Meet: Opal Lemmer
Retired Software Group Leader, Low Speed Wind Tunnels
Who I Am
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California
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.
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!
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
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
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.