Holberton School

Inspiring Women in Leadership: Betty Snyder Holberton & The Holberton School

The Holberton School, a project-based college alternative is meant to prepare the growing generation of software engineers. The school is dedicated to Betty Snyder Holberton, a Women in Technology International Hall of Fame inductee, who happens to be my aunt.  On September 4, 2018, the Holberton School open its new campus in New Haven, Connecticut.  

The Life of Betty Holberton

Betty Frances Elizabeth Snyder born on March 7, 1917, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Betty fought her way to becoming a recognized and respected engineer. When she entered classes at the University of Pennsylvania, she had dreams of studying math. But, she was met with opposition by her professors.

The math department forbade Betty from majoring in math. So, she decided to study journalism, one of the few areas open to women as a career during the 1940s. She saw it as an opportunity to travel, but her love of math never faded.

Betty caught her break in the math world during World War II. The Army needed women to calculate ballistics trajectories. Originally, she was hired by the Moore School of Engineering to work as a ‘computor.’  Shortly after beginning work, her skills became evident and she was chosen as one of six women to enter the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) program.

The six women chosen were Betty Holberton, Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Jean Jennings, and Fran Bilas, and were considered ‘subprofessionals.’ Despite their lower status, each of these women earned a place in the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame for their work with ENIAC.

During her time working at ENIAC, Betty had a creative streak, coming up with a collection of productive ideas. According to an article on Fortune.com, her fellow programmer, Betty Jean Jennings joked that Betty  “could do more logical reasoning while she was asleep than most people can do awake.”

Betty’s engineering career continued after WWII, when she worked at Remington Rand, the National Bureau of Standards, and was the Chief of the Programming Research Branch, Applied Mathematics Laboratory at the David Taylor Model Basin in 1959.

Betty Snyder married my uncle John and took the Holberton name.  During her life, my aunt Betty made many significant contributions to the engineering field. Some of her accomplishments  include:

  • Contributing to the development of the UNIVAC,
  • Being part of the team to write the first generative programming system, and
  • Writing the first statistical analysis package used for the 1950 US Census.

She even worked with John Mauchly on developing the C-10 instruction set for BINAC, the prototype of all modern programming languages.

When Betty Holberton died on December 8, 2001, at the age of 84, she left an important legacy behind for the engineering world. Her family continues to share her legacy with others to contribute to the forward movement of both the field of engineering and women in technology.

The Holberton School and Betty’s Legacy

Betty Holberton was certainly not considered the ‘typical’ engineer during her time. Despite the odds against her, she followed her passion and went on to make valuable improvements in the engineering field.

The Holberton School is dedicated to Betty Snyder Holberton and sticks true to her mission. The original San Francisco, California campus and the anticipated New Haven, CT location dedicate their space, time, and effort to nourishing the growth of the next generation of engineers.

Betty Holberton broke the mold when she entered the engineering field and the Holberton School offers a non-traditional learning experience aimed at allowing engineers to expand their horizons for the good of the field.

The Holberton School offers a learning environment free of formal courses and teachers. The focus is project-centered and facilitated through peer learning. Just as Betty learned when she found herself in the Army’s military environment, students at the Holberton School learn by approaching difficult programming challenges with minimal direction.

Phil Holberton at The Holberton School

The Legacy Lives On

While my aunt Betty is no longer with us, her dedication to engineering lives on through the Holberton School’s educational methods. The project-based method has been adopted by universities nationwide and software engineers trained in this way have made their way to the top.

A generation of engineers that Betty would be proud of has made their way into companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Uber.

Betty Snyder Holberton knew she would need to be a pioneer to change the scope of the engineering field as she found it. She pushed forward with courage, strength, and a unique view of programming.

The creation of a second Holberton School campus in New Haven, Connecticut speaks to the legacy left behind by Betty Holberton.