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My vote for IEEE President-Elect 2015 goes to…

Tariq Durrani. Fred Mintzer is also good. But first, just not Barry Shoop.

This ended up being quite long, so here’s the short, TL;DR version. Barry Shoop was questioned on his priorities, and he said his top priority was “to increase IEEE’s value for our members, our profession and the public.” This isn’t a credible answer—it’s everything the IEEE does. He wants to prioritize everything, which is the same as having no priority, and he gives no means for how he would achieve everything. His lack of a defined vision for his term is, in my view, alone enough reason to rule him out.

Fred Mintzer and Tariq Durrani are both decent candidates. I think Dr Mintzer’s basic diagnosis on networking and collaboration is more correct than Prof Durrani’s, but his means is wrong. The online tools Dr Mintzer advocates are not properly conducive to networking. In any case, while it comprises engineers, the IEEE as an institution is not well-placed to develop high-quality software. It would be better for everyone if a software start-up or open-source project did this instead.

Prof Durrani has a longer wish list, and I don’t agree with everything he proposes. I have reservations about the usefulness of an advisory panel of CEOs and CTOs. But a few of his core proposals would help. His encouragement of practitioner-driven conferences is welcome. An expansion of the e-learning library to professional development isn’t a perfect solution, but it has some merit. He offers some small steps towards globalization in the IEEE. It’s clear he has put a lot of thought, in concrete terms, into what he wants to achieve as the IEEE’s chief executive.

For those reasons, my vote this year goes to Tariq Durrani. A more detailed discussion follows.

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Disclosure
I have never met any of the three candidates and I am not involved in any of their campaigns. Two years ago, I wrote in this blog backing Tariq Durrani. Like this post, that one was based on an honest assessment of publicly available material, and I had at the time met neither of the candidates and was involved in neither campaign. After the election, Prof Durrani e-mailed me, and I took the opportunity (as I often do with senior volunteers) to point him to a series of posts I wrote about the IEEE in 2011. That series still reflects my general stance today. In the IEEE, I have been a Student Branch chair, GOLD (as it was at the time) vice-chair, Section secretary, and have been to three Region 10 Student/GOLD/WIE Congresses, one of which I did the program for. I like to think this is a null disclosure, but if you think it taints my position, then, well, I guess disclosure has achieved its purpose.

First, not Barry Shoop
The Institute asked all three candidates for their “top two priorities”. Prof Shoop’s answer, like his position statement: “to increase IEEE’s value for our members, our profession and the public.” Professor, that’s not a “priority”. That’s everything the IEEE does! When someone asks what you will prioritize, “everything” is not a valid answer.

I am honestly tired of presidential candidates giving a catch-all when asked for their priorities. I criticized Roberto de Marca for the same thing in 2012. Too many candidates for senior IEEE positions don’t seem to have any specific goals in mind. But to be fair, this is Prof Shoop’s position statement, so maybe he just has a very long list of specifics he’d like to accomplish?

Unfortunately not. On his website, he talks about “tailored products and services”, “public policies that support the profession” and “increase IEEE’s influence”. In the abstract, these are laudable visions. But he leaves no idea what any of them concretely mean, or how they would be accomplished. Would “tailoring” mean members choosing for themselves from an unnavigable smorgasbord of  benefits? Do “public policies” mean that IEEE should start advocating to governments outside the US? What are the barriers to IEEE’s influence today? Prof Shoop spares us the details. Evidence that he has any is hard to find.

I make no apology for making this a veto factor in voting. Parts of the IEEE are working well, but a lot of it is broken. Most practicing engineers don’t think they’ll get anything useful from IEEE membership. Continued calls by and to IEEE volunteers to “add value” have so far achieved nothing. Any worthy presidential candidate must be able to lay out in at least some detail what they would do to help.

Readers might be surprised at the bluntness of my advocacy against Prof Shoop. Such scrutiny isn’t typical for IEEE elections, which tend to focus on positive campaigning. This is of course a good thing, but it’s still important to critique what potential presidents have (or don’t have) in mind. Leading the world’s largest technical professional association is a huge responsibility. Avoiding attack-style campaigns shouldn’t mean avoiding criticism.

I really wish I could support the alumnus of my university, and I have no doubt that he is a superb professional and dedicated volunteer. And there are certainly points in his favor. Asked by The Institute about how to engage the next generation, Prof Shoop’s ideas resonate with me the most: only he emphasized that engineers talk too little about their impact on the world. But wanting to prioritize everything, with neither any focus nor any idea how, is a poor case for a chief executive.

Choosing between Mintzer and Durrani
Having eliminated one, choosing between the other two was somewhat harder. Both had enough detail for me to imagine what they mean. While both list four areas, I only took the first one or two seriously: in both cases, the latter ones lack elaboration and seem thrown in there to cover bases. I don’t mind this—I think it’s fine to acknowledge that something should be done, while saying you’ve put a lot more thought into something else. But I really want to understand what change the candidates will personally want to drive in the IEEE.

On Frederick Mintzer
Dr Mintzer advocates “professional productivity and collaboration tools” based on social media. It would support both existing IEEE communities and ad-hoc ones, would support “collaborative research and authoring” and an “opportunity to reinvent publications” with article, discussion and supplements in one.

I would really like to see Dr Mintzer’s vision come true. But I don’t think the IEEE is the organisation to do it. The most fundamental building block for collaboration tools is good-quality software. While you might think an engineering organisation would be capable, the IEEE is ultimately a non-profit organisation, and one without the skill set to develop something genuinely usable.

This isn’t a guess. The IET, the IEEE’s UK-based counterpart, tried to implement almost exactly the same thing in their MyCommunity platform. I met some of the staff who were involved, and their dedication was genuine. But the IET found it really hard to get it off the ground. They sought feedback to improve it, but the sad truth is, tweaks would never be enough. The software is just very poorly designed.

In order for these collaboration tools to be developed by the IEEE to an adequate standard, you either need (a) volunteers experienced in software to commit their spare, out-of-work, time to developing commercial-grade software, or (b) to contract a software firm to do it for you, in return for a lot of money. Neither is likely: volunteers tend to want to organize things, not do more of their day job, and there is too much emphasis on cost reduction in the IEEE for anything of commercial quality to be viable. The only other option I can think of is an open-source effort, akin to Django or MediaWiki. To my knowledge, no successful such effort has originated with a large non-profit whose primary activities are somewhere else.

Rather, if there is really a need for these tools, there should be a market opportunity for it. Engineers and researchers (or their employers) should pay to use it. It should be a fully-fledged software project, with research into customer workflows and requirements. And if there’s demand for it to be linked to geographic communities, as Dr Mintzer suggests, then they will add that feature. I don’t hold this idea for everything IEEE does. But it’s true for tools, like source control, issue tracking, collaborative editing, circuit simulation and computer-aided design. Research collaboration is no different—I believe it will be better for the profession if it is done by a company or open-source project specializing in that activity.

On Tariq Durrani
Prof Durrani’s statement remains largely unchanged from when he ran last year, and two years ago. When he ran against Roberto de Marca, it was enough for me to note that Prof Durrani had some detail. (I didn’t advocate for a candidate last year, partly because I was busy, but partly because Howard Michel and Prof Durrani were equally good candidates.) This year, a comparison with Dr Mintzer demands a more analytical approach.

Prof Durrani has been keen to emphasize his plans to “establish a panel of chief executive/technology offers” to help IEEE better engage with industry. I have reservations. The hardest part of rectifying the disconnect is finding people who aren’t already involved in the IEEE. The people who are don’t know understand why people don’t join or what would sway them. But people who aren’t have little reason to help an institution desperate to welcome them but with nothing to offer. Volunteers will have to use their thinking caps and learn more effectively through informal channels with non-members, not by another initiative to seek advice.

Similarly, a number of his bullet points are empty. It’s not clear, for example, how he would “enhance global visibility of IEEE Standards”, nor how he would “ensure major IEEE role in 21st Century Global Grand Challenges” (whatever those are).

Still, there are promising nuggets in Prof Durrani’s wish list. His plans to expand the IEEE e-learning library for continuing professional development aren’t ideal—I find online courses a poor means of delivering CPD—but it’s not hopeless, and CPD is a core role of professional associations. Support for delivery of in-person courses would be expensive, but a much better return on investment. For this reason, his encouragement of practitioner-driven conferences has more hope. It would be an uphill battle, but real-life meetings are what truly drive networking and learning, and this would do better than most ideas to turn around the IEEE’s academic-only reputation. He also gives some small but credible steps towards globalizing the IEEE, in membership models with progressive benefits and more balanced international representation.

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Dr Mintzer’s fundamental diagnosis, I would argue, is more correct than Prof Durrani’s. There is only one strength intrinsic to IEEE: that it is a worldwide community of engineers, and by mutual education and robust exchange of ideas, they can advance the profession. For this reason, Dr Mintzer’s priority of “networking and collaboration opportunities” is to be applauded. But his means is wrong—online collaboration is a complement, not a substitute, to in-person meetings, and we should stop pretending the internet is our solution.

By contrast, Prof Durrani’s main areas lack Dr Mintzer’s realization. His general manifesto is more service-based, which is not ideal at a high level. His details are more promising though: they point to genuine, specific gaps in what the IEEE can provide to potential members. I hope he drops some of his ideas, but overall, it’s easier to visualize meaningful change with his manifesto.

But my final message is my first one. If a candidate has never said anything you disagree with, he is probably not the best one. You might feel included in Prof Shoop’s catch-all “priority”, but it’s not possible prioritize everything without prioritizing nothing. That is an excellent recipe for getting nothing meaningful done. Based on their websites and answers to questions, Dr Mintzer and Prof Durrani are more likely to achieve something.

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