If knowledge is power, then coders like Fereshteh Forough and Barbara Liskov will inherit the earth

Two women helping to lead the tech sector towards greater diversity and inclusion discuss the power of code to advance women from America to Afghanistan.

If knowledge is power, then coders will inherit the earth. That’s the principle behind Code to Inspire, the first coding school for girls in Afghanistan, founded by Fereshteh Forough in 2015. Fereshteh was born in Iran, her Afghani parents having fled their home country as refugees. After the fall of the Taliban, they returned to Afghanistan when Fereshteh had just finished high school. Though she had no background in computer science, she passed the entrance exam for the subject at Herat University and earned a degree in computer science. She then went to Berlin, where she earned her master’s degree, before returning to lecture at Herat University for three years. In 2012, she relocated to New York City.

Almost 20 years before Fereshteh was born, Barbara Liskov became one of the first women in the United States to earn a PhD in computer science. In 2008, in recognition of her work in the field, Barbara was given the prestigious Turing Award for developing the Liskov substitution principle, one of the fundamental principles underlying some of the world’s most popular programming languages. In other words, if you’ve used a computer, Barbara has affected your life. She’s currently a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here, the two discuss their respective approaches to programming and computer science, how their backgrounds have influenced their views on the power of code, and on the challenges and opportunities of being a woman in the field.

Fereshteh Forough—In high school, I majored in literature. I never thought about pursuing a career or degree in computer science or S.T.E.M. [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics]. But when we moved to Afghanistan from Iran, where I’d been a refugee, I participated in the university’s general exam, which to my surprise selected computer science for me. I really didn’t want to go to university and do it, but then my parents said, ‘Just go, it’s a skill everyone’s looking for now.’

The first day I walked into the class, we were taught mathematics. I thought ‘Oh my god, this is the wrong place for me to be.’ But the class that we took, an introduction to programming and algorithms, appealed to me. We were being taught QBasic, the programming language, and what I really liked about it was the critical thinking and creativity involved in the class. The teacher gave out the problem and then we had to find a solution by writing algorithms for it. I liked solving puzzles. Code looks like a language aliens speak to each other, like in a sci-fi movie. I thought, ‘I’m going to give it a shot and stay for a few weeks.’ I ended up completing a degree in computer science.

“I think there’s a kind of beauty to programming, when you find a solution that’s clean and simple. A beauty I see as being very similar to the beauty in mathematics.”

Daisy Prince—Barbara, you obviously have a huge amount of experience in this. When did you realize computer science was something you wanted to do?

Barbara Liskov—I’ve always been into math and science. When I graduated from university, I thought briefly about going on to grad school to study mathematics. Instead, I went out to look for a job. I got a job offer to become a computer programmer, and that was the first time I even knew that there was such a thing as a computer. And so I started this job, and on the very first day, they handed me a Fortran manual—Fortran is a programming language—and asked me to write a little program to do something. I forget what the thing was.

So I sat down with this manual, and I figured out how to write the program, and it turned out to be something I really enjoyed and was very good at. It has its mathematical aspects. I think there’s a kind of beauty to programming, when you find a solution that’s clean and simple. A beauty I see as being very similar to the beauty in mathematics, when you find the right proof to a theorem or something like that. But it has this added aspect that you’re actually building something that does something, and for me that’s just extremely satisfying.

Building programs is really a branch of engineering. You’re trying to find a solution that best fits the criteria in situations where the criteria may even be at odds with one another. You’re looking for a solution that works, among a number of possible solutions that might work equally well. There can be many solutions, but there can also be simpler ways and more complicated ways of thinking about things. I always feel that the simplest solution is the best, but it’s not that there’s this one thing that’s better than all the others. It’s really a complicated process. Not that different, I think, from writing, in fact. You have a lot of decisions to make about how to express things and how best to organize your material.

Fereshteh—Definitely. There are a lot of great solutions that come out of computer science. What I’ve learned from my journey as a refugee is that great things can start with empty hands. I always remember how, as refugees, my family and I learned to maneuver the situation to our favor. It’s the same with programming. When you try to create something from scratch, it’s very empowering because you don’t have all the resources at first. You have to try to figure out how you can put them all together. And for me, it speaks to the power of individuals, to how you can use your skills as a way to not only empower yourself, but also have the ability to empower other people.

In Afghanistan, at our coding school, we had students that came and had never touched a computer in their life. They’d never been online. But now, they’re able to express themselves online, creating websites, making games or developing mobile apps. For example, we had a group of our students develop a game in which the Afghanistan National Army was fighting the Taliban in the opium fields. They wanted to show how many obstacles the National Army faced in order to fight the Taliban, eradicate the opium fields, and bring peace to the community. It’s using code as a way to highlight certain stories and empower people in the community.

It’s like a journey. The journey of the unknown. The same as me, as a refugee, taking that journey in Iran. I knew nothing about that country. The challenges that you’re facing are the same as when you are going to write a piece of code or make a program. I always tell people that if your program has bugs in it you should be happy because bugs are like teachers. They show you where the mistakes are, so you shouldn’t be upset if you see them.

Fereshteh Forough photographed at home in New York City. Special Thanks 4C Imaging and LTI Lightside.

Daisy—Would you agree with that, Barbara, that bugs are a good teacher?

Barbara—I’m not sure I would say that. I do think that when you find a bug in your program you shouldn’t get terribly upset. In fact, one very important thing that students have to learn is how to run tests early so they can find bugs. A lot of my career has focused on how you can build programs because when I started out, people really didn’t understand that very well. The most exciting moments of my career have actually been times when all of a sudden I saw the solution to a problem that I hadn’t seen previously.

For example, I invented something that’s called data abstraction, which is the way that people organize their programs so that they can keep them orderly and under control and reason about them in small chunks rather than in huge pieces. I had just had this ‘Aha!’ moment. I had been thinking and thinking about how to organize programs, and all of a sudden I saw this new way of looking at it that made a huge difference in how the field moved forward. Now I work at a university and, of course, the major thing that you do at a university is teaching. I’ve always been working with students. I’ve been teaching courses and trying to help them progress in their careers and their lives.

So I have a little bit of experience in what Fereshteh’s talking about, but of course, given the adverse conditions, it’s amazing what you’ve been able to accomplish. It’s just really incredible. Later in my career, I did quite a bit of work trying to bring women along because women are not very well represented in computer science. But I think some progress is being made. At MIT now, more than 35 percent of the undergraduates in computer science are women, I think. So things really are changing, but it’s been a long slog to get to that point.

The big thing nowadays is what they call implicit bias. Thinking that people like you are better than people who aren’t like you. Sometimes, it’s because they just don’t see that a woman is as good as a man because she’s not a man, so she’s not like them. It isn’t that I’ve encountered very much explicit bias where people are just bound and determined. It’s more that they have good intentions, but they don’t necessarily carry them through in a very good way. At one point in my career, I was an associate provost for faculty equity at MIT. I would talk to department heads and explain to them things they just didn’t get. Like the fact that if you ask for a volunteer for a job that’s not particularly desirable, women are much more likely to volunteer than men are.

“In the context of the patriarchal society that is Afghanistan, it wasn’t very acceptable for a lot of my classmates to see a female student be very active in projects, to be vocal. I became a female mentor after that.”

Fereshteh—From my side, the problems and the challenges are more social, as well as the restrictions that come with living in Afghanistan. When I moved to Afghanistan, one year after the fall of the Taliban, and I was on the computer science faculty, I was a very vocal and active student. In the context of the patriarchal society that is Afghanistan, it wasn’t very acceptable for a lot of my classmates to see a female student be very active in projects, to be vocal. I became a female mentor after that. I taught Java programming, and at the very first class, I expected about a hundred people to show. Less than ten people were there. The reason was that all the men said ‘Why should we go to a class that a woman is teaching? She thinks she knows better than us?’

Eventually, over time, the number increased because they noticed that it was more about collaboration and working as a team, rather than about whether the person leading the team is male or female. I noticed that the girls really weren’t participating in class conversations or projects. They were ashamed of raising their hands because they didn’t want to be criticized or made fun of. I felt that there should be a way to help these women boost their self-esteem and get out of their comfort zone. That’s what led me to open Code to Inspire. To not only provide a very safe educational environment for free, so the girls could feel comfortable coming and learning, but also to overcome these cultural stereotypes against women. The stereotypes suggesting that women aren’t able to write code and aren’t able to do the work.

We’ve faced some backlash. Men sometimes comment on our Facebook page, saying things like ‘How come these women can code, they should be at home.’ But you also see a tremendous change in the lives of the girls. We had the fathers and the brothers of the girls come to our school to check in on them. ‘We don’t know what our girls are doing. We saw that she is making a website, she’s talking about coding. We don’t know what that is, but it’s very interesting.’ And they thanked us. We got more students because they became advocates. To win the hearts of the fathers and the brothers, who are technically the decision-makers in the family, was a huge win. The families saw the financial benefit, but they also saw the new skills the girls had. It made their families change their perspective.

Daisy—It’s great that they’re welcoming it instead of fearing it, you know? There’s a lot of talk right now about the internet and privacy. Do we need to make the internet a safer place?

Barbara—I think the problem that you’re bringing up is a huge problem, and I guess I could say it was an unintended consequence of the information revolution that’s happened over the last 20 years. These are problems that, while technological solutions can help, will probably also need to be solved through legislation. People are going to have to become aware of things that they seem to be fairly clueless about right now. Like, for example, considering the source of a piece of information. Where is it actually coming from? It’s not something that has an easy fix.

Fereshteh—I definitely agree with you, Barbara. We can’t come up with one specific solution. Talking about Afghanistan, and specifically the work we’re doing, it’s good to be worried about how you use different technology, tools, or software that can keep you safe, but it’s more important to consider how you protect your identity online in a way that doesn’t harm you. We always try to ask our students if they’re comfortable with us putting their picture on the Code to Inspire blog or on Twitter, on any social media or in a video, because we don’t want to make trouble for them.

“People are going to have to become aware of things that they seem to be fairly clueless about right now.”

Daisy—How many people are you working with at the moment, Fereshteh?

Fereshteh—We have about 100 girls. They come from different educational backgrounds, both computer science and high school, so the age range is 14 to 25 years old. The goal for us is to help them to get to a level where people can outsource projects to them and have them intern and do work online, either part-time or full-time. But the ultimate goal for us is to help them be entrepreneurs, so that they stand on their own two feet.

Daisy—It seems to me that the conversation always comes back to the relationship between knowledge and power. There’s an idea gaining credence right now that some of the new tech zillionaires—Facebook, Apple, Google, all those guys—are behaving, in many ways, like the robber barons did in previous centuries. How can we manage technology going forward so that it’s good for everybody, not just for a few?

Barbara—You know, people are people. Just because they’re gifted technically doesn’t mean they won’t behave like they behave. And plenty of people get a lot of wealth and they behave well. But there are many people who don’t behave well. The question is this: Are these companies becoming monopolies? How do we manage them? You know, they’re just businesses. So it’s not anything new. It’s just continuing the same old problem.

Fereshteh—It’s just sort of human nature. Right?

Barbara—Yeah, human nature isn’t everything we might hope it could be.

Daisy—No, sadly not. Fereshteh, do you have any thoughts about these guys and the way they’re behaving? They’ve changed the world in some ways for the better, and in some ways for the worse.

Fereshteh—I mean, I believe in the power of community and the power of people. Again, I think it goes back to the story of me being born a refugee. I’m now living in New York, and I haven’t been able to go back to Afghanistan for six years due to immigration issues. I’ve done everything online. So I wasn’t present there to make a change. I used technology to make an idea happen in Afghanistan, with funding from people who are aligned with what I think. So with the power of technology and, as we’ve said, with knowledge, we can definitely bring about a lot of changes. Even in small ways. But those will lead to a bigger impact.

Barbara—You know, Fereshteh is talking about one of the wonderful things about the internet, which is that you can do this kind of thing long distance, where once upon a time you would have had to be in that place physically.

Fereshteh—Unfortunately, the mainstream media doesn’t play a fair game with Afghanistan. They broadcast bad news, and I don’t deny that it’s happening, but there are still a lot of places in Afghanistan where it’s safe, where women are getting an education or are doing daily work like other women. They play sports. They go to coffee shops. They watch movies. So what I’m also doing with my work is trying to project a better face of Afghanistan to the rest of the world.

Barbara—Well, I certainly admire what you’re doing, Fereshteh. And I wish you the best success.