People are a gregarious lot, in general, even technical professionals. As much as we have a reputation for being socially awkward, we follow the basic human need for companionship and belonging. It follows then that when one or more people work in a specific industry, they group together in various ways.
In fact, it’s not just technical professionals that group together to discuss and promote the knowledge within their industry. According to the book The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages: Salerno. Bologna. Paris(1895), certain Universities in Europe the students got together and formed groups that eventually became “guilds”. A guild eventually evolved into a group of tradesmen who controlled the knowledge, training and quality of a particular trade or profession. While the Guilds imparted knowledge to its members, it also prohibited the distribution of that knowledge to control wages and prices. While the former is a good practice, the latter can obviously be abused.
Professional associations can trace their roots at least in part to the early guilds, albeit rarely to set or control prices. They are voluntarily-joined organizations which sometimes have a financial charge associated with them, and in some cases require a membership review or test.
Computer professionals got their first two associations in 1946 (IEEE) and 1947 (ACM), although smaller groups certainly existed before that. In general these associations (and others) have a fairly open membership policy, produce technical documentation, and hold meetings and conferences. There are also professional associations for products as specific as SQL Server, among others. Here are only a few that you might choose to learn more about:
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)
This group of technical professionals spans a broad set of computing interests, and has over 170 technical conferences each year. Their goals state that they provide “Information, Inspiration and Collaboration” as core values. They hold multiple meetings locally, have local and global reach, and offer certifications and have multiple publications. The IEEE deals with electronics in general, and an adjunct Computing Society is available within the larger IEEE group. There is a fee to join either or both of these, and there is a reduced fee for students. You can see their homepage here: http://www.computer.org/portal/web/about and read more about them here: The IEEE Computer Society
The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)
The ACM is very similar to the IEEE, with the exception that they focus entirely on computing. Within the larger organization you can select from various Special Interest Groups, or SIGs. Like the IEEE, the ACM is a global organization with multiple local chapters, has a robust, professionally reviewed publications arm, and holds multiple conferences, most often based around the SIGs. There is a cost to join, and there is a reduced fee for students. Their core motto includes delivering resources that advance computing as a science and a profession. Their main website is located here: http://www.acm.org/ and you can read more about them here: The Association for Computing Machinery
Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS)
Focusing on database technology, and in particular Microsoft’s SQL Server, PASS is a global technical group with multiple local chapters. The PASS “Summit” is one of the largest gatherings of database professionals, and the in-person and on-line “SQL Saturday”, “24 Hours of PASS” and “SQL Rally” volunteer events show the focus of this group in promoting SQL Server education, and interaction between its members. PASS Publications are limited to newsletters, as of this writing, and PASS does not offer certifications. The PASS home page is here: http://www.sqlpass.org/ and you can read more about it here- The Professional Association for SQL Server
There are other groups as well that have a long and rich history, including:
- Association of Information Technology Professionals (AITP) Home page here: http://www.aitp.org/
- Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG) Home page here: http://apcug.net/
In addition to these organizations, there are country-specific associations as well. To list just a few:
- Australian Computer Society
- British Computer Society
- Computer Society of India
- Canadian Information Processing Society
- New Zealand Computer Society
(If you know of others, post them as a reply to this article)
But should you join one of these groups? Should you spend money on the membership fee each year, or involve yourself with these groups? What benefits do they really provide, and what makes for a successful experience with them?
What is a Professional Association?
There are a number of different types of organizations that term themselves A professional association or professional body. These are generally nonprofit or charitable organizations seeking to further a particular profession or the members of it.
There is no standard constitution which defines such an organization. Some devote themselves to the interests of their members, to the point where they may even become registered as trades unions (e.g. the British Medical Association) whereas others are learned societies that function purely to unify, standardize and promote research, and to monitor standards of education as well as the updating of skills for practicing professionals. An important role for others is to control the issuing of professional qualifications, or even issuing a license to practice (this is called ‘chartered‘ in the UK). Others take on a disciplinary role over members of their profession, and others maintain ethical standards.
These differences cause a great deal of confusion in the public mind. A common misconception is that bestowing a chartered status or ‘fellowship’ always signifies particular professional competence. This is by no means the case, and honours bestowed on individuals can be awarded for a number of different reasons. Also, one hears of people attempting to complain about the competence of an individual practicing in a profession to their professional body, even though the power, let alone the willingness, of professional associations to intervene in these cases is severely limited.
It is unwise to assume the role of any professional organization without investigating its constitution and status carefully.
There are undeniable benefits in joining with a recognized group of technical professionals. The first is simply simple statistics – by joining, you have the option of meeting or interacting with more people than if you did not. All of the associations referenced earlier have membership boards where you can post questions, read peer publications, and interact in other ways. These interactions can lead to job offers, training, and more. Belonging to a group increases the odds that you’ll learn something you may need to know someday or meet a person you can help or that will help you.
Already mentioned is the publications a group puts out. While reading these publications certainly gives you an advantage in your career, being a member allows you another place to publish your own works as well, which can have impacts far and wide within the life of your professional career.
I’ve written about attending technical conferences before, but I’ll mention here that a technical conference can be one of the best ways to improve your technical career, hands down. That’s assuming, of course, that the conference is well formed and executed, and that you go with the proper preparation and intention to make it effective. If done in that light, a periodic conference can be worth joining the association all by itself.
Some might find that having the membership logo on their Curriculum Vitae (Resume in the United States) useful, but in many cases it simply carries too little weight to be a deciding factor. This is dependent of course on the job you’re looking at – when I applied at Microsoft and when I worked at the Kennedy Space Center the hiring teams looked at these sort of things; but in every other position I have held the person interviewing me didn’t even know what they were. Your mileage will certainly vary in this respect.
The primary drawback with belonging to a professional association is the cost/benefit ratio if you don’t take advantage of any of the benefits. If you don’t read the publications, interact with other members, or attend any conferences, you’re basically paying a fee for nothing – especially if any of the positions you’re interested in applying for someday don’t recognize the membership as something valuable.
If you do decide to participate in the association, then you’re most certainly going to spend time as well as money on the endeavor. That time is an opportunity cost for something else you could do for your career.
Choosing a Professional Association
If you think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks of joining a professional association, then you’ll need to select one – or perhaps more than one – to join. More on joining several associations in a moment.
My process starts with evaluating what each of the association states as their primary goal, and I evaluate that goal to ensure it fits with my own. If they aren’t going the same way I’m planning to go, it makes little sense to join it. There are intangibles in this part of the process such as doing a little background research to ensure the organization spends money wisely, that it follows all applicable laws, and that it as a moral compass that agrees with my own. I also want to know a great deal about what they do with my personal information.
Next, I ensure that the association is well-established and recognized within the industry. That doesn’t necessarily rule out a new organization, but if it is new, researching it is more difficult. Also, if the association is new, odds are that the places I would like to reference it won’t hold it in as high esteem as they might a more established organization.
For me it’s important the professional association is global or at least national in scope. A global association increases the number of members, and helps remove the idea that one country or another has a monopoly on technology – they do not. Even with this broad scope, it’s important to me that there are local chapters of the organization, or at least something I can reasonably travel to. While the global reach brings in a diversity of knowledge, I need a local chapter to work with to understand the particular area I serve in for technology. I have found that each region of the world, all the way down to a particular city, has material differences that matter for the technical professional.
It’s a must for me that the professional association has a stringent publication process. I’m fine with an online-only reading experience, but print media is fine as well. The particular distribution method is less important to me than the quality, focus and frequency of publications. I like seeing a peer review process, good editing in the publications, original research, and quality authors. Since this is one of the primary benefits in a professional association – that is, the distribution of knowledge – I desire a strong focus on the overall publication process.
Another very important factor I consider is the type of events the professional association offers. I like to see a formal, well-thought-out and implemented primary event. I’m not concerned with how often that is, I’m more concerned with the quality of the event and what I can get out of it. It’s a plus if there are more local events held in addition to the primary event, and online as well. I say as well because online events alone don’t offer the level of interaction I get at the in-person events.
Finally, I like certifications that are offered by the professional association. Interestingly, I’ve found this to be rare – I’m not sure if there is a liability issue, or perhaps a cost or some other factor, but I see very few professional associations offering a certification, even though I feel they are quite possibly the most suited to provide one.
But Should I Pay to Belong?
The word “guild” has been shown to come from the Saxon word “gilden”, which meant “to pay”. The factors I mentioned above are terribly expensive to implement properly. If the money is spent wisely and the benefits are there, I most heartily endorse a fee to join an organization. That being said, I also like “scholarships” that allow some folks that can’t afford to be part of the association to join. And a more basic, free offering is also possible.
Yes, you have to pay for things that are valuable.
But the payment goes beyond money. You have other responsibilities to the professional association. The payment is not only financial – that only gets you a “seat at the table” as it were. That Saxon word “guild” didn’t always mean a financial payment – it’s been associated with “sacrifice”, including sacrificing your time to a cause.
All of us are quite busy, and in these times more than at any other time in history, there is much to take our attention. But to be successful, you not only have to take advantage of the benefits the professional association offers (which of course takes time) but you also have to provide benefits back to the group. This is important for the vitality of the group, and will provide its own benefit back to you in the form of experience. As anyone who has served as an officer in a professional association will attest, there is always far more work involved in a quality offering than there are hands to do it.
So in my opinion, if you’re a technical professional, you should belong to a professional association. With the costs and time required to make the most of the experience, it’s actually quite difficult to make the most of more than one, so my recommendation is to pick one using the criteria I’ve laid out or modify it to your own standards – and then jump in and participate as much as you can. I’ve found that this is one of the best investments you can make in your career.