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Q&A: Chief Strategiest

ACM CEO John White talks about initiatives to serve the organization's professional members, increase international activities, and reform computer science education.
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ACM Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer John White
"Over the last three-and-a-half years, almost all growth in membership at ACM has come from outside the U.S.," says John White, ACM's executive director and CEO.

It was 1967 when a classmate at the University of California, Santa Barbara introduced John White to professor Glen Culler and his APRA-funded research project to build a mathematically oriented time-sharing system on an IBM/360 Model 50 mainframe—and drew him into the then-nascent field of computer science. After obtaining his Ph.D., White spent nine years as a professor at the University of Connecticut. He then moved to Xerox PARC, where he spent 17 years leading research groups on projects like networked electronic document systems, services, and commerce. In 1999, White accepted a full-time position as Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the ACM, where he helps guide initiatives on everything from education policy to the 2012 Turing Centenary.

How do you see your role at ACM?

My primary role as CEO is to be an ongoing partner with ACM’s changing elected leadership to build a coherent strategic direction for the organization. As a result, much of what I do is focused on strategic initiatives and priorities. I am still ultimately responsible for overseeing core ACM activities like publishing, conferences, education, and policy, but I spend a lot of my time on initiatives.

Let’s talk about some of the ACM’s broader strategic initiatives.

One initiative that came together around 2005 was a desire to see ACM do a better job serving practitioners. It was an obvious thing to do, because when you look at the demographics of ACM’s members, practitioners compose about 60% of the membership. And when we looked at what ACM produced in the way of products and services, probably 80% of it was targeted at researchers. What we’ve done over the last several years is develop new products and services targeted at practitioners—everything from the launch of Queue in the mid-2000s to the courses and books program that ACM members receive, Tech Packs, Learning Paths, and Webinars.

What are your successes in that realm, and what are you doing to build on them?

One result of this effort has been an increase in satisfaction among our practitioners. The percentage of members in ACM who come from that constituency has also increased slightly. The Practitioner Board continues to work on new products and services that will be of value to the community. That said, the other way we’re working on reaching and serving practitioners is throughout an international initiative.

This is the initiative you launched to increase ACM’s international activities.

The computing community has become a global community, and around six years ago, the ACM Council and senior staff agreed that we needed to do more outside the U.S.

That’s a big job. Where did you start?

Somewhere between the administrations of Stuart Feldman and Wendy Hall, we settled on the idea that ACM would focus on a handful of regions, and in each region we would look to build a group of distinguished computer scientists who knew both the region and ACM. We now have regional efforts in India, China, and Europe, each of which is led by a Regional Council. These councils typically meet twice a year, and grow and shape what ACM does in the region. One result is that over the last three-and-a-half years, almost all growth in membership at ACM has come from outside the U.S.

Are there any specific regional initiatives you would like to highlight?

In China, we’ve focused on building a good relationship with the China Computing Federation, or CCF. Just last month, CCF leadership voted to increase their dues to cover the cost of all CCF members becoming ACM members. The ACM India Council is holding their third ACM India Conference and looking at a major education initiative to raise the quality of computing education in India. And ACM Europe is organizing the first ACM European Computing Research Congress (ECRC) which will be modeled after the very successful, typically U.S.-based ACM Federated Computing Research Conference (FCRC).

Let’s talk about the initiative you launched to deal with CS education.

The phrase I use for this initiative is "the image and health of the field," which reflects, first of all, how computing is perceived and to what extent the general public understands what computing is—why it’s more than just IT literacy. Part of that effort is aimed at a healthy computing educational pipeline in general, and another part is worrying about the specific image issues that tend to keep girls from getting involved the field. On the "health" side, it’s about ensuring we have a healthy discipline, so that if we do get kids interested in computing, there’s a place for them to go—a well-defined computing curriculum that is actually being taught.

This must be part of the reason you created the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA).

We created CSTA to have the national organization that every other discipline has for their high school teaching community, and to ensure that we could get real computer science into high schools. Today, much of the effort is focused on a new Advanced Placement (AP) computer science course, because AP courses are the closest thing we have in the U.S. to a national educational standard. With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the community has developed a new course, the College Board is engaging to make this new course a real AP computer science course and test, and we are in the process of figuring out how we can scale this effort, train teachers, and get real AP computer science into 10,000 high schools.

"Over the last three-and-a-half years, almost all growth in membership at ACM has come from outside the U.S."

It sounds like an uphill battle.

It’s a very complicated problem, but the computing community—ACM, CSTA, NSF, CRA, NC-WIT, Microsoft, Google, Intel, SAS, and others—are basically all on the same page for the first time that anybody can remember. A new future for computing in high schools is within grasp, though it’s going to take a lot of work and coordination and a lot of money to make it real.

What are the short-term goals for ACM?

There are a lot of important short-term goals. We want to take our initiatives in India, China, and Europe to the next level. In addition, we will be discussing how we could contribute to advancing computing in Latin America. Throughout, we will be supporting our SIGs in delivering an amazing spectrum of high-quality ACM SIG research conferences. And this year we are organizing an ACM special event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing’s birth. This will be a one-and-a-half-day event and lead into the ACM awards banquet in San Francisco. Amazingly, 32 Turing Award winners have agreed to participate, and we’re working to build it into a compelling program with panels, talks, and networking opportunities, organized around 32 Turing Award winners, to explore both the past and the future of computing. It will be something not to be missed.

What challenges does ACM face as it heads into the future?

As an organization, I think ACM faces one core challenge. It’s a challenge I believe almost every membership organization faces, and that is creating a value proposition sufficiently compelling that individuals will decide to step up and become a member. ACM represents the computing community—we are led by the computing community, and we serve the computing community. As a result, we need the computing community to be members of ACM, partly because it makes sense and partly because the community looks to ACM to take on some very important tasks—tasks like worrying about the image and health of this field, publishing the best research, sponsoring world-class conferences, shaping public policy, and leading initiatives around the world. Part of the challenge we have is that the social dimension of the Web is fundamentally changing how people work, communicate, and network. This shift is influencing everything from publishing to delivering products and services to members. There is a sense that everything we do should be freely available to the world. And while some of that desire makes sense, if the community isn’t joining the organization that’s funding all of this work, then it doesn’t compute. We have vision, we have great ideas, and we have amazing leaders who are willing to guide the ACM. We just need the computing community to realize that this organization is important, and that they need to be a part of it.

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