Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘IEEE’

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.


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.


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.


Things I notice: volunteer thinking in the IET and IEEE

A recent IET volunteers’ conference gave me hope. The contrast to similar IEEE events is regrettable but undeniable.

It’s a terrible comparison to make, but I found it far too tempting. I was ambivalent about the IET Asia-Pacific Communities Volunteers’ Conference (AP-CVC), not because of the IET, but because years on years as an IEEE volunteer had tarred me. Would attitudes in the IET be any different?

I was pleasantly surprised. The differences in volunteer culture are subtle, but to me they made a huge difference.

It goes without saying, but to be clear: Opinions are my own, and not representative of those of the IET, IEEE, any institution or any sub-unit thereof.  I also give more disclaimers at the end of the post.

1. Services, not statistics.
I got sick of hearing about membership statistics in the IEEE after a while. The IET AP-CVC barely mentioned them. The emphasis was on what the IET does: professional registration, MyCommunity (an online networking tool), examples of student activities.

Marketing is rightly recognised as important in both institutions, but here it focussed on values, not volume. The myriad of IEEE benefits could often feel disjointed to me. The IET’s pitches had a clearer valued proposition.

2. Addressing the root cause.
The emphasis on services meant that when they spoke about member recruitment and retention, they would say things like “get the product right” (with details, of course) rather than “send people who haven’t renewed by November an e-mail to ask them to”.

This epitomised a broader tendency I notice: where things aren’t perfect, attack the root cause, rather than any plausible initiative.

3. Senior volunteers support junior volunteers.
I very rarely felt this way in the IEEE; on the contrary, I often felt like a minion of a senior volunteer, doing their pet projects for them. In contrast, the Asia-Pacific committee chair was unequivocal in his first message: “We’re here to help.” It was a theme repeated by senior volunteers and staff. They saw their roles as to support and guide local committees, not instruct them.

4. Tell things like they are.
Most noticeably, there was a brutal honesty about the conference. The diagnoses made by speakers were astute, acknowledging shortcomings, and by that I mean actual shortcomings, like a “gap in [service] provision for [a group]”—not just “the statistics show some weaknesses”.

I really appreciated that. Why? Because the truth is that neither institution is in good shape. To be clear, they both do some excellent work in certain activities (IEEE in academic publishing, IET in professional registration). But far too many engineers are unconvinced they will get something from membership. Even I don’t know how to convince people, and I’ve thought about it a lot.

A bad comparison (i.e. more disclaimers)
I said it’s a terrible comparison to make. The first reason is that the IEEE and the IET are not (or at least should not be!) rival organisations. There’s simply no sense in having competing professional institutions. And I still think the IEEE is a worthwhile organisation. It’s just the differences in volunteer thinking that were too hard to ignore.

The second reason the comparison is imperfect is because “Asia-Pacific” in the IET, unlike the IEEE, doesn’t cover South Asia. I’m not personally convinced the differences are attributable to that, but it is an uncontrolled variable, so to speak, so read into it what you will.

The obvious final reason to take all this with a grain of salt is that it’s based on a sample size of one (for the IET, three for the IEEE). Indeed, some people I talked to afterwards seemed to imply that the culture at this conference wasn’t the same as similar conferences in the past.

So in the grand scheme of things, this shouldn’t count for much. But I’ve been on a personal mission to discover exactly how my belief that a professional institution can be helpful to its profession can be realised. It’s been five years so far; for the first time, I really feel like I’m a step closer.

Is there any point in IEEE GOLD?

In an attempt to find purpose, I play devil’s advocate against IEEE GOLD itself.

I’m a graduate engineer. I work 40-hour weeks, mainly in front of a computer, sometimes in the laboratory or in meetings. I like my job, and I’m learning a lot, but I know there’s so much more to learn. Like anyone my age, I want to develop my career.

This is the remit of IEEE Graduates of the Last Decade (GOLD), a group within the IEEE dedicated to the needs of young professional engineers like me. Sounds sensible, you might say. But in this post, I want to go back a step. Is a group specially for young people really the best way to fulfil their needs?

The conventional wisdom is a resounding “yes”. Retaining student members as graduates is a known problem. The transition from student to professional isn’t easy. A community to hold our hands as we venture into the big harsh world would make it a tad less daunting. But there’s a missing link: whether a sub-community of graduates adds value to its umbrella community of engineers. What can it add?

The technical stuff
Let’s start with the nuts and bolts. Everyone knows that the engineering profession is one of constant learning, keeping up with new technologies whose half-lives are shorter than a university degree. Graduates, by virtue of inexperience, know almost nothing, so learning would really help.

But wait. When a profession involves constant learning, that means for everyone who’s in it, not just graduates. The space of useful knowledge is endless: those well-advanced in their careers would still do well to learn about a different perspective or a new innovation. Graduates, of course, would need more introductory material, rather than advanced courses. But are they alone in that need as well?

I’ve come to the conclusion that the best technical materials for graduates are the same as those for more experienced professionals. Why? Because everyone is inexperienced in all of the countless things they’ve yet to work with. They might have experience from elsewhere to help relate to a new topic, sure. But if you don’t know about TCP/IP, you don’t know about TCP/IP. Many of the free Communications Society tutorials are introductory. They’re aimed at young and advanced alike.

Similar logic applies to subtler knowledge, like a general feel for industry trends: while graduates need an initial grasp, keeping up is just as much work.

So the most valuable technical talks for young engineers are the ones that are organised (or should be organised) by Technical Chapters for everyone. GOLD could duplicate the work, but it seems like, well, duplication.

Softly, softly
The other part is the non-technical stuff: the stuff engineers are notorious for sucking at. Communication skills, writing, leadership, management, pretty much anything not involving numbers. This is a more promising place to start. While best practice does change, the core of it doesn’t really.  Once you’ve got the hang of it, the skills tend to stay useful.

So who would run these workshops? It’s on this question that I’ve stumbled. Many university business schools run short management courses, aimed at managers (not graduates) for a few thousand dollars. There exist training providers who run soft-skill courses, too, for less, but still a lot. The frugality of the IEEE tends to rule these out.

We have three options. We could fork out the money for someone who does this for a living. It’d be useful, for sure, but expensive. Or, sometimes we’re incredibly—incredibly—lucky to have an IEEE member who’s willing to offer their services for free. (I have met a total of one such member.) Not all accomplished engineers are qualified: having a skill and teaching it are different things. We’re talking about people who can prepare a course on this. Given that people do this for a living, it’s a heck of a lot of goodwill on their part—and that’s assuming we have access to such a rarity in the first place. The third option, then, is to have a volunteer who’s not qualified to run the session. The usefulness and professionalism in that is questionable.

Basically, what I’m saying is this: While soft skills are a laudable activity for young professionals’ groups, they’re not a practical one. Unless we’re prepared to start spending.

The truth
I said I was playing devil’s advocate. In reality, these are the questions that have been circling in my mind as vice-chair of IEEE GOLD NZ Central for the last two years. I and my committee have struggled to figure out what we can do that is genuinely useful for our members. We’ve asked local graduates what they would like to see. I’ve asked my colleagues too, several times. They don’t know.

I’ve looked around. Some groups run socials or networking events: these only work as a complement to an actually-useful programme. Some run “STEP” events: these only work if you already have a programme you can trumpet. Some run events promoting the IEEE. That’s silly. See my earlier post for why.

I want to believe that IEEE GOLD has a worthwhile place. I still believe in the fundamental basis for association: that we can do more together than we can individually. I haven’t lost all hope. But in the absence of compelling and non-token ideas for activities, I’m getting close.

(Pssst: Ideas welcome. Comment below.)

On novel ideas to raise IEEE member retention

The “Stay as Members” project is well-intentioned, but misguided in its focus.

The most memorable quote for me at an IEEE volunteers conference last year was from a delegate in the Pakistan-Bangladesh-Sri Lanka geographic forum. The question was: how do you get members to stay on? “If you run good activities”, she opined, “members will renew.”

Such simple wisdoms are not well-understood among volunteers, who continue to scratch their heads at the IEEE’s low member retention rates. They constantly repeat the statistics. Region 10 is growing. But our newcomers aren’t renewing: less than a quarter of undergraduates stay on when the membership year expires.

The solution? The “Stay as Members” project, a “special initiative” to raise the rate. How? By asking Student Branches to come up with, well, initiatives to raise the rate.

The effort is admirable, but the show of leadership is underwhelming. The initiative specifies no method of improving retention. Either Region leaders are themselves bereft of ideas, or they think Student Branches should be left to conjure their own. Given that most Student Branches are clearly struggling at this—at least according to those statistics—this seems odd. More motivation in the form of US$250 for the best idea is unlikely to change that.

But more importantly, to focus on retention like this misses the point. Imagine that you’re a new member. Why would you renew, or not renew? The answer is what that delegate told her forum: you’ll renew if you got something out of the last year. Some argue that non-renewers just don’t understand the benefits. That’s an insult to their intelligence: after a year, it’s more likely that they just didn’t find them valuable.

In fact, the statistics would seem to indicate so. High joining rates probably mean we do a great job of explaining what we offer. Low retention rates probably mean those offerings are empty promises.

So here’s a novel idea: stop stressing about membership retention. Just run your Student Branch, and focus on running it well. If members see value, they will stay. If they don’t, they will go.

Of course, that leaves the million-dollar question: How can Student Branches offer value? It is indeed a difficult and searching matter. Better that we tackle it directly.

If you’re curious, last year I wrote a series about the state of IEEE volunteerism. You can read it here.

Why I’m voting for Durrani for IEEE President-Elect

Tariq Durrani’s plans have some detail; Roberto de Marca’s have none. IEEE members should consider that when voting.

I’m normally underwhelmed by elections in the IEEE and IET for top positions. Candidate statements are normally in the abstract, rambling with volunteering CVs (they all look the same after a while) and scant on detail for what they actually plan to do. Every year I hope for an exception. This year, my hopes are no better off. But there is one presidential candidate who’s fallen into that trap slightly less.

The most telling contrast is between the position statements published on the candidates’ websites. Professor Turiq Durrani’s statement is noticeably more detailed than Dr Roberto de Marca’s. I don’t just mean longer. Compare, for example, their stances on industry engagement:

Tariq Durrani:

Offering professional engineers opportunities for enhancing their skills base through continuing professional development including management skills development, delivered through the invaluable IEEE e-learning Library, and expanding its content base. Support and extend globally IEEE-USA career enhancement initiative.

Roberto de Marca (emphasis in original):

Use my proven record of attracting industry participation to strengthen collaboration with Industry. This revitalized collaboration will lead to new benefits and services that will allow members everywhere to perceive IEEE as essential to their career development and professional success.

That’s just the first point of five in Prof Durrani’s statement, but it’s enough to illustrate the difference. From this, we know how Prof Durrani plans to engage industry. He has an initiative in mind (IEEE-USA career enhancement) to extend globally. He goes on to say he’ll establish an “International Panel of Chief Executive/Technology Officers” to advise on industry engagement.

This isn’t enough detail for my liking. But it’s a world more than what Dr de Marca gave. He asserted that it will “lead to new benefits and services”. What new benefits and services?  How will this collaboration be “revitalized”?  Am I supposed to believe that, because of his “proven record”, he has a plan in mind that he just doesn’t want to tell us?

It’s not just industry engagement. In the same statement, Dr de Marca says he’ll “strongly support initiatives that address humanitarian challenges”, but doesn’t say much more. Prof Durrani gives an action, to “establish strong alliances with global institutions” like UNESCO to deliver the humanitarian vision.

You can see the difference in mindset elsewhere, too. When the Institute asked the candidates for their “top two priorities”, Dr de Marca said one was to “develop benefits and services”. That’s not a priority—benefits and services is almost everything that IEEE does! Prof Durrani mentioned “continuing education and development” and “practitioner-oriented products”. You might disagree with his priorities. But at least we know he has some.

A harder question
I put a harder question to the candidates in the June Region 10 Newsletter (page 11):

How will you address the tension between the demand for IEEE to produce more member benefits, and the pressure for membership dues to remain low?

I wanted to see what the candidates could tell us about an issue they can’t control. Dr de Marca denied the tension exists, saying that IEEE has “enough revenues to increase member benefits” and that “it is just a question of priorities and political will”. Either this is a sore indictment on the current leadership, or he is implying that IEEE is currently prioritising the wrong things. It would have been nice to hear what.

Prof Durrani said that “all members should receive a certain level of benefits for the membership dues, then additional benefits can accrue based on a graded fee”, along with other details. Full disclosure: the answer I was looking for was an admission that individuals will need to pay the costs of some benefits, which Prof Durrani gave later in his answer. But what was more important to me was that Prof Durrani has obviously thought through this issue.

Hear this plea
If you’re an IEEE member and reading this, here’s my plea to you. Think carefully about your vote. Don’t just vote for someone because you met them in person once at a conference. That would be the wrong reason. Another wrong reason is finding a buzzword in their statements that turns you on.

The two candidates are both very well-accomplished and well-qualified, judging by their volunteering CVs. Both would make very competent presidents and I admire the dedication of them both. But we have to choose. The question we should ask ourselves is: In which candidate do we have more confidence that they’ll drive the IEEE forward, tackle the hard questions and invoke meaningful change?

You may ask that same question and come to a different conclusion to me. That’s fine, and I’d be intrigued to hear why. But statements with some particularity about plans evoke more confidence than statements dealing in abstract generic outcomes. That’s why my vote for IEEE President-Elect 2013 will go to Prof Durrani.

Disclosure: I’m currently vice-chair of IEEE GOLD New Zealand Central and I’ve never met either Prof Durrani or Dr de Marca and I’m not involved in either campaign (so not much of a disclosure, really).

Why the Sections Congress delegates got it wrong

The top five IEEE Sections Congress recommendations may do more harm than good

Direct democracy in action can be somewhat exciting. But it can also produce some perverse results. The recommendations arising from the IEEE’s most recent triennial direct-democratic adventure, the 2011 IEEE Sections Congress, are symptomatic of just that.

The five recommendations, which filtered through months of discussions within the Regions and culminated in a vote of Section delegates on the final day, fall squarely into two categories. The first and fifth are both about encouraging young people to enter engineering careers—an admirable notion, even if the approach is misguided. The other three recommendations are about increasing member benefits, but conspicuously lack any notion of how they will be funded.

Benefits without costs
At face value, it is hard to fault initiatives that promise only good, like “rewarding [members] for their loyalty”, “including a Society membership as part of the basic membership fee” and “grants [for students] to attend conferences and organising technical competitions” (recommendations 2, 3 and 4 respectively). But the devil is in the detail, and the most basic detail is forgotten: somehow, we will have to fund these new benefits.

How much will it cost? Some might argue that the cost could be minimal. Recommendation 2 goes as far as to say that rewards “can be done simply and inexpensively” (and still “tangible and useful”). But its suggestions (other than “recognition”, which is hardly “tangible and useful”) are to reduce the fee for and to provide IEEE merchandise to long-standing members.  Merchandise of any usefulness (not just tokenism, like bumper stickers) won’t be inexpensive.  As for a reduced fee, it necessitates a loss in revenue. While the IEEE is financially sound, it seems unwise to take a hit to membership dues when member activities already rely on heavy subsidies from IEEE Publications revenue to survive.

Similarly, any assertion of low cost for recommendations 3 and 4 is simply wrong. A free Society membership would both reduce revenue (existing members pay less) and increase cost (as more members join Societies). With grants to attend conferences, the monetary cost there is obvious.

This isn’t the first time delegates have recommended benefits without costs. In 2008, Section delegates voted for an “annual entitlement to a limited number of free entitlements to IEEEXplore downloads”. The Technical Activities Board investigated and, predictably, concluded that it wasn’t affordable, with a revenue loss of between US$1.4 million and US$4 million. One would think that delegates would have learnt that you can’t get something for nothing.

But the 2011 delegates pushed three member benefit recommendations into the top five. The IEEE Boards charged with implementing those recommendations now face the task of figuring out how to pay for the new benefits. Will they cut existing member programmes? Will they raise membership dues? Or will they be forced to conclude, just like last time, that it isn’t feasible? I hope that, in 2014, delegates will realise the dilemma.

Interest in engineering careers
Recommendation 1, to “develop a comprehensive long-term strategy to increase the number… pursuing science and engineering careers”, is less problematic than the other four. This is partly because it lacks specificity: it doesn’t actually recommend any action, other than to figure out what actions it should take (i.e. the “strategy”). But it is also welcome because the engineering profession could well be doing more to show prospective students what it does.

Recommendation 5 then, interestingly, pre-empts a conclusion of that strategy: it says to “publish a subscription periodical targeted to high school students… promoting the benefits of an engineering career”. Unfortunately, it’s a misguided conclusion without which the strategy would be better off .

Why won’t the periodical help? A necessary premise is that high school students will take interest in this subscription periodical. For those who are already set on engineering, this may well be the case (and even that is dubious), but there is little to gain from preaching to the converted. The real target audience is students who are undecided or who just don’t know what engineering is. Neither of those groups would care to subscribe to a periodical focussing on engineering, much less so one detailing “what the students can do in college to get involved with IEEE”, as the recommendation adds. Undecided students figure out their careers through careers fairs, guidance in their schools and hearsay—anywhere they can compare all careers at once. It would be better to improve encouragement through those channels, rather than try to establish a new one.

How did it happen?
I wasn’t in San Francisco for this exercise. So I didn’t witness the debates, and those who take issue with the way my criticisms jump to conclusions about what delegates were thinking probably have merit. But for the record, I don’t attribute these outcomes to stupidity or poor intention.

The more radical, and more needed, propositions among those available would probably also have been the most controversial. There is a desperate need for governance to reflect the swelling numbers in Europe and Asia. There is also a gap in benefits for engineers who work in industry. But there is little worldwide agreement on how, and whether, these issues should be addressed. It is easy to see why those from Regions 1 through 6, for example, may be uneasy about a recommendation to “increase… representatives from Regions 7 to 10 on IEEE Major Boards”.

Similarly, none of the ten (out of 34) recommendations suggesting better online tools for members and volunteers made it through to the top five. While it’s undeniable that the IEEE’s raft of online tools have been a mess, people don’t necessarily agree on what the most pressing needs for change are. Consequently, the vote is “split” among the alternatives and none of them get very far.

So the ones left over are those with lukewarm support and without violent opposition. (The voting system involves ranking all propositions in order of preference.) It explains why the top recommendation was to “develop a long-term strategy”: so long as delegates agree that the status quo isn’t good enough, it is easy to support the first step. It also explains the three member benefit recommendations.  Turning a blind eye to opportunity cost, it would be silly to stage an outright opposition to the suggestion. It’s only on deeper thought that they don’t make sense.

Nonetheless, the member benefit recommendations represent a Sections Congress that ultimately voted to squeeze more out of the institution, rather than examine how to advance the IEEE into new times and new challenges.  The greatest harm from these and the misguided recommendation 5 is that they will detract attention, time and energy away from more dire but harder issues, like geographic representation, industry involvement, and establishing the IEEE’s role in society and the profession.

The IEEE will eventually have to front up to these and sort itself out. I once suggested to a senior volunteer that the Regional divisions perhaps needed revising. He said that, for our revision to make any sense, we first needed to figure out what the role of a Region is. He’s absolutely right. Solutions to these issues are not easy to find. Perhaps, in 2014, Section delegates will find the courage and urgency to have the debates that are needed to tackle them head-on.

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])