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What a NASA “computer” can teach us about transforming foes into friends…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the official newsletter of Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules. Each week, you’ll receive one story from the past, one study from the present, and one strategy for your future.

My goal: to give you—in the time it takes to finish on the toilet—one piece of practical career wisdom you can apply today, no matter if you’re a student or a seasoned professional.

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Did You Know? Your foe could become your friend!

A story from the past

It’s 1943 and Dorothy Vaughan is working at NASA—not as an astronaut, but as a “computer.” Vaughan’s job? Solve math problems with pen and paper to determine aircraft flight paths.*

But soon, electronic computers threatened to make human computers obsolete. As others may have started job hunting, Vaughan, now the first Black woman supervisor at NASA, had an idea. Why search for a new job when you could create a new job? Why let a foe remain a foe when you can turn a foe into a friend?

So, Vaughan learned the new technology—and then taught the new technology: Fast forward, and Vaughan not only became an expert computer programmer but also went on to use her skills to help launch some of the first successful satellites into space

So, the next time you read about job-replacing technology, remember Vaughan, who saw an opportunity, not an obstacle… and who saw a friend, not a foe.

*Does this story sound familiar? Vaughan’s story is featured in Hidden Figures, the book-turned-Academy-Award-nominated-film.

Calculations by a NASA “computer” and Dorothy Vaughan (via NASA)

A study of the present

Vaughan’s story is more relevant to our careers than ever. Consider this: Just last week, Bloomberg published the article “AI-Threatened Jobs Are Mostly Held by Women, Study Shows” (paywall alert) that reported:

  • “Women hold over 50% of roles most likely to be replaced by AI [artificial intelligence], including executive secretaries, accounting clerks, and writers”
Revelio Labs, via Bloomberg

What does this data suggest? An economist at Revelio Labs, Hakki Ozdenoren, shares a warning: “The impact of AI [will become] skewed along gender lines” due to “biases deeply rooted in our society.”

So what? We can interpret the report in two ways. Pessimistically, AI could make gender inequality worse. Or, optimistically, we have an opportunity to build a more equal world and more impactful careers. It all begins with learning from Vaughan and transforming foes into friends.

A strategy for your future

Vaughan’s task was to crunch numbers, but her goal was to research and harness the potential of space. A faster computer? It was a friend, not a foe.

How can you transform a foe into a friend?

Try this:

1. Think of your current or dream job (e.g., data scientist).

2. Think of a new technology that threatens your job (e.g., ChatGPT).

3. Fill in the following blanks: “My task is to ______, but my goal is to  ______. If this is true, then ______ could help me do ______ more efficiently, allowing me to focus my time on ______.”

E.g., “My task is to analyze data, but my goal is to recommend business decisions that are backed by numbers. If this is true, then ChatGPT could help me clean data faster, allowing me to focus my time on making a better recommendation.”

I know it because I’ve experienced it: ChatGPT helped teach me about Dorothy Vaughan, allowing me to focus my time on explaining why her story is timely for us all!

Keep reinventing!