As the election nears, it’s time to learn where the candidates for 2010 IEEE President-Elect—J. Roberto Boisson de Marca, Moshe Kam, and Joseph V. Lillie—stand on IEEE issues. At the annual Candidates Night on 18 June, at the Sheraton University City Hotel in Philadelphia, the three men answered questions posed by the audience and via e-mail. Here are excerpts from their responses, edited for brevity. To hear the debate in its entirety, visit IEEE.tv.
If elected 2011 president, what would be your top two priorities?
Professor, Center for Studies in Telecommunications, Catholic University, Rio de Janeiro
DE MARCA We have to improve the volunteer experience. Volunteers are our most important assets, and we need to develop an environment in which volunteers find enjoyment in their work and can balance their expectations with IEEE business requirements. We also have to continue to work hard to develop products that all members perceive as essential to their career growth and daily lives. Our products are very much appreciated by academia, but we need to reach out to industry leaders to work with us to find ways to more effectively meet the needs of practicing engineers and managers.
KAM We need new programs for practicing members and recent graduates. Practicing engineers constitute 60 to 70 percent of membership. They tell us often that many of our publications and conferences do not help them with their job duties. There is an urgent need to provide meaningful services to this key constituency. Moreover, this effort would require a different model of publications and conferences than what we have now.
My second priority is to expand IEEE into new, emerging fields. We will not be at the forefront of science, engineering, technology, and computing if we do not make sure we are leading in new technical disciplines. There is a lot of excitement at the intersection of electrical engineering, computer engineering, computer science, biology, and life sciences. We need to make sure that IEEE is not only a participant but also a leader in these developments.
LILLIE Costs and member engagement. Costwise, we need to take a hard look at everything IEEE is doing that members and customers pay for. If we do a better job of managing what it costs to deliver these services and products, we can deliver more without having to raise fees or modify our processes. It’s been many years since IEEE took an overall look at its cost structure.
We have to do a better job of creating opportunities to bring members together—to engage them face-to-face at the section level, at the regional level, and internationally—through the various technologies IEEE members develop. We have the technology that can bring people together no matter where they reside.
Is IEEE at the forefront of innovative technologies?
Department head and Robert Quinn Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, Drexel University, Philadelphia
KAM We must be, but we are not always there. We lead in several fundamental areas, such as communications and power and energy. However, our leadership in these fields is sometimes tenuous. For example, while IEEE is recognized as a leader in power and energy, we need to improve our presence in green energy and in environmental considerations of power delivery. We have not yet realized several great opportunities in multimedia, entertainment technology, biomedical engineering, and biomedical instrumentation. We are not focusing enough on the aspects of life sciences and health care technology that are relevant to IEEE; there is much room for growth there.
LILLIE We are doing an excellent job for the benefit of humanity and in areas such as standards. Our standards are second to none. We have standards used worldwide that users don’t even know come from IEEE. However, we need to get rid of the “silos” that prevent us from getting involved in new technologies. For example, where does green technology fit in with IEEE’s society makeup? It doesn’t really fit in any one society. We have to figure out how to make it fit and become a leader in emerging technologies.
DE MARCA I disagree a bit. IEEE is in many ways at the forefront of new technologies. We have activities in every new technology, broadly speaking, but we do a poor job of packaging and creating visibility for these efforts. I chair the New Technology Directions Committee, and we are trying to work on that. Right now our focus is on the smart grid and next-generation computing, and, soon, the brain-machine interface. Each of these areas is being led by industry people, so the outside world will have a consistent and comprehensive view of the full set of IEEE publications and services available on that topic. This will also require improved coordination on these topics among societies and councils, and we are working on that as well. If these trials are successful, all the exciting technology developments happening inside IEEE will be more visible to the outside world.
What would you do to ensure IEEE weathers the economic recession?
LILLIE Things we’ve already done are helping to weather the current economic downturn. A few years ago, we changed the way we put together the operations budget. It used to be somewhat dependent on the stock market, but it depends now on income. That model can help us as we move forward. We also need to better understand members’ needs and how we can serve them better. We don’t know how many members will have to change careers because of the economy and aren’t necessarily ready for a change. How can we help them? We have some successful programs, but we need more. We need to learn from our current situation and come up with ways to handle a downturn in the future because this is not the last time it’s going to happen. It happened seven years ago, and we need to help people make transitions.
DE MARCA We have a different situation now than in the last downturn in 2001. We now have a balanced budget and better control of our investments. Despite what’s happening, we still have healthy reserves and are in a reasonably good financial position. Product sales are still good. Conferences are down about 20 percent in net, but I think at the end of the year we’ll still be in reasonably good shape. However, I’m concerned about an attitude I sense in IEEE: Some departments seem to think they are exempt from negative impacts—that they will happen somewhere else and not to them—and that’s dangerous. To successfully weather this downturn, we have to control our costs better everywhere.
I don’t like that staff head count is growing every year. The Board of Directors approved what I thought was a freeze on head count, but it turned out to be a frost or a chill, and the head count still kept growing!
I think we have to control costs better. IEEE is a little bit like a government organization. People seem to think it operates like a family business, with lifetime employment and special exemptions. That has to stop if we are to be successful now and in the future.
KAM First, we need to have detailed contingency plans. We must not be caught unaware, surprised, and unprepared. Contingency plans will give us an opportunity to look at our priorities, ask what businesses we are willing to fund through our reserves and what activities are unnecessary or redundant—and therefore can be sacrificed. We should also take advantage of unique opportunities offered by the recession. For example, there may be opportunities to hire high-caliber individuals for our staff who would not be available under other circumstances.
Another important area is employment assistance and networking for our members. We tend to work very hard in these areas in difficult times but abandon them when circumstances get a little better. We should commit to building permanent employment assistance services and not be tempted to dismantle them quickly when the economy appears to be improving.
Has the IEEE Public Visibility Initiative been successful, and will you continue to support it?
KAM I think this new effort has been successful so far. It will be increasingly more successful if we keep working at it. Such efforts take a long time to bear fruit—you cannot expect much after only a year or two. A good example of success is our highly popular preuniversity portal, TryEngineering.org. We built it in 2006, and we keep maintaining and growing it; hundreds of thousands use it now as their primary source of information on engineering and computing education.
We must recognize that it is not enough for IEEE to “do good things.” We need to make sure that the public understands how much good we do. Every time I attend an IEEE awards ceremony, I am awed at the leaders we recognize and at what they have achieved for humanity. In the past, we have not done a very good job of advertising these achievements and letting the public know. I am glad to see that we are getting better at it.
LILLIE Whether to continue will be the decision of the Board of Directors. It has been funded for the last two years. I voted for it and will continue to support it. I think raising visibility is the right thing to do. The funds aren’t in the tens of millions. They’re in the million-dollar range.
Getting the word out on what IEEE is all about is very difficult. The audience is the world, but we have tremendous assets in our members worldwide and in individuals who contributed to successful technologies that people use daily. We need to get the public to understand that IEEE is a key player in all the technologies we use today. You can’t wake up in the morning and operate for 15 minutes without touching something IEEE was involved with.
DE MARCA The project is still in its beginning stages. I voted for it initially, and under my leadership it will continue. In IEEE we say we have done many things, but it is not IEEE that has done those things, it is individuals—and it is so important for us to recognize our members’ and volunteers’ achievements. The Honors Ceremony is a start, but we need to broadcast that message to a larger audience. Last November during the [Board of Directors] meeting series, my daughter, who is a medical doctor, was talking about some medical equipment, and I said, “You know, this equipment was built with technology first proposed in IEEE.” She said, “Really? Then you need to do a better job of letting people know that.” And we do need to do a better job of making the public aware of the great contributions to society that our members and volunteers have made over the years and continue to make every day.
How involved would you get IEEE in renewable/sustainable energy and green technology?
LILLIE I think we can come up with a better way to package green technology in our societies by bringing together those that represent some aspect of it. We need to package green technology in a way that people can access it. We have found several better energy sources, which, for the most part, are being developed. We just haven’t yet found a way to get them to produce energy we can use on a daily basis. I think IEEE can help tremendously with that. IEEE is also the solution for a lot of the interface issues involved with bringing all those renewable resources onto the electric grid.
DE MARCA The good news is that we are involved in this topic already. The Transactions of Sustainable Energy journal has been approved by the Technical Activities Board Periodicals Committee and will be published next year. We now have conferences addressing this topic, including one I participated in last March in Budapest [the IEEE Wireless Communications & Networking Conference 2009].
Again, it’s about packaging and creating visibility for our activities in these areas of emerging technology. And I think the way to address these is to identify champions. We need individuals—lead technologists—who can coordinate across different societies and break down silos. We must all team up to offer an environment for our community to develop new products and services that allow IEEE to lead in these emerging fields.
KAM If we continue to address this emerging field as we are doing now—holding conferences and publishing Transactions—we will certainly do some good. However, this approach is hardly adequate. We have to be much bolder and work closely with industry to develop more comprehensive and practical solutions. We need an IEEE unit that would be responsible for working on renewable and sustainable energy and the smart grid across organizational units—with our technical societies as well as our local sections. We need to maintain close relations and work hand in hand with CTOs and CEOs of companies advancing this field.
What improvements should IEEE strive for in the next five years?
KAM First, I would like to reverse the trend of decreased participation of practicing engineers in our membership. We ought not to become solely a learned society of academics. IEEE is the professional home for individuals who work in all aspects of computing and engineering, not just for those who work in the most abstract and advanced mathematics of science and engineering.
The second issue is to make sure emerging areas such as multimedia and entertainment technologies as well as advanced health care become part of IEEE’s portfolio. We should address these areas in a way that engages practitioners and makes them enthusiastic about working on these areas within IEEE.
More daunting, but no less important and critical to our future, is to bring advances and relevant aspects of life sciences into IEEE. It is entirely possible that the most exciting and important advances in technology, engineering, and computing will occur in the next few decades in areas related to life sciences. IEEE must be at the forefront of these developments.
LILLIE We need to use technology to better serve the communities we operate in. We need to look at delivering products in a lot of different ways and see how we can better serve members. We still mail print copies to areas where it takes several weeks to arrive. Why are we doing this? Technology gives us a better way. I’m not saying we should give up access to print, but we can provide the electronic version immediately.
We need to look at becoming a truly global organization. We talk, take strides, and have had some success in this. Almost 70 percent of our students are outside the United States, and 50 percent of conferences are held in Regions 7, 8, 9, and 10. We need to make other parts of IEEE as global.
DE MARCA First, I’d like IEEE to continue working in emerging technologies. We have industry people leading very new and exciting areas. We should coordinate activities so they meet market timing, and we should make sure our efforts are visible. I would also like to continue reaching out to industry to encourage its involvement in defining our products and services. Last year, the Technical Activities Board had a very good advisory committee, with members from different industries, even venture capitalists, and people from different parts of the world, and that effort has helped to shape our technical activities.
We also need to better understand the needs of all members, all over the world, so we can provide better service to them. This is something I don’t think we do well today. We have to continue to strive to be a model global organization. We talk a lot about it, but maybe we haven’t defined yet what it means to be more global. I say, instead of people in the United States and the IEEE Board of Directors trying to define this, how about asking people outside the United States what it means for them? Do they feel properly represented? Is their work recognized and valued? Do they have the proper channels to participate? If we ask ourselves alone, we may reach the wrong conclusions. And we cannot afford to be wrong in this area. Members outside Regions 1 through 6 are the fastest-growing IEEE population. We need to become truly transnational in the future, and we need to start now to break the barriers to doing so.