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Shaping the Future of Software

by Alicia P. Gregory

"I'm worried about your daughter," the kindergarten teacher told Jane's mother over the phone. "She's drawing hieroglyphics everywhere."

The parent-teacher conference the next day revealed the source of the mysterious symbols—Dad.

A captivated five year old, Jane would sit at the dining room table each night with her father's computer printouts, copying the Greek symbols—deltas and sigmas. "To this day my handwriting is all crazy—I don't form any of my letters correctly—because I taught myself to write from his printouts.

"My mom loves to tell this story," Jane Hayes adds, laughing.

Photo of Jane HayesJane Hayes spent 17 years in industry, rising through the ranks from systems analyst to corporate vice president, and now shares her experience with University of Kentucky students in a software engineering program she's creating.

This encounter may have ruined her penmanship, but she didn't abandon computers. In fact, Hayes went on to spend 17 years in industry, rising through the ranks from systems analyst to corporate vice president, and now shares her experience with University of Kentucky students in a software engineering program she's creating. Her goal: design software to further UK research and empower students to tackle real-world problems. As an assistant professor of computer science, Hayes is addressing these problems through ongoing research on software maintainability and reliability. And programs used by NASA and other industrial partners, as well as software written by her own students, are the subjects of her experiments.

Girl Power
In response to the perennial gender question about women in her field, Hayes shares an experience from a recent international conference on software engineering: "Of three keynote addresses, one was given by a very impressive woman, and it was titled something like 'Women in Computer Science: Must There Be So Few?'"

In the hour-and-a-half talk about her NSF-funded research, the speaker recounted her focus-group findings and gave international stats, such as how more women than men work in computer science in Singapore. "Then she showed the U.S. stats in industry and academia, and, of course, it's very depressing," Hayes says.

"But as someone who has been the only female in most of my organizations, I'd say this to the conference organizers: it would have been more effective if you had a male give the speech on 'why so few women?' and if you had a female give a technical keynote.

"I think it leaves the wrong impression with the young males in the audience," Hayes says and pauses, "who are really the ones that you need to worry about. Most of the professors around here get it; they value equality and diversity. But what the young up-and-comers will remember from this conference is, 'Oh yeah, there was only one girl who gave a keynote, and all she did was show a bunch of stats about why there aren't more girls in computer science.'"

One of the things the speaker didn't address, but Hayes firmly believes, is that successful females have to be super self-assured. "You have to say, 'I'm not the token female. Bring it on.' You have to be just cocky enough to believe you're getting this job because you're awesome, not because of your gender."

Hayes says she owes some of this empowered attitude to her mother, who is also in the computing field, and her father. "I'd be curious to see how many female engineers were daughters whose daddies didn't have any boys," she says, "because that's the case in my family. My dad had two girls. And that may have something to do with my career choice—if Dad believes I can do it, I can."

Long before the advent of "Bring Your Daughter to Work Day," she'd tag along with her parents to work. "While I was there I taught myself to program in BASIC and FORTRAN on ancient computers most people have never heard of," says Hayes, an Ohio native whose family moved around a lot based on her dad's positions, including Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, General Motors ("He was one of the inventors of the V-6 engine," Jane says with obvious pride), Imperial College in London, England, the Air Force Academy, and the University of Southern Mississippi, where he was vice president for academic affairs.

Hayes attended Hanover College. The liberal arts school on the Indiana-Kentucky border didn't have much in the way of computers, she says. Hayes started out in what she calls a "fluffy" major—political science—but decided in her junior year to add geology as a double major. The geology department had something special to offer—one computer.

When she got out of college, Hayes took computer science classes in the summer. Then, based on her geology degree and experience with maps, as well as limited computer programming experience, she got hired by the Defense Intelligence Agency. "They wanted government employees to be able to do all of the computer programming. They told me to learn this guy's job so they didn't have to contract it out," she says. The task involved cracking the code of a programmer/baseball fanatic.

"He thought he'd be really cute and name all his variables after baseball players. So I had to try to figure out how this program worked with Joe DiMaggio and Pete Rose—totally meaningless variable names. It was a digital imaging system, so it was very complicated." This experience instilled a career-inspiring passion in Hayes—software maintainability—"writing software that other people can easily modify." After deciphering the inner workings of this Top Secret system, used to maintain a database of aerial photographs, Hayes was hired as a senior systems analyst at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) in 1984.

"SAIC is the largest employee-owned technology company in the United States," Hayes says. "It was formed by a small group of very entrepreneurial nuclear physicists, who were committed to sharing the wealth. They set up an internal stock market—you can only have stock if you're an employee—and it's generated many, many millionaires."

Hayes's projects at SAIC, including the Navy's Tomahawk cruise missile system and nuclear power plant control systems, involved writing software with life or death ramifications and the concept of verification and validation.

"Validation is making sure that you built the right software. Verification is making sure that you built the software right," Hayes says. "Anytime you need to trust a software system with anything that could involve potential loss of human life, damage to the environment, or loss of huge sums of money, you should be willing to spend the extra money on software verification and validation to make sure that you've done everything possible to minimize that potential risk."

Hayes spent 16 years at SAIC, and by 1999 as corporate vice president she was managing more than 230 employees, one $50 million contract, and a $35 million-a-year business unit.

"At SAIC I felt that they treated me like an engineer or like a manager, that my gender didn't matter," Hayes says, laughing. "I certainly didn't see them holding me back." When she started at SAIC, she was one of two female engineers; when she left SAIC, the company was about 25 percent female.

"I bet I got calls every month asking me to start my own company. Groups of people within SAIC would say, 'Start your own woman-owned business. We'll all come and work for you.' But I didn't want my own business. I knew how hard it was being a manager at somebody else's company, and I was already working too much."

Hayes continued to work at SAIC and in 1990 started her Ph.D. while she was pregnant with her daughter, Chelsea. "Every time I would get a promotion, SAIC would give me 10 new people to oversee. My advisor at George Mason University, Jeff Offutt, would ask, 'How many more people? Ten more obstacles to finishing that Ph.D.' He'd tease, 'You're never going to make it.'"

But Hayes was determined. She finished her Ph.D. in 1999, five years after having her second child, David. She says getting her degree is a testament to her husband Greg's strong support and was inspired by her mother's return to—and completion of—college at age 47.

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