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Building community for the new information technology professional
an interview with John White

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue February, February 1 - February 28, 2000 | BY John Gehl 

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Full citation in the ACM Digital Library


John White, ACM Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer, has been with the Association since January 1999. During his brief tenure, White has articulated and helped shape a new direction for ACM -- that of electronic community for information technology (IT) professionals worldwide. Under his leadership, ACM is providing a new generation of digital products and services for IT professionals. Prior to joining ACM, White was manager of the Computer Science Laboratory at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.


UBIQUITY: We're having this conversation on a day when everyone's attention is caught by the breaking news of the proposed merger of AOL and Time Warner. Were you as surprised as everyone else?

JOHN WHITE: Yes, and I was surprised that AOL is the dominating company. I'm fascinated by the way that the current value of Internet companies is so much a reflection of their imagined future, while the current market capitalization and value of other companies are grounded in their performance, capability, and business -- much harder currencies.

UBIQUITY: How do you expect things to develop? Will mergers of this sort be coming fast and furiously?

WHITE: It will take a while to understand what has been created in the AOL-Time Warner merger. We can speculate about what we know about these two companies; about the technologies that underlie both entertainment and the Internet. We can take our experiences with AOL and with the entertainment industry owned by Time Warner and look at those both in isolation, and then putting it all together makes sense -- the obvious things that come to mind are interactive TV and that kind of direction -- but you wonder if there isn't going to be something else more fundamental in this. I hope there is. I just don't quite know how to picture what it's going to be.

So it is fascinating, and in terms of future mergers, when you bring content and networking together in creative ways, I don't know that there's going to be a whole lot more on the scale that we saw. Everyone speculates about Yahoo! and Disney with AT&T; what would that create, and so forth. When I think about AOL, I think of its 20 million subscribers. I think of the people who use AOL for e-mail and other networking services. And, when I think about Yahoo!, I think about millions of people who aren't subscribers to Yahoo! The world just comes to Yahoo! and does its thing and goes away. There are subtle differences there.

There will be more mergers, but it will take a while for the value of the new experiences that are created to shake out and for us to see what is sustainable. Then there will be new things that we can't even contemplate today.

UBIQUITY: Although the reaction to the news was enthusiastic in most quarters, there are definite exceptions to that. Consumer advocates are showing skepticism, and the Senate Commerce Committee is planning hearings to determine whether the merger might amount to a shrinking of the marketplace of ideas. Senators Mike DeWine and Herb Kohl are asking whether the merger is "the beginning of the end of the Internet as an effective counterweight to traditional media outlets."

WHITE: I don't share their fear. I believe that we don't really know what's going to be possible when these two companies try to blend their visions of what entertainment is going to be like, what communications are going to be like, and how that's going to play out in the home. I see it as adding substantial value to what one can do over the Internet and the value one is going to receive from being a part of the Internet community, period. I don't think we know how to kill the Internet even if we want to, and if this particular merger ends up not bearing fruit in the way optimists are hoping, then something else will emerge to bring new kinds of content to the individual, or bring old content in new ways. It is absolutely the next step of what the Internet is all about, to my way of thinking. I think the potential to add value to people's everyday life is tremendous. Certainly, the potential to reshape some of how entertainment is delivered is tremendous. Is it somehow substantially going to alter human-to-human interaction in the personal side of life? I don't know. I don't think so, but that would be my only concern.

UBIQUITY: Do you fear for the health of small publishers who might be unable to compete against these giants? Some people worry that the bigger the sources of information get, the bigger the organizations get, the more they drown out all other voices.

WHITE: I'm not concerned about that, because I think the drowning out of everything else happens only when there is absolute power. Whereas, with the Internet there is this remarkable leveling of the playing field and a new level of democratic opportunity. No matter who you are, once you publish something on the Web it is instantaneously available to a worldwide community. So I see the merger mainly as an effort to take the Internet experience to the next step; that's doing nothing to curtail the leveling of the democratic playing field. There's going to be as much opportunity for new things to happen on the Net as there is today. I don't think there's any way that you can, just by sheer size, dominate anything anymore. That's what makes the Internet so fundamental now to everything anyone does.

UBIQUITY: How would you deal with the following analogy question, of the kind that you probably last took when you were trying to get into college: Do you think ACM is more like Time Warner or more like AOL?

WHITE: Well, I think ACM is, in microcosm, really more like a combined AOL-Time Warner. On a very small scale, ACM is, on the one hand, a little like an Internet service provider, in that we support the Internet experience of some 80,000 ACM members around the world. At the same time, ACM is also a content provider, and therefore analogous to Time Warner's part of the world. As we reshape ACM, it's about bringing those two things together so that we change how computing professionals get their work done, stay connected to the profession that they're a part of, understand the opportunities that are in that profession, and grow throughout their careers. What we try to do in ACM is change the ways in which we bring interesting content to IT professionals. That means exploiting the Internet and changing the kind of content we produce, delivering old content in new ways, and new content in new ways. So I think it's a little bit like the New World. I hope that what ACM provides through some of the new places we're taking digital libraries and electronic forums and things like Ubiquity will help IT professionals get their work done differently in the IT field.

UBIQUITY: Do you see a different image now of the IT professional from what existed ten years ago?

WHITE: Clearly, there has been a change. Ten years ago, the IT professional, in my mind, was more of a traditional computing person, who was more likely to be working for a larger company than a smaller company. IT professionals were working inside of institutions, were most likely trained in the sciences, were working with a more limited set of tools, and were standing a little bit apart from the rest of the professions. But today, with the ubiquity of computers and the Net, there are huge numbers of people using computers in their daily work and life. IT professionals have obviously had to develop an understanding of very broad issues, and develop skills at using and extending computing systems. They now work for a much broader spectrum of institutions and use a dramatically different set of tools than existed even ten years ago. So much of what we do ends up being presented to people on the Web; the visual programming tools available to do that kind of stuff have really changed.

IT professionals are working in a different context and with a different set of tools, coming from a broader set of educational backgrounds, and becoming more integrated into the community; the social fabric. The IT professional is not the computer geek anymore. Some of your best friends now are IT professionals, rather than just those who used to work in what you thought of as either aerospace or computing: computer manufacturers, government or the IT back rooms.

UBIQUITY: Does the ACM have any problem reaching out to different kinds of people than it used to?

WHITE: Yes, it does. ACM has not grown its base of members at the rate at which the IT field has grown in the last 10 years. So we are consciously looking at why we are not engaged with the young IT professional, who fits this latter description that I just gave. In the past, there weren't many young IT professionals. Today, there is this large community of young people who are building many of the new things we're using. ACM is looking to engage them, so we have to look different and be different from what we have been in the past.

I'm very optimistic about succeeding in this. One sign that my optimism is justified is that we have more student members of ACM than we've ever had before. And this is good. What has often happened in the past is that when the students graduated and went off into the field, we lost them. They didn't retain their ACM connection. So we've learned, as a society, that we need to understand and provide value to the young IT professional.

UBIQUITY: Why did you tend to lose them?

WHITE: Let me answer that by coming from the other direction. I think you get them first because of their faculty, who explain to them the value of student membership and the importance of understanding what this profession is all about. ACM is one of two computing societies in the country. There is value in becoming a part of it, and there is fun in becoming a part of it, because of ACM's sponsorship of activities like student programming contests and other activities that students enjoy very much.

When they graduate, students who are not in a career that's headed into research often place less importance on what we provide with publications and conferences, which are oriented somewhat toward researchers, and not so much toward meeting their practical needs. The biggest area that we are looking at is helping with overall career development, so that we can help students understand what a career in information technology entails, help them decide whether they want to go into that kind of career, and explain how do they get started and how do they continue their professional development as a member of the IT community.

I think we lost them because we weren't offering them very much, but that's changing rapidly. We have 20,000 student members of ACM; that's only a fraction of the number of people studying computing and computer science in the U.S. I think we can get a bigger section of those, and I think we can do something to keep them.

UBIQUITY: Has anyone ever suggested that the name itself, the venerable name Association for Computing Machinery, is a mixed blessing?

WHITE: It is a very mixed blessing. I joined the ACM in 1968 and have been around the volunteer side and the staff side of the organization since about the mid '70s, and the question of whether we should change the name has come up many, many times. It was discussed in the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, and the '90s. I guess it was in a story on the ACM '97 conference that the New York Times reported, "As its name suggests, it's been there from the beginning." Well, that's about the only good thing you can say about the name. It makes us sound like a trade association, not an educational and scientific society, and that's why we've looked at changing the name so many times. But there has never been enough real momentum to try to pull that off and never been a clear alternative name that would still keep some sense of our identity. For example, we couldn't become the American Computing Society, because we're firmly committed to being an international computing society. Other alternative names seem to have similar problems. . . . ACM is constantly working on name recognition. We do a tremendous number of exciting things, and yet half the time nobody realizes that they're done by ACM.

UBIQUITY: You've been involved with ACM as a volunteer for a long time. Did you find any special surprises when you got on staff?

WHITE: I don't think it was a surprise, but I was reminded of how much work it takes to take any good idea and actually make it into a sustainable part of a program. I was reminded of how we can't do everything we would like to do all at once and, therefore, we have to do a lot of priority setting. In the process, we have to leave some of the good ideas on the side for a while.

UBIQUITY: Did your work at Xerox prepare you for that sort of thing?

WHITE: My experience at Xerox was all about creating the space for good ideas to get hatched. The other big part of my job was making sure that we actually delivered some value out of those ideas; and you clearly can't out of every good idea. You have to pick the ones that have the potential for impact and fit them in the mainstream of what you're doing.

UBIQUITY: How would you explain the mainstream to someone you met on a plane who didn't know about ACM?

WHITE: I've actually worked on that. It's like coming through the customs gate when they ask, "What was the purpose of your trip?" You reply, "Business." They ask "What do you do?" You go, "Uh, jeez, how much time do you have?" It's not easy to explain.

The mainstream of ACM is about nurturing the evolution of computing science and technology and doing everything we can to ensure beneficial impact of that science and technology. Many of our activities focus on helping create the communities that move new ideas and new technologies forward and, through our growing amount of work on public policy, having an impact on those technologies, and being the champion of the common person, so to speak, when it comes to computing and what it's doing for them. It's about helping create the communities that support the evolution of various aspects of computing and information technology, and trying to do that in a beneficial way. Or, I just simply say, "I run a computer society," and hope they don't ask me what's that all about.

UBIQUITY: What's your view of how the ACM fits into the world; not the wide world of the Web, but the wide world, the thing that spins around?

WHITE: Well, the ACM is an 80,000-member community, a large percentage of which is outside the United States, so it is worldwide. I think how we fit is in the creation of the electronic community that brings these people together to do the two things that I mentioned: both build the sub-communities that push the edges of understanding and knowledge about different aspects of information technology and computer science, and build the support to attend to the positive impact of that on humankind.

UBIQUITY: There are two views. I don't know which predominates, but one is negative and one is positive. There's a negative view that focuses on the digital divide and the difference between rich and poor, and haves and have-nots, and poorer countries and richer countries, and so forth. And there's another feeling of optimism for the Internet and computing in general, information technology, creating new wealth, new ideas, and so forth. I assume you lean to the latter direction?

WHITE: ACM is aware of and active in both of those aspects of information technology; both what it's creating and the kinds of changes it is helping instantiate. That's a natural part of who we are and what we do. ACM has a tradition of being concerned about many issues of excluded groups, like universal access. ACM, more than most educational and scientific computing societies, has always had a tradition of having activities that take on some of these hard questions.

This is not speaking directly to the digital divide issue, but, for example, for probably ten years ACM has been concerned with and working on the problem of underrepresented groups in information technology; the fact that there are a small percentage of minorities and a very small percentage of women who make up the community of IT professionals. Why is that? Why are these groups not included in the infrastructure of people and work that is making all this happen? Certainly, with respect to women, ACM has done a lot of work to try to understand the problem, to raise awareness of the problem, and to work with other organizations to look at the sort of systemic issues that seem to preclude women from getting involved in computing.

ACM has had committees and done work and tried to educate legislators and others on the importance of universal access and making the Internet available to people. This is not just about bandwidth and computers; it's about what should we be doing in the earliest phases of education in the K-12 area to both train the teachers and have the best impact on all children.

It also touches on issues like making computing usable by individuals who are disabled and the fact that what we have in front of us doesn't work for everyone. ACM has been involved, run conferences, looked at the questions, and tried to get conversations going in many areas that deal with the social impact of computing.

We both share the excitement of what information technology has created and where it's going, and attend to some of the harder questions along the way.

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