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Q&A: Our Dame Commander

Wendy Hall discusses her plans to increase ACM's membership and to create task forces in China, India, and Europe.
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Dame Wendy Hall

A professor of computer science at the University of Southampton and the winner of numerous awards and honors, such as her recent appointment as Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Wendy Hall was elected president of ACM in July 2008.

You’re the third female president of ACM, and the first non-North American president. How does that feel?

For me, it’s more exciting that I’m the first non-North American president. A lot of times you don’t like to do things just because you’re a woman—you want to do stuff because you’re the best person to do it, in the whole competitive field.

What are your plans for ACM?

ACM is in a good position, with 92,000 members and counting, and we had a fantastic year last year. But we mustn’t be complacent. Broadly speaking, I want more people to join ACM, I want more women to join ACM. ACM is a U.S.-based organization, but it reaches out to the whole world through its publications and conferences.

What will you be doing to support those international members?

We’re developing a series of task forces to explore what ACM can do in particular areas of the world—China, India, Europe. We need to ask: What can we do to support each of these cultures in their own context?

How will the task forces operate?

The task forces are geographically based, and [ACM CEO] John White is working very hard to get a good quality, diverse membership. The idea is that we start off with a task force, and as it matures, it will become a council in that region. We also want the task force chairs to come to New York and be a part of our discussions. It would be hopeless if it were always done at a distance.

What’s been accomplished thus far?

In November, we held a summit largely aimed at Chinese educators. It was very successful, but we want to build on it. There’s a huge amount of computing activity in China. At the moment our work is in Beijing—and we’ll arrange a meeting of the ACM China Council later in the year—but we must expand it to Shanghai and Hong Kong and other regions. We also have an embryonic task force in India, which held its first meeting in early February.

And in Europe?

We, too, held our first meeting this February, in London. There are already lots of different computer societies in Europe, and they do a lot to energize and support the research base. We’re trying to find out what we could do to help and collaborate.

What’s your time frame for all of this?

We’d like to see the councils for China, India, and Europe set up and running their own meetings by the end of financial year ’09, which technically finishes in June. We’re also planning more events like the educational summit in China. Hopefully, we’ll have something in India in 2010, and we’re looking to have an event in Europe, as well. Then we’ve got to think about Central and South America, and Africa—it’s a big world.

You’ve also been talking about growing ACM’s membership.

ACM has had a steady growth, and we reckon we can get to an even 100,000. But when you think about it, there hundreds of thousands of people—millions—who work in this area across the world. So we’ve just started a debate, which we’re going to run this year: What would it mean if we tried to double our membership? How would it change ACM?

"What would it mean if we tried to double our membership? How would it change ACM?"

Sounds like there’s a lot to be done.

There is a lot of responsibility, but it’s also great fun. I’ve always enjoyed working with and for ACM, and because of its international role you feel that you can really have an impact.

What else is on the agenda?

The other big part of our agenda is improving the image of the field and the health of the discipline. This is all in collaboration with other organizations, like the National Science Foundation and members of the media. We’ve seen a dramatic drop in the numbers of people interested in careers in computing, and we’re working on several projects to help turn this around.

Such as?

Public broadcaster WGBH, in Boston, does a lot to encourage young people to go into science and engineering. So we’re working with them to look particularly at Latina and African-American girls. The Educational Policies Committee is also looking at ways to move computing and computer science into the mainstream of policy thinking.

On a more personal note, you were recently honored as Dame Commander. How did that feel?

It is, of course, a huge honor, and thrilling for me and my family. But I think it’s also good for the computing community to have one of its own recognized in this way.

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