She’s been called “the first lady of software.” A conference named after her attracted over 18,000 attendees last year. She had her own Google doodle. She was even on Letterman.

It’s fair to say that Grace Hopper is one of the most celebrated coders ever. But behind all the accolades, who was she? And how exactly did she change technology?

Hopper’s computer career began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Before that, she had earned a doctorate in mathematics from Yale, married a literature professor, and taught at Vassar. But the outbreak of World War II changed all that. Kurt Beyer, author of “Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age,” says that “within six months … she had left her husband, quit her job, and was trying to get into the Navy.”

She became part of the WAVES, a Navy Reserve program that allowed women to perform emergency service in World War II, and was made a Lieutenant. Because of her mathematics background, she assumed she would be put to work breaking codes. Instead, she was assigned to work on the Mark I, one of the world’s first programmable computers. The assignment would change the course of coding history.

Working directly under Howard Aiken, who designed the machine, she did the important work of layering software onto hardware. Hopper designed the programs that allowed the Mark I to solve real-world problems, translating math into solutions. In her time there, she also wrote the world’s first computer manual.

After the war, she would devote nearly all of her life to the Navy (she retired as a Rear Admiral) and to the growing field of information technology. She was a pioneer in programming, realizing that code needed to be accessible for it to be truly useful. When she created COBOL in the late 1950s, the first programming language written in actual English, Beyer says that “many programmers thought the language would never make it because it was almost too simple to use. And Hopper’s point was: exactly. That’s what we want.”

According to Beyer, COBOL is still the underlying code in 90 percent of financial transactions. Her legacy doesn’t just stop there, though. In addition to being a leader in the industry and a visionary futurist, she was a trailblazer of open source technology. When she was developing her compiler (which eventually morphed into the COBOL programming language), other programmers from across the country sent her lines of code, which she then added to her invention.

Beyer points out that Hopper is more than the sanitized, inspirational figure that she’s often presented as. Hopper was a complex woman who battled some personal demons. She suffered setbacks after World War II and turned to alcohol. She was sometimes suicidal. But through all this, her colleagues didn’t give up on her.

Edmund Berkeley, who founded the Association for Computing Machinery, sent her an intervention letter, arguing that the industry “need[ed] her.” She was, Beyer argued, “their natural leader ... Even with this debilitating problem she had, if she could only work 20 percent a week, she was still far better at this than all of them.”

And it’s her groundbreaking work that lives on. The marriage of software and hardware and making code accessible has all led to our ability to run apps on the supercomputers in our pockets. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, Beyer says, have “careers, livelihoods, and fortunes [that] are based on the innovations of Grace Hopper. Without Grace Hopper, there is no layer of software, no computer scientists that build billion-dollar companies.”