Before MacBooks, iPhones and drones, "computers" were people hired to make long and difficult calculations by hand. The movie "Hidden Figures," directed by Theodore Melfi, elevates the true story of three female African-American "computers" who made crucial contributions to the NASA space program in the 1960s. The film surprised industry experts by selling an estimated $22 million in tickets at North American theaters this weekend, even tying "Rogue One" for the No. 1 spot.
Based on Margot Lee Shetterly's nonfiction book by the same title, the film follows mathematical prodigy Katherine Johnson, computer programming expert Dorothy Vaughan, and engineer Mary Jackson. Each of these characters must cope with racism, sexism, and segregation in order to make important contributions to the national space program, stand up against injustice and advance their careers.
In Shetterly's own words, their story "challenges much of what we think we knew about American history." It also has much to teach about fighting for yourself and your career. Here are just a few of its lessons about how to overcome obstacles to succeed in the workplace:
Make yourself indispensible
Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, is a mathematical savant selected to work under the exacting Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), head of the Space Task Group. The work environment in which Johnson must operate is particularly unwelcoming: Her colleagues glare with disgust when she dares to use a coffee pot.
Not only must Johnson operate in a hostile work environment, but her colleague Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) redacts information vital to Johnson's ability to do her job.
In order to succeed, Johnson works longer than all of her colleagues, something that her pragmatic boss cannot ignore. She thinks creatively in order to make her assigned calculations with fewer known variables. Later, Johnson uses this skill to help analyze crucial trajectory and landing calculations.
In short, she makes herself invaluable, thereby creating a platform upon which she is able to speak against her unjust treatment and the insidiousness of segregation.
Be flexible and forward-thinking
Octavia Spencer plays the capable Dorothy Vaughan, who oversees the team of African-American female computers and yet is denied the compensation and title she deserves. One day, Vaughan walks by a new "IBM machine" that promises to complete calculations with greater accuracy and at faster rates than human computers. Rather than allow her job and those of her team to become obsolete, Vaughan springs into action.
She teaches herself and her team the FORTRAN programming language. When the machine is finally operable, Vaughan has made herself the most qualified and capable person to program it.
By predicting the trends in her career landscape, Vaughan manages to save and advance her own career as well as the careers of countless other women, both black and white.
Never stop learning
Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is assigned to work for an engineering team that uses a supersonic pressure tunnel. She gains the respect of her peers and is recommended for a training program that would allow her to be promoted to the status of engineer. Some suggest that she's overreaching, but Jackson remains determined.
Jackson files a court petition in order to gain access to graduate classes at a segregated high school. After winning the right to continue to pursue her professional development, she reaps the rewards of her hard work and becomes NASA's first black female engineer.