Nautilus

Why Did Obama Just Honor Bug-free Software?

The Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, is usually associated with famous awardees—people like Bruce Springsteen, Stephen Hawking, and Sandra Day O’Connor. So as a computer scientist, I was thrilled to see one of this year’s awards go to a lesser-known pioneer: one Margaret Hamilton.

You might call Hamilton the founding mother of software engineering. In fact, she coined the very term. She concluded that the way forward was rigorously specified design, an approach that still underpins many modern software engineering techniques—“design by contract” and “statically typed” programming languages, for example. But not all engineers are on board with her vision. Hamilton’s approach represents just one side of a long-standing tug-of-war over the “right way” to develop software.

When Hamilton first joined the Apollo team in 1961, after developing radar processing software for the military, she was still considered just a junior programmer: One of her early projects, a mission-abort program called “Forget it,” was seen by her team as peripheral code that would never be used. But she was a brilliant engineer with a knack for system-level

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