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By Jack Ganssle

Professional Organizations

Published 4/13/2008

A very long time ago, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, I was a student member of the IEEE. The cost was ridiculously low, the fellowship with other student members in our school's engineering lounge irresistible, and the lure of being part of the larger community of professional engineers ineffably compelling.

But the IEEE was a political mess. Over the objections of many of its members, IEEE officers, who were largely seen as academics and researchers with few ties to working engineers, companied vigorously for pro-immigration policies at a time with far too many native engineers were without a job. Gadfly Irwin Feerst was a colorful figure who opposed these and many other policies. Though he was never one to be politically correct or even careful in his speech he came within a few hundred votes of becoming president at one point. Many claimed the top brass changed the rules to keep him at bay.

He took on the Institute's publications, saying: "The IT Transactions are indeed full of crap. Most of the papers are written by academics and foreigners. There is nothing in there for working engineers like me. In fact, I can't even tell if I've got it right side up or upside down."

Some of Feerst's opinions resonated with mine, and for a variety of reasons I quit in disgust. Yet today, 35 years later, I still recall his comments when I see papers with titles like the following in IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering:

  • Software process representation and analysis for framework instantiation
  • Using hammock graphs to structure programs
  • The Effects of an ARMOR-based SIFT environment on the performance and dependability of user applications
  • Cognitive Heuristics in Software Engineering: Applying and Extending Anchoring and Adjustment to Artifact Reuse
  • BDD-based safety-analysis of concurrent software with pointer data structures using graph automorphism symmetry reduction

Feerst's wrestling with the IEEE ended a long time ago and are no longer important. In my opinion, the Institute is still largely ruled by folks who aren't practicing engineers, but some of the publications, like Spectrum, are now packed with information engineers find interesting. The Transactions are still for academics, and even IEEE Computer is pretty bereft of anything useful in building products (though occasionally it does have interesting articles, and the opinion pieces are often thought-provoking). Maybe age has brought me a less radical perspective, and I understand the need for some sort of balance between those of us who actually build products, and those seeking grants conducting basic research. No doubt any professional organization has multiple and conflicting missions, satisfying no one entirely.

The IEEE, IEEE Computer Society, and the ACM, are professional organizations targeted at us. Membership is expensive. Unforgivably so, if you select options like access to digital libraries. The ACM's annual bill even has a bit of trickery designed to snare the unwary into giving extra donations to their foundations. But these groups offer value to us. It's unaffordable for most engineers to belong to more than a single professional organization, which is a real shame.

I remain conflicted about these groups, and get frustrated with some of their advocacy. But they do offer value, if only in some of the resources offered via magazines and past publications stored on the web.

What do you think? Are these sorts of professional organizations worthwhile?