Women who made the modern contact center possible

March is Women’s History Month – which was created to educate and promote the achievements of women who have often been overlooked. Often when we think about the modern telecommunications industry, the pioneers we think of tend to be men like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. However, there are many women whose contributions have largely been erased from the history of telecommunications, without whom the modern contact center would not exist.

Today we’re going to talk about six women whose work and inventions paved the way for the contact centers of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Nora Stanton Blatch

Nora Stanton Blatch graduated from Cornell University as the first woman ever to obtain a degree in civil engineering. Not long after, she became the first woman to be accepted as a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers. However, it was her additional classes in electrical engineering and mathematics that led her to work in the lab of Lee De Forest – whom she married in 1908. Together, Blatch and De Forest worked to develop the first wireless radio for radio broadcasting. Blatch also helped De Forest to publicize the new invention and promote it to potential buyers.

The relationship was not to last, however. When Blatch became pregnant with their first child, De Forest insisted that she stop working. Blatch – who was the granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton – instead left with their daughter and returned to her field of civil engineering, later becoming a successful architect. Still, Blatch was an important contributor to De Forest’s early work – for which he became known as the “father of radio” and the “grandfather of television”, with Blatch’s contributions largely unacknowledged.

Dr. Erna Schneider Hoover

Dr. Erna Schneider Hoover was a mathematician and professor of philosophy and logic at Swarthmore College from 1951-1954. However, when her bid to win tenure failed because of her gender and marital status, she left teaching to pursue a career at Bell Laboratories, where she worked for more than 32 years until her retirement in 1987.

Dr. Hoover received one of the first software patents ever issued for her invention of a computerized phone-switching system, which was instrumental in revolutionizing modern communications. Her system used a computer to monitor the call volumes coming in at different times, and prioritize switching tasks accordingly, to prevent system overloads and maintain service during peak call times. Later, Dr. Hoover said of her invention, “To my mind it was kind of common sense … I designed the executive program for handling situations when there are too many calls, to keep it operating efficiently without hanging up on itself. Basically, it was designed to keep the machine from throwing up its hands and going berserk.”

The success of her invention earned her a position as a technical department supervisor at Bell Labs, where she was the first woman to hold such a position. The principles of Dr. Hoover’s system are still in use today and are still just as relevant as many telecom companies continue to struggle with the issue of increasing traffic on their networks.

Hedy Lamarr

One of the most important pioneering women in the development of the modern contact center is remembered for being one of the most beautiful leading ladies in Hollywood, and yet her inventions are what make technologies like WiFi, GPS and Bluetooth possible. 

Lamarr, who is known for acting alongside Hollywood royalty like Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Jimmy Stewart, would return to her trailer between takes and work on her inventions – the most revolutionary of which was spread-spectrum technology, or ‘frequency-hopping’. Her innovation was a way to allow signals to jump around different radio frequencies to prevent another party from jamming the signal. 

She first invented it in 1940, to aid the Allies in the war effort against Nazi Germany by allowing them to have a secret communication system that could keep the Germans from jamming communications or interfering with torpedoes. However, the military refused to believe that something invented by so beautiful an actress could have practical applications. “People thought she was way too dazzlingly beautiful to have come up with some brilliant idea,” says Alexandra Dean – the director and producer of a documentary about Lamarr’s life called Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.  “When she gave it to them, [the Navy] said, ‘What do you want to do, put a player piano inside a torpedo? Get out of here!’ And so, they didn’t use it during the Second World War. It was after the Second World War that it emerged as a way of secretly communicating on all the gadgets that we use today,”.

Although she received a patent for her frequency-hopping technology in 1942, the technology wasn’t used in Navy ships until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, though it continued to be used in numerous subsequent military applications. Unfortunately, Lamarr didn’t receive acclaim for her revolutionary invention until nearly 50 years later, by which time she had already become a recluse.

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper created the first code compiler that allowed computers to do more than just make mathematical calculations – something that Ada Lovelace had predicted would become possible more than 100 years previously, after her theoretical work with Babbage’s Difference Engine.

Hopper left university during World War II to serve in the Navy, where she worked on the Mark I computer. In 1959, she was on the team that invented COBOL, the first user-friendly programming language that used words instead of numbers. At the time, people told her that her work was pointless because computers were only ‘useful’ for complex mathematical calculations. But Grace proved them wrong: the Department of Defense soon required all computer manufacturers that provided equipment to supply machines equipped with COBOL.

Subsequently, she led the push for COBOL language standardization and popularized the term “debugging”. Her contributions to the field of computing were so important that in 2016 she was posthumously awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest US non-military honor – for her work. There is also a Navy Destroyer – the USS Hopper – named in her honor.

Dr. Marian Croak

Marian Croak, a Princeton University graduate with a PhD in Social Psychology and Quantitative Analysis, joined AT&T Labs in 1982 straight out of grad school. There, she rose through the ranks to become a senior Vice President who managed thousands of programmers and engineers.

While at AT&T, she worked on the company’s data services – which were then of secondary importance to phone. However, she foresaw the importance of the internet and guided the company towards investments in internet technology. Additionally, during her tenure at AT&T, she led the development of VoIP technology, and holds 100 patents related to VoIP protocol, with an additional 100 patents currently under review by the US Patent Office

Another widely-used invention of Croak’s is the text-to-donate system, which was pioneered after Hurricane Katrina, and has now become a wildly popular fundraising avenue for non-profits worldwide. In December of 2018, BBC raised £12.9 for its Children in Need campaign through text donations alone.

In 2014, she left AT&T for a new role at Google as Vice President of Research and Development for access strategy and emerging markets. In this role, she is working to expand internet capabilities across the world.

Dr. Ayanna Howard

Dr. Ayanna Howard might not be well-known now, but her work is currently paving the way for the contact centers of the future. She is the chair of the School of Interactive Computing in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, and is the Director of the Human-Automation Systems Lab (HumAnS).

An engineer and pioneer in robotics, her work focuses on the development of technology for artificial intelligence and machine learning, with an emphasis on the need for AI that can interact with humans in a human-centered world. Business Insider named her one of the 23 most powerful engineers in the world, recognizing her outstanding achievements, which have led to more than 250 peer-reviewed papers. Her work will be highly relevant to the contact centers of the future, because one of the areas she studies is user trust, such as in her 2017 paper: “Effect of Robot Performance on Human–Robot Trust in Time-Critical Situations”.

As the contact center industry continues to move towards self-service automation and the integration of chatbots and other intelligent voice assistants into the digital customer service landscape, the work of Dr. Howard will surely have an important role to play in shaping the direction of these technologies.

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About the Author: Anna Kreider