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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace was Lord Byron's daughter, a mathematician (to the extent that a woman could be one in early 19th c. England), and one of the inventors of computer programming. She worked with Charles Babbage on various projects related to his calculating machines; she saw that some day machines would be able to perform a wide range of calculations.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, and I promised to write a blog posting about a woman in technology. My subject is Miriam Liskin.

Back in the 1980s, in the comparatively early days of the desktop computer revolution, dBASE II and dBASE III were the basis for many, many custom business programs. If you were a dBASE programmer, it's likely that you owned one of Miriam's books. She wrote a number of huge books about programming in the dBASE environment. These books didn't just teach syntax. They walked you through the whole process of interviewing the end users, developing requirements documents, design docs, and UI docs.

She also had widely-read columns in more than one publication, a consulting business in the Berkeley/Oakland area, and taught programming classes.

I took a dBASE class from her around 1987 or 88. I learned enough from her to work as a dBASE programmer for a couple of years. (Free-lancing was never my thing, really.) Her class and her books were the best possible entry into the world of IT.

She profoundly influenced how I think about users and their needs. As a technical writer, I follow her principles every day: keep the users' needs first and foremost. Talk to the end users whenever you can, meaning the people doing the data entry, not their bosses. (In my current line of work, this means talk to administrators rather than data entry workers, but you see the drift.)

I haven't seen Miriam since the late '80s or early '90s. She moved out of the Bay Area some years ago and is now at Tradition Software in Sacramento. Her books are readily available used, and still make a good introduction to basic programming structures, how to go about designing an application, and so on, even though languages such as dBASE have been eclipsed by object-oriented languages such as C++ and Java.

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