For Jim Prendergast, Keeping IEEE Relevant Was Key

Executive director reflects on his accomplishments as he prepares to retire

14 December 2017

In his nearly nine years as IEEE’s executive director and chief operating officer, E. James “Jim” Prendergast did not sit still. He expanded the organization’s presence in Asia and Europe and saw to the development of services that, he hopes, will keep IEEE relevant to future generations of engineers. The IEEE senior member plans to retire on 2 January. His replacement is IEEE Fellow Stephen Welby, who served as U.S. assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering from 2015 to 2017 in the Obama administration.

Prendergast directs the daily operations of IEEE and its 1,200 employees. The IEEE Board of Directors sets the organization’s policies, while the executive director’s job is to implement them and provide input about how to navigate the future.

With an eye on the future, Prendergast led the acquisition of IEEE GlobalSpec and its Engineering 360 platform, a search engine and a leading source of news, data, and analytics for the engineering and technical community. The deal marked the first time that the not-for-profit IEEE acquired a for-profit company.

According to Prendergast, IEEE GlobalSpec and other programs introduced during his career, including IEEE Access and IEEE Collabratec, will boost membership and develop revenue streams for IEEE. Those were two of the mandates he was given when he took the job in April 2009.

“The nature of membership is changing,” he says. “People are not joining organizations like IEEE the way they used to. We need to attract them by using different mechanisms.”

GREATER PRESENCE

IEEE’s global presence has grown significantly during Prendergast’s tenure, with the opening of offices in Bangalore, India, and Vienna and expanded roles given to the presences in China, Japan, and Singapore.

“My former employer DuPont had an expression: ‘You have to go where the growth is,’” he says. “Our biggest growth area for membership is in Asia, and our footprint there was not strong enough.”

To that end, IEEE opened an office in 2010 in Bangalore. It is now the largest IEEE office outside the operations center, in Piscataway, N.J.

A CHANGING LANDSCAPE

Prendergast has been concerned about changes in the publishing business. One is the open-access movement in scholarly publishing that calls for making online content available at no cost to readers. Another is when pirated-content websites such as Sci-Hub offer content for free, including IEEE articles, with little hindrance.

In response, IEEE Access was launched in 2013. The online, open-access, multidisciplinary, applications-oriented, archival journal presents the results of original research and development across all of IEEE’s fields of interest.

In 2015 IEEE Collabratec, the online professional networking and collaboration platform, was introduced.

“I think Collabratec is a great example of a new type of product attracting people to IEEE,” Prendergast says.

Even though IEEE is a not-for profit organization, it still needs revenue to support its mission, he says, and that’s one reason IEEE acquired GlobalSpec. It has helped the organization reach into industry and engage with important new markets and opportunities, he points out. The IEEE GlobalSpec database of nearly 100 million technical documents, 200 million data sheets, 200,000 suppliers, 82,000 product announcements, 63,000 catalogs, and 835 specification guides offers technical information to engineers, technical professionals, manufacturers, distributors, and service providers involved in technical research, product design, and purchasing. The IEEE GlobalSpec platforms reach more than 8 million registered users worldwide.

“GlobalSpec will grow and become much more important in the coming decades and dramatically improve the impact IEEE has on practicing engineers,” Prendergast says.

PUBLIC IMPERATIVES

Prendergast is proud of IEEE’s public policy work under his watch. In particular, he points to the Global Initiative for Ethical Considerations in Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems, an IEEE Standards Association Industry Connections activity. Launched this year, it is designed to help educate, train, and empower those involved in developing new technologies to make ethical considerations a priority.

“When you look back decades from now, ethical considerations applied to AI, for example, could have a huge impact on society,” he says. “We have to think of them now. We can’t think about developing them once we start having problems.”

Prendergast has no firm plans about what he’ll do in retirement other than relocating from New Jersey to his vacation home in Colorado, where he enjoys hiking and skiing.

This article has been corrected from an earlier version.

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