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Meet: Opal Lemmer

Retired Software Group Leader, Low Speed Wind Tunnels
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California

Who I Am
For 13 years I was in charge of a group of programmers and data technicians that wrote and managed the software and computers for the large wind tunnels at Ames Research. These are the largest wind tunnels in the world. One of the tunnels has a test section that is 40 feet high and 80 feet wide. The other tunnel is even larger, it is 80 feet high and 120 feet wide. Both tunnels use the same motors so only one of them can run at a time. This is lucky for the programmers because they would not be able to write programs fast enough for both of them to run at one time. There is a master program for the wind tunnel tests, but each test has something special about it and software has to be written for those special things.

Also, for many of the standard items that are always measured, information has to be entered into the computer. For instance, it is very important to know just how the model is mounted in the tunnel, and measurements have to be entered into the computer so that computations will be made correctly. It is important to only measure the results that are the same as the results you would get if an airplane was flying. However, the model is sitting on top of some supports, called struts, and you have to subtract out the effect that comes from those supports and from the frame underneath them. Before I was a group leader I did this type of programming for nine years.

I am sure you know that using a computer can be very frustrating. All kinds of things can go wrong. Programmers are very special people because they have to spend so much time on small details. If you make a mistake, it is almost sure to show up during a test. If there is a problem, you cannot stop working on the problem until it is solved. Changes to the program have to be made during a test, sometimes in the middle of the night. The programmer is part of the team during a test and watches for many things besides just program errors. Experienced wind tunnel programmers have a good feeling for what the data should look like and sometimes notice problems before anyone else because everyone is very busy doing their job. There are also data technicians who enter commands to take data, keep the computer systems backed up, file the reports, and they, too, look at the data. It is very important that the data be backed up, that is, copied to another disk, because wind tunnel tests are very expensive. Everyone is responsible for safety. Anyone who notices anything wrong is expected to report it immediately.

The software group leader has to make sure that the engineers give the programmers good instructions. She also has to be sure that they don't make too many changes. Engineers are like everyone else, some of them are very organized and some are not. This does not mean they are not good engineers, they just think differently. The group leader has a set of rules that everyone has to follow.

The most important thing that the group leader has to do is to build a team and to make sure that everyone is doing the very best work they can do. Perhaps you have worked on teams. I cannot tell you how important it is to build a good team. Sometimes we would have too much work or there would be some terrible problem and we would have a "War Meeting" where I would ask for everyone's help to solve the problem and get the job done. In all jobs there are people who are hard to work with, and the group leader must make sure that no one keeps other people from doing their job. In the government this is especially hard because some of the people work directly for the government, but there are usually several companies who have contracts with the government and each of them has a group doing part of the work. Sometimes there is a programmer that is very important but who does strange things.

My Career Journey
I had a rather unusual career journey. When I was young I studied mathematics and chemistry and worked for awhile, but then I got married and had three children. Our family moved a lot because of my husband's job, so I did not work outside the home for many years. Raising three children is a lot of work. While they were growing up I was a Den Mother, a Brownie Leader and a Girl Scout Leader for 9 years. This was really a very good experience because it taught me a lot about how people think and how to help people get along with each other. When I was about 34 we were living near a very good community college that had wonderful computer courses and I started going to school there. I took many programming classes. I loved programming but in those days there were hardly any jobs for programmers. I was very lucky to get into a Work Experience program at Ames Research.

You are not old enough to remember this, but before that women did not work outside the home very often if they had children, and even after their children were grown not too many 38-year-old women went out and started careers. Quite a lot of women got jobs but that is different than a career. Well, there were a lot of us and we were a little bit scary to some people because you have probably noticed that older people usually get very angry if they think things are not being done right. And they are not quiet about it like younger people might be. The Work Experience only lasted for a year and the department I worked in had no money to hire me, but my boss knew someone from another company that needed a programmer and I went to work for them. After two years I got what is called a Civil Service position--that is a job where you work directly for the government. There is an important lesson here because now people cannot just learn one job and keep it forever. They have to learn new things all the time and often change what they do.

Even after I got the job I kept going to school at night. This was not easy because I had all these teenagers doing crazy things at home. There is a funny thing that happened to me. I studied at my desk and would take off my shoes, and sometimes there got to be quite a few shoes under the desk. One day I had studied very hard and was sort of tired but had to do some errand so I slipped on my shoes and went to the store. I noticed that I was limping and I looked down at my shoes and was horrified to see that not only did one shoe have a higher heel than the other but one was red and one was black. I had to sneak back to my car and drive straight home.

Influences
I did not go to school very much in grammar school because we lived far from a school so I was home schooled most of the time. I had a correspondence course--that is a lesson plan and homework assignments by mail. My mother made sure that I studied. I remember that I had a terrible time understanding why a number got smaller when you multiplied two fractions together and my mother used all sorts of examples to make me understand this.

When I was in high school and later in college (the first time I went) I had a very wonderful mathematics teacher. This was when community colleges were very new, and the same teacher taught me trigonometry in high school and calculus in college. There were not very many calculus students, and by the time we got to the last semester there were only four students left. The school could not afford to pay the teacher to teach four students, so he taught us during his lunch hour. That has been 45 years ago but every Christmas I send him a Christmas card.

Likes/Dislikes About Career
I always liked my job very much. It was clear that what I was doing made the wind tunnel tests run smoothly. I took great pride in building a wonderful team of programmers. It was very special. Everyone worked together, they helped each other.

What did I like the least? Sometimes, if you are the boss, you have to do hard things. You cannot give them to someone else. There are a few programmers who behave in strange ways. I once had a programmer who brought two dogs to work in cages and put them under a table. He didn't tell anyone and when the dogs barked they scared everyone out of their wits. This was an important programmer; he was the only person who knew how some programs worked and I needed him but I could not let him bring those dogs to work again!

Advice
I think mathematics is so important because it teaches people how to think. There are people who try to become programmers who have not really learned to think and solve problems, and they are not good programmers. Learn as much mathematics as you can. I love the computer, but I think sometimes people get so involved with the computer they become unbalanced and this is not good. When I was young it was not a very "in" thing to be smart, especially for girls. I was the only girl in many classes. I am glad this has changed but I think it is very, very important to be your own person and not be bothered if people think you study too much or are sort of a nerd.

Personal Information
I've been married for a very long time, have three grown children and 6 grandchildren. The youngest grandchild is 5 months old and the oldest is 11 years old. All of them like to come to my house, and the two oldest grandsons really like to use my computer. I am sorry to say they especially like to play a computer game where they shoot down airplanes. They built a tree house in my yard and I am always afraid they will fall out. One day I noticed that the four-year-old grandson had gone up there and nearly had a heart attack. I notice they have put a pulley up there to pull things up and have some "keep out" signs. I wonder if those signs are for me. All but one of my grandchildren are boys. I would like to have another granddaughter. I think it is good for you to hear from at least one grandmother because some people think that in the future everyone will live longer and will also work longer. So you may still be working when you are my age.

I love to grow plants. I plant flowers in my yard, in my children's yards, in a garden at Ames Research, and at a garden where I do volunteer work. Sort of like Johnny Appleseed. I grow vegetables, too, especially beans and tomatoes. People ring my doorbell to ask me about the flowers.

I take Spanish classes and have traveled to some Spanish-speaking countries. I went to Mexico twice, to Guatemala three times, to Argentina, and once I took on a trip on a ship where everything was in Spanish. I ate some very strange things because I was not sure what the menu said. The reason I go to Guatemala is because my mother was a missionary there for four years. The first time I went with her. I do not go to the resort areas, I go to places where people are very poor and try to help.

 
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