Lessons in “Hidden Figures”

The women whose stories are told in the movie “Hidden Figures” give us good examples of professional conduct. Some people have jobs and some people have a calling.

The attitudes and habits that distinguish the women as members of a profession might not be obvious to all viewers of the movie. Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story more fully than the movie could in her book (“Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race”).

Of course, Mary Jackson, Katherine Goble Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan (the heroines in this story) are honest. However, ethical conduct in professional life means more than choosing not to lie, steal, and cheat.

Professional people take responsibility for their own learning. They continue learning throughout their lives. They help colleagues, especially junior colleagues, advance. They share their enthusiasm and their special knowledge and skills with their communities. They stand by their work. They defend their own work. They do not wait for directions, but exercise initiative. They anticipate problems. They make their product as good as it possibly can be.

The book tells a story that begins during the Second World War. The women calculated the magnitudes of forces that affected airplanes in flight. Row upon row of human calculators entered numbers one at a time into calculators by hand. When jet engines replaced propellers and piston engines, they adapted. When the nation called upon their laboratory to help develop spacecraft, they added to their repertoire of mathematical methods. They foresaw the rapid development of computers and the end of the old ways of generating tables of numbers. The women organized their own courses. They taught themselves and one another. The human computers learned to use electronic computers.

Appreciative of the opportunities that they had found, they volunteered in churches and scout troops and other organizations. They spoke about the rewards that the engineering profession offers. They encouraged young people to invest themselves in work that offers great challenges and great rewards.

They asked “what if?” and developed a solution for what appeared to be an improbable mishap years before the same kind of accident crippled the Apollo 13 spacecraft.

Junior members of a team, when they choose to claim professional status, can defend their work confidently against challenges from higher ranking colleagues. The junior member is the expert in her own domain. In this story, a courageous defense not only demonstrates the integrity of one woman’s work but also reveals errors in the data that she had been given, and so improves the whole team’s output.

The movie’s makers tell the story in compressed time. As the director pointed out in a conversation with the Wall Street Journal, movie-goers are willing to watch a mathematician calculate for 30 seconds, but not for 3 days. Because they work in a visual medium, movie-makers prefer action. People run between buildings. Rockets hurtle through the sky.

On most days, most engineers do not run or fly. Engineers check and re-check, test, validate, and patiently make progress through the accumulation of many small improvements. Discipline, attention to detail, and perseverance also characterize professional conduct.

Read the Software Engineering Code of Ethics to learn more about how to be a responsible and professional person. Although written for software engineers, the principles are relevant in other professions too. What is your calling?

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