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Posts tagged ‘engineering’

Would CPEng have helped Novopay?

There is probably something to be said for certifying software engineers.

Edit: After attending the talk at the IITP AGM I’ve changed my stance on this issue—Novopay probably doesn’t fit software engineering, per se, so much as IT. I’ll write a short post explaining when I get time.

I was at the Engineering Professions Forum last weekend, where in one session a student pointed out that part of IPENZ’s lack of relevance to those in electronics and computers was that being a chartered professional engineer (CPEng) doesn’t apply to them. To that, someone interjected, “One word: Novopay!”

The student’s observations were correct: almost all electronics and computer engineers couldn’t care less about CPEng. But the interjector’s point was valid. In civil engineering, disasters analogous to Novopay are exactly what the CPEng quality mark is supposed to help prevent. So I started to wonder: would it have helped?

First, let’s be clear. The question is not, “could the problem have been avoided if Talent2’s engineers were chartered?” That wouldn’t work. While software is taught as a discipline of engineering in New Zealand’s universities, in practice it has virtually no place in IPENZ or CPEng. The question is much more abstract: “could the problem have been avoided if it was standard practice for software engineers to be chartered?”

When do people care?
Even in civil engineering, enthusiasm for CPEng is hardly universal, but computer engineering is particularly dismissive. In an acknowledgement of this IPENZ includes in its CPEng FAQs the question, “Is CPEng of value to the telecommunication and IT fields?

I suspect the real distinction is not by discipline, but by the nature of work. Fundamentally, the need for professional quality marks arises because you wouldn’t know any other way whether to trust a practitioner. That is mainly the case when an engineer is hired by laypeople: that is, contracted to provide a service, rather than employed to produce a product.

When you contract someone to design a building, you can’t tell whether their practice is bad before it’s too late. But when you buy a phone, you’re perfectly capable of telling whether the phone works. Even if you can’t, for example with electric power leads, standard for products make more sense than standards for designers. You don’t need to know how good the engineer was; you just need to know that the thing you’re buying works.

This explains why registration matters for accountants, doctors, lawyers and teachers. It explains why enthusiasm for CPEng is greatest in engineering consultancies. It partly explains why in electronics and software, people don’t care.

Why Novopay is relevant
But here’s the thing. Novopay was a contracted job. It was a service, and it was hired by laypeople (the government). Talent2 is not a software company. It’s an HR company that sells software as part of its “payroll solution”. But Novopay, being an extremely large nationwide system, is understandably a contract of its own.

In some civil fields, government policies dictate that consulting engineers must be chartered. This isn’t the practice in software. Civil engineering is more consequential—when bridges fall, people die—but information technology is increasingly a core backbone of society, and even if they don’t always have potential to kill, they certainly impact people’s lives. (Not being paid isn’t fun.)

Furthermore, in reality, software services are often contracted by laypeople.  This isn’t always the case: when you buy or download software such as Microsoft Office or Angry Birds, it’s a product: lots of people have the same thing and you can tell whether it works. But businesses often require large-scale IT solutions, and contract companies such as Datacom (who ran the payroll before Talent2) or IBM to do it.

In a reflection of its grounding in civil engineering, IPENZ has not really been scratching its head about the IT disasters of the last year. The Institute of IT Professionals has—and indeed the talk at its AGM is about whether the IT profession should, too, move towards chartered accreditation. Whether CPEng or chartered IT professionals would better cover Novopay is a discussion in itself; I leave it aside but suffice to say that it is also debatable whether software engineering is legitimately “engineering”.

Before an inquiry into Novopay’s failings has been done, we won’t really know whether technical incompetence caused the problems (as opposed to, say, management or training of school payroll staff). So I admit it’s a little premature to speculate on whether CPEng (or chartering IT professionals) would actually have helped avoid Novopay. But I take the interjector’s point. It’s at least plausible to say that, if it was incompetence, then professional certification might have pushed standards high enough to avoid this, or at least helped the Ministry of Education discriminate between those who were up to the task and those who were not.


Getting women into science and engineering

We all know the statistics. Why aren’t our efforts to get more women into science and engineering working?

Last month, the Royal Society of Edinburgh told MPs that women are vastly underrepresented in science and engineering. That’s old news. Anyone who’s ever walked through a science or engineering office will already know. To be fair, the statistics make the anecdote concrete.  The RSE’s were shocking because they focussed on senior levels, including fellows of learned societies where statistics go as low as 1.5%.

The STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) have long yearned to improve gender diversity. Engineering (my discipline) makes many efforts to encourage girls to join the field, especially with luring high school students into university.

But merely focussing on “the need for more women” isn’t very helpful. Many initiatives try to herd women into STEM, however we can. It’s that seemingly laudable but hopelessly simplistic aim that leads to disasters like this European Commission video, featuring high heels, lipstick and cheeky smiles at the camera.

Why won’t they come?
What that video was trying (and failing) to show is that “girliness” isn’t incompatible with science. A (female) professor was profiled in the Institute in 2008 with the same proposition, but for engineering.

In theory, this might be true. In reality, it is only for a minority. More importantly, it misses the point. The need for tokenistic “girliness” (you know, like, make-up) probably isn’t the leading factor preventing girls from entering STEM.

To my knowledge, there is still no non-anecdotal account of what are the leading factors. Still, anecdotes are useful. This article in the Guardian last week gives a more realistic account of physics not being “cool” among girls, with observations such as this one:

…as Sir Peter Knight, president of the Institute of Physics, put it: “The English teacher who looks askance at the girl who takes an interest in physics … can play a part in forming girls’ perception of the subject.”

Perceptions matter, but they don’t come from nowhere. We could do well to ask ourselves whether our culture, perhaps against intention, subtly hints that girls should be elsewhere. If it doesn’t—and if there is just a “geek” perception—that may point to wider pressures against girls being geeks and, in a more regrettable corollary, accepting of boys being geeks.

Irrespective of gender norms, if people think science is only for nerds, that itself is concerning.  One of the girls interviewed in that Guardian article hit it well: “A lot of people think [physics] is theory, theory, theory, and that puts them off. You need to see how it’s applied practically… everything we do: you pick up a book—that’s mechanics … Nuclear fusion could be used potentially as alternative energy.”

What we do, not what we achieve
I go a step further. I think that engineers (not sure about scientists but I suspect likewise) typically frame themselves not in terms of what they do for society, but what they do on a day-to-day basis. Most engineers love being “in the job”, writing code, making prototypes, generating designs. They don’t think, unless prompted, about how they’re helping the world around them.

This contributes to the “geek” perception. STEM subjects clearly help people: everyone takes for granted products that rely on the physical sciences. But that’s not what we think of when we think about scientists and engineers.

How does this link to the gender bias? The assumption I make is that, on average (not universally!), girls tend to care more about the social consequence or meaning of their work, relative to boys. I admit that’s contestable and I leave you to assess how true you think that is. But it explains trends even within science-related subjects. Of students taking A-level biology, 55% are female. In America, 47% of medical students are female (ref). In Australia and New Zealand, it’s 51% (ref). In A-level physics and university engineering, the figure drops to around 20%.

The bias need not manifest in conscious thoughts. Indeed, if it’s a hangover of social pressures (women being more “caring” etc.) it probably wouldn’t. In that case, the gender imbalance is partly hostage to wider norms. Even so, the bias in itself is still concerning. It’s really important to love what you do, but a belief in what it does for others is just as important.

Turning the tide
What scares me the most isn’t equity, but the thought that there’s likely scores of talent that STEM misses out on because girls end up favouring medicine, pharmacy, law or the humanities. I wonder if our woes in attracting people to STEM generally would vanish if girls weren’t so hesitant about taking science-oriented subjects.

It’s a tough cycle to break. The lack of women (understandably) breeds a culture in their absence which, in turn, pushes incoming girls to other fields. It’s hard (and undesirable) to change people already in the field, so it’s easier to focus on recruitment. There’s a fine line, though, between shifting perceptions and selling a lie. The enthusiasm we would need to engender in school students to improve our female intake might amount to a cultural shift in STEM altogether. Not a bad thing, but worth a thought.

How we can make science issues mainstream

Is there a dichotomy between public awareness and avoiding controversy?

On the place of science in public discussion, most people agree with two things. Firstly, it doesn’t have much of a place. Secondly, it is a virtue of science that it stays above politics.

Most people also agree with a need to raise the profile of science, engineering and technology. (In this post, “science” means all these collectively.) That’s no trivial task. Of course we can do more to explain what we do. But how do we get people to pay attention?

I’ve been giving this some thought in recent months. We want science not to be relegated to page C8. But we also want not to be mired in controversy. The thing is, I don’t think we can have it both ways.

When do people listen?
Science is hardly alone in bemoaning the media’s choices. Every time gossip about the Duchess of Cambridge takes the front page, a familiar chorus rings. “What about the children starving in Africa?” people ask, pointing out far more “important” issues.

Media attention choices can seem odd, but they’re not incomprehensible. Media outlets want readership, so they emphasise things that people will read. Oddly, this isn’t the same as what’s “important”. People are drawn to things that are interesting—a very different concept.

There are countless factors to what is “interesting”, but some are easy to see. Novelty is one: you’re not learning if you already knew. Personal obsessions factor in too. But have a think through all the major front-page issues, and (things like disasters excepting) you’ll see a common thread: controversy.

Why? Because it stirs emotions, it gets people thinking. People like to take sides. (This includes uniting against an unpopular group.) That’s why extremists often get unfairly more attention than moderates (e.g. religious groups). That’s why evolution theory makes headlines, while advances in broadband get the page-C8 treatment.

Can a topic get attention without controversy? Sure, but it needs some other “shock” factor, like disasters, accidents and crime. So if a nuclear power plant blows up, that’s big. But other than natural disasters, these lend to controversy too.

Almost all scientific headlines have controversy. Here’s a list: the Italian seismologists convicted of manslaughter, CERN scientists who thought neutrinos might be going faster than light, the 2009 scandal about evidence on climate change used by a UN advisory panel, teaching evolution in schools. An exception is the Higgs boson, but only the science-inclined have been following.

Selling our souls?
So I’m pretty much proposing that science lend itself to controversy more often. A natural objection is that, while it’s good to raise awareness of science, it’s not worth selling our souls for. I beg to differ. Controversy isn’t alien to science. It’s just that our debates are kept within the scientific and technical community, away from public ears.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Science is all about competing theories, and engineering about competing technologies. We like to think we’re objective, but in reality, humans get attached to their own line of thinking. The 2011 Nobel laureate in chemistry battled for decades against the science establishment.

Laypeople do have opinions on science now, but it normally goes like this: “the scientists say climate change is a thing, therefore it is”. They skip the science and take scientists’ word as gospel. That’s not awareness. It’s deference to authority.

Opening up our debates means giving up our monopoly on scientific opinion. It’s a scary thought. But other professions already do this. Economists routinely debate their theories in public, as do lawyers, accountants and educators. We appreciate expert opinions, but we aren’t afraid of forming our own. Why is science different?

Some people will say that, unlike those fields, science is “evidence-based”. That’s true, but there’s no reason why laypeople, too, can’t have opinions on the evidence. Of course, the deepest technicalities are beyond laypeople. That’s fine, and also true of economics and law. They still do a fine job of explaining the overall picture to the public.

What it will take
Right now, it takes a talent rarely found among scientists to communicate science to the public. This was found in the late Sir Paul Callaghan, after whom the Callaghan Medal for science communication is named. Sir Paul is my biggest inspiration, and he made a good start. But there’s a long way to go.

Sir Paul tended to focus on making science accessible to the public. He hosted radio and television series explaining scientific concepts. It was an excellent initiative for laypeople who already wanted to learn more. That’s a small group.

What attracted more attention was when Sir Paul spoke out not just on science, but on New Zealand generally, such as when he pleaded expatriate graduates to pay back their student loans. When he last made the front page, he was fighting cancer (a fight he would lose). The newsworthiness was that he was trying a Vitamin C treatment. All controversial things.

What we need is for scientists to explain issues of public interest openly. Not all topics lend themselves to this: basic research almost never does, but many other topics do. Some are technical, like the next technological standards, fracking and genetic modification; others, like funding and education, are not.

To kickstart attention, this will require that rare talent. But we can’t forever rely on a handful of designated “communicators”. More of us need to speak our minds—even if it means criticising our own colleagues in public.

We’re afraid to do this. We’re afraid because we like the authority we have over technical matters. We don’t want laypeople to engage with us, we just want them to understand. But we have to choose. As long as we’re happy for the public to stay out of our debates, public awareness of science, engineering and technology will remain low.

The road from here

There is a way out, but it will involve changes more radical than anyone cares to admit

This is the fifth post of a five-part series.  View the first  View the previous
(Whole series: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

It doesn’t have to be this way. The institution can have a relevant, maybe even a prominent, place in the profession. There is one big fat caveat though: volunteers need to realise that they can’t just solve it by starting another initiative or another campaign.

Realising this is harder than it sounds. The volunteer instinct is to instigate change by launching a new endeavour. Sometimes it works: for all its shortcomings, GINI has done quite well with connecting Student Branches. But a formal initiative would be counterproductive to the sort of change our institution needs to see. The way forward will involve the suppression of every thread of that volunteer instinct.

This series was about attitude. No President or Board of Directors will be able to move a 400,000-large mass to revise their conception of professionalism. Grass-roots volunteers will need to lead by example. The change needs to be in the principles behind their approach to member benefits, and it needs to start with a deep self-examination by volunteers themselves.

Change starts here
Firstly, volunteers need to think much harder about what they seek to achieve by running events. It is easy to fall into traps. “Raising awareness”—particularly of benefits, but also of altruistic issues—is weak, and is not a member benefit (unless they were already aware of the issue beforehand and wanted to pay to learn more about it).

A similar trap is “networking”, which is admirable but pointless as an end in itself. People don’t go out of their way for the sake of meeting people. They meet with others who share a common interest or objective, and “networking” naturally arises from that.

Events and activities need to be real member benefits. They need to actively contribute to members’ professional, technical or personal development—which, coincidentally, happens to be what most members say (but not always act like) they expect from institutions. These are the hardest events to organise, because they often require accomplished people to run them. But there is less point in social events and awareness drives than many volunteers admit.

Secondly, volunteers need to stop thinking about themselves. “I volunteered and got a free trip to Hong Kong” is not a reason to join an institution. Their job is to help their members in their professional careers, not to encourage some notion of an IEEE career.

Thirdly, we need to be willing to accept that high-value activities that do contribute to our own development cost money. Bluntly, we need to spend more—and we need to spend it ourselves. It makes no sense for volunteers and engineers to continually talk about a world of “benefits” that all come for free on payment of a nominal administrative fee. While fiscal prudence is important, volunteers’ primary stress shouldn’t be on making ends meet. They should be prepared to charge for events at-cost, and members who believe it will be useful should be prepared to pay for that.

Fourthly, the institution needs to get over the idea that the IEEE (or IET or IPENZ) is for everyone. It’s not. It’s about the belief that engineering plays a collective, useful, highly-skilled role in society, and that an institution helps us to maintain that. It’s an organisation for people who care about their careers and want to advance them. Volunteers need to be comfortable expressing that value and attempting to convince their peers that they should adopt the value too.

In fact, even that might be too prescriptive: more fundamentally, volunteers should ask themselves whether they’ve given any real thought to what idea underlies the IEEE for them.

Shifting the earth? No, just a way of thinking
This will not be easy. This is not about ambition, and no one person can “champion” the changes in attitude of this scale. Indeed, some may point out, validly, that this would be paramount to reversing an entire institutional culture.

When situations are dire, though, that’s what it takes. Volunteers have been scratching their heads for far too long about why they struggle to convince engineers to take the institution seriously. The answer is not that difficult: it is because the institution, unless you’re a volunteer, can’t be taken seriously. With a change in culture, maybe that can change too.

This is the fifth post of a five-part series.  View the first  View the previous
(Whole series: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

The ideal member

Engineering institutions try to appeal to everyone. Bad idea

This is the fourth in a series of five posts.  View the first  View the previous  View the next
(Whole series: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

You can get lost navigating IEEE membership if you’re not careful. The list of benefits can feel endless—and so can spiels that recite the list to potential members. With over 1,200 conferences a year and over 150 regular publications (and that’s barely the beginning of it), there is probably no-one, even the President, who is familiar with so much as 10 per cent of what goes on in the IEEE.

It’s natural, in an organisation of 400,000 members, to have such a diverse range of activities. It makes sense, too. The institution’s volunteers are, rightly, constantly reviewing what engineers expect from their institution. When they notice a gap, they seek to fill that gap. Different people inevitably expect different things, so the gaps and consequential initiatives are many and varied.

But diversity has its drawbacks. When the proliferation becomes unguided, the collective of activities loses the common principle underpinning it. There’s not much point having an organisation with lots of segmented activities. Members can be forgiven for forgetting why they were an IEEE member in the first place.

Getting what you pay for
It’s understandable that people question their money before they pay their membership dues. It’s not a huge amount to pay, but there’s no point if there’s no benefit. So much of the recruitment effort goes into impressing individuals with the vast array of benefits from which they can pick their favourite. You give me your money, and I’ll give you rights to all these things.

It’s a poor approach, for two reasons. The first is that the true benefits of membership aren’t obviously tangible. It’s quite hard for people to understand the power of community as it’s laid to them in a brochure. They might be able to understand access to 150 different publications, but that’s far less compelling as a benefit. (Engineers in industry don’t rely on 150 different publications.) The second is that it demeans what a professional institution is: representing the profession, supporting entire careers, facilitating the progress of the profession as contributors to the progress of society.

The engineer’s obsession with numbers at the expense of the big picture also plays a part. For volunteers, membership statistics are often the primary measure of success. A way to get more members is to appreciate that membership is a two-way street: listening to what members want. The irony is that volunteers forget their own side of the street: they plug every gap they can find without asking themselves if it even should be filled. In a hidden fear of losing members, they shy away from dictating to them what underpins the IEEE. Eventually, they forget themselves.

The recruitment rhetoric should be about values. When Dr Andrew Cleland addressed my final-year class on behalf of IPENZ, the one thing he did right was not to try to appeal to everyone. You can get a job and keep at your job, he said, or you can join a profession. You can adopt the values of the profession, and be part of a group that has a real impact and is respected for it. Only if you want to do that is this the organisation for you.

Defining a profession
An institution is a community. It is a group of like-minded people who have similar objectives and realise they can achieve more in unison than they can on their own. A corollary of that, and the recognition that everyone is different, is that there are some people who don’t buy the same values as the institution.

We should try to persuade them to hold these values, of course. That’s how the profession becomes stronger as a whole. But if we can’t, we shouldn’t be afraid to shun them. An institution is only as strong as the common thread that runs through everything it does—all its events, online features, publications and everything else. We shouldn’t be sacrificing that thread in pursuit of more members.

The common thread itself can and should be broad. This isn’t surprising; it’s just a reflection of the diverse range of activities that professions tend to undertake. Broad, though, doesn’t mean all-encompassing. Even a simple notion like supporting the profession (though, admittedly, that is far too open to interpretation) or advancing technology for humanity (same drawback, but will sound familiar to some), would help to bring back a focus to our activities. But it needs to penetrate through what we do, how we present ourselves and—most importantly—how we think, far better than it does now.

This is the fourth in a series of five posts.  View the first  View the previous  View the next
(Whole series: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

If it’s that awesome, then pay for it

Engineers are too often unwilling to invest in their own development

This is the third in a series of five posts.  View the first  View the previous  View the next
(Whole series: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

They say you can never have enough money. But sometimes the lack of it is dire. The question of how to fund its activities regularly plagued the IEEE Student Branch I ran. Many an initiative, some over-ambitious (the 2009 Global Student Congress that became an Asia-Pacific one, plus one Canadian), some less so, has fallen with funding not being forthcoming.

Members regularly talk about increasing benefits, and rightly so. The top recommendation from Sections Congress 2008 was an annual entitlement to IEEEXplore downloads. Countless praiseworthy initiatives have been started by enthusiastic young volunteers, particularly in Regions 8 and 10. But the drive to introduce more benefits is often without expectation of a rise in cost to members. In fact, every now and again, there is talk of lowering the cost of membership. People want more, for less.

IPENZ, whose membership fee is more than double the IEEE’s and one-and-a-half times the IET’s, seems to have resigned to accepting that engineers don’t value institutions. In Dr Andrew Cleland’s lecture to my final-year class about IPENZ, he told us to negotiate it into our employment contracts—as if he knew we wouldn’t just pay for it from our own salaries. Indeed, the practice, while not universal, isn’t uncommon in engineering firms. Most people just don’t want to pay very much for professional institutions. In the case of the IEEE, they expect to join and get things, and increasingly more things, for free.

We can still live if lunch isn’t free
The Student Branch I chaired for two years was as guilty of this as any other. When I took office, we ran all of our events for free, providing free food to attendees courtesy of the Section budget. Some of our events weren’t even restricted to members. Then, on two occasions, we started to charge members to cover costs. They were more willing than we imagined.

The first was a field trip, where a nominal charge for a chartered bus covered the entire cost incurred. The second was the IEEEXtreme competition, where we offered competitors access to bulk meal orders. These are admittedly modest examples (people would have needed to get their own food anyway). But they show it’s not unthinkable.

Asking attendees to fund their own trips from Auckland to Melbourne for the inaugural IEEE Australia and New Zealand Student Congress in full was a bit of a long call. But the subsidy we negotiated for the eight attendees (seven of whom were volunteers) covered less than half the cost of the trip. Attendees realised that we, too, were beneficiaries of our travel.

People from other Sections balked when we told them that. Some continued to balk when I suggested we encourage future attendees to pay for their travel too. To this day, I struggle to comprehend why. Many university students fork out the money to go to sports tournaments, development camps or holidays. They do this because they derive benefit from it—improved skills, personal development, new friends, good times. Why should engineering congresses be any different?

Toughen up and pay
There is a deeper truth that volunteers miss when they concede, “There’s not enough funding for it.” What they should be saying is, “People don’t value it enough to pay that much for it.” And they should be assessing why their idea isn’t valued: is it just not that worthwhile, or do people just need convincing that the value is worth the cost?

The free-lunch culture limits what the institution can do for its members with more than just events involving travel. Local units are often reliant on volunteer speakers to give up their time—or to see some intangible benefit, like “exposure”—to help their members. I would bet anything that more speakers would come if we paid them to help make us better professionals.

Engineering is a middle-class profession. People who enter it are (mostly) brainy, work hard and are paid (and expect to be paid) well above the average wage from day one. It shouldn’t be a tall ask for them to invest in their own professional development. The annual membership fee is part of it, but not enough for a proliferation of initiatives—it doesn’t make sense for a US$141 fee (or US$27 for students) to result in free travel across the country (or world). The system won’t work if we spend beyond our means.

It might be that engineers really don’t see value in professional development, and that this is all a waste of time, but I doubt it. Almost every engineer and engineering student, and certainly every volunteer, will tell you that they want to develop communication and leadership skills, broaden their networks and further their technical abilities. They see, or at least claim to see value—but are too used to expecting others to cover the costs of that value for them. This is not a sustainable model. Engineers should stop expecting things to happen for them, and start buying into their profession. Literally.

This is the third in a series of five posts.  View the first  View the previous  View the next
(Whole series: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

Promotion is not the answer

IEEE volunteers assume that people don’t understand the benefits of membership. Actually, it’s just that there are none

This is the second in a series of five posts.  View the first View the next
(Whole series: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

Every so often in institutions like the IEEE, someone figures out that too many people don’t appreciate why they should be a member. They’ll then set out to “introduce” people to the benefits of membership. That is the explicit purpose of the IEEE’s STEP initiative, which is aimed at getting graduating students to renew as professional members. It’s also an assumption of the much-glorified IEEE Blog, Tweet and Win Contest, which rewards people who fill their social media streams with IEEE propaganda.

The attitude runs deeply in membership development. While the original objectives for the Region 10 (Asia-Pacific) Student Congress included both “to discuss and add value” and “to increase knowledge of [student activities] information”, in practice more recent Congresses have tended heavily towards the latter. The two are equally important, but you wouldn’t think so with the heavy emphasis on IEEE speakers giving spiels on IEEE benefits.*

The institution then becomes an institution for its own sake: activities run by the institution become about the institution, rather than directly about the profession. Other initiatives aim to spread the member base wherever it can go: the core driver of IEEE’s GINI initiative is to form new and “reactivate sick” Student Branches.† Little attention is paid to whether the benefits that are being promoted are of very much use.

Not so beneficial
The official list of IEEE benefits is long, but uninspiring. Many of them are online, like memberNet, and an IEEE e-mail alias. While admirable, they’re not really selling points for membership. Browsing member profiles (memberNet) isn’t, in practice, how people make contacts (LinkedIn’s “second-degree contacts” model is closer to reality, and it’s a bigger network too). Online videos ( will never get on the priority list for professional engineers whose time is very precious. And while IEEE e-mail aliases are used, it seems like a trivial thing to join an organisation for. Others, like Microsoft’s software for students, are nice but superficial: the benefit doesn’t encapsulate what it means to be an IEEE member. (At least, it shouldn’t.)

Why are volunteers‡ so convinced themselves? I’ve heard many successful volunteers readily offer their stories, both informally and in presentations at Congresses. What they don’t realise (or do) is that the “benefits” they describe are always benefits reserved for volunteers: most commonly friendships struck abroad, but also organisational and leadership skills, and free trips around the world. In fact, I’ve heard it several times that “the best way to get benefit from IEEE membership is to volunteer”.

That statement has an element of truth—more in almost always means more out—but it’s a dangerous attitude to take. Not everyone can be a volunteer. Or maybe everyone can—but an organisation that exists for its members to run the organisation is a pointless existence. Members shouldn’t need to be organisers to feel like part of the institution.

This is seldom considered. By being caught up in the benefits of volunteering, volunteers forget to analyse the benefits for normal members. While they run activities (even the ones that aren’t IEEE information sessions), they’re often for their own sake. Some have an underlying purpose, but most are because some higher up said we should, because we always have, or because we really needed an idea for something to organise.

There must be a meaning
What volunteers tend to lack is an understanding of what (other than “volunteer benefits”) motivates their membership of the IEEE. Many IEEE volunteers assume their role is simply to advance the IEEE: that’s a circular existence. The astute can recite the IEEE’s mission, “to foster technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity.” But that’s never applied (and hardly useful) at a grass-roots level.

The IET has caught on to this to some extent, with its recent “Professional Home for Life” programme. The notion is that the IET should be an “anchor point” for one’s entire career, through any number of job changes. While that can mean different things to different people, it still clears up the raison d’être of the IET. It also provides a good litmus test for the usefulness of an activity. (Just talking about the IET’s own brilliance obviously fails the test.)

Indeed, supporting engineers’ careers is the most obvious thing that comes to mind for an institution’s purpose. It’s by no means the only possible one. IEEE’s notion of “advancing technology for humanity” is admirable—except when you ask how the IEEE itself will actually achieve that. It’s true that engineering is largely responsible for advances in the quality of life for everyone. Maybe the IEEE’s role is to help its members do the groundwork to make it happen.

This matters because it informs what volunteers do for members. By understanding this, volunteers can give themselves a framework to assess true usefulness for ordinary members (not themselves). If we do that more often, we might begin to understand why people feel like they don’t get anything out of the IEEE, rather than just assuming they’re uninformed.

What motivates me? I like to think that joining a profession goes beyond just your job or your study. I like to tell myself that I’m part of something bigger, a group with a collective societal role. I want there to be an association that supports that role, not just one that exists to give me opportunities within it. But I’m still thinking about what all of that means. And more importantly, how it guides what benefits we should have for our members.

This is the second in a series of five posts.  View the first View the next
(Whole series: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5])

* Disclosure: I’m responsible for the programme for the next Congress. Needless to say, I’m trying to shift emphasis back to the “add value” objective.
† Disclosure: I was GINI Co-ordinator for Australia and New Zealand. I shunned that aim, preferring instead to focus on connecting Student Branches, which is another aim of GINI.
‡ A volunteer is someone who holds an organisational role, i.e. someone who sits on a committee of some IEEE sub-unit.