Oh yes.

Shawn:

Check that out.

Mark:

Well I recommend that people go and visit our website and our events page because we have just put, we’ve just launched our public events program for 2019 and so that’s on the events page of our website so if you’re interested in any of our events during the year, please go there.  We do update it regularly as things change and more things come onto the calendar.

Shawn:

Very good. Very good.  Yeah, that’s going to be great.  Well, I think we’ll wrap things up there Mark, that’s fantastic. The, I guess you know, all we can say no is it’s great to be back here in 2019, it’s great to actually you know, be back on the podcast so thanks again for listening to Anecdotally Speaking and of course, tune in next week where we’ll have another episode for you of how to put stories to work.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

One Response to “037 – Fortran reveals Hidden Figures”

  1. John Groarke Says:

    Definitely an eight (8)!

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