Thursday, June 14, 2012

Participating in Professional Organizations

Perhaps it's because I began my career as a research scientist, but I've always thought it was important to join and participate in the activities of professional societies. Over the years I have been a member of the American Chemical Society, Association for Computing Machinery, IEEE, IEEE Computer Society, American Society for Quality, and others. Participating in such organizations helps promote professionalism and distribute knowledge among the members. Meetings provide opportunities for networking, which can lead to employment possibilities both for independent consultants and for those seeking regular jobs. You can also make new friends.

Since I became an author and speaker in the software arena, I have received many invitations to speak at local, national, and international meetings of various professional organizations (just got one today, in fact). These include the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA), Project Management Institute (PMI), IEEE, various software process improvement networks (SPINs) around the country, and so on. Speaking at organizations like this, particularly at local meetings, is a great way for me to try out new material. I can practice a new keynote presentation in a friendly environment before I have to deliver it to hundreds of people. I've also delivered many webinars for such organizations from the comfort of my own office, thereby extending my visibility and impact beyond those who could attend a particular conference or meeting.

I view these presentations both as a way to contribute to my professional community and also as a marketing tool. Earlier in my career, presentations at local professional organization meetings did generate quite a few training and consulting opportunities. I'm always happy to do those kinds of presentations, and I never charge a speaking fee for them. However, I do have to have some reason to be in the area to make it financially feasible for me to participate. The people at some organizations seem puzzled when I explain that it's not feasible for me to fly across the country to give a short talk and then fly home again, without compensation, even if they reimburse my travel expenses. The argument that "it will be great visibility for you and might lead to some training opportunities" doesn't motivate me anymore. The fact is, it's been some years since professional society talks have led to paying work.

When travel is involved, I try to arrange these presentations to piggyback on some work I'm already doing in the vicinity. Sometimes the professional group has contacts with a local training company that can arrange for me to deliver a public, open-enrollment seminar. This covers my expenses, generates some revenue for me, and lets me take an extra day to speak at the professional group meeting. I did that in 2011 in Ohio; it worked out great. Because I'm not being paid for the presentation at the professional group meeting, I'm not shy about promoting my books, eLearning training courses, and other products and services. Maybe some attendees will buy one of my books afterward and tell their friends about it.

(As an aside, although I don’t charge a fee to speak at local professional organization meetings, I never give corporate presentations for free. My feeling is that if I'm delivering some value to the company and its employees, I'm entitled to be compensated for that value. If a company sees that they can get me to speak for free, they're unlikely to agree to my usual fees if they do want to bring me back for another engagement. For example, I didn't bite when a company in Atlanta, Georgia, asked me to travel there from my home in Portland, Oregon, to deliver a one-hour brown-bag lunch presentation for free. But, hey, I always appreciate being invited!)

Numerous professional organizations have established certification programs. These include:
  • Project Management Professional (PMP) from the PMI
  • Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP) from the IIBA
  • Certified Software Development Professional (CSDP) from the IEEE Computer Society
  • Software Quality Engineer from the American Society for Quality
These professional certifications typically are earned through a combination of education, work experience, and passing an examination based on an body of knowledge established for the discipline. Whole cottage industries have grown up to provide exam preparation training. Unfortunately, in some cases this leads to “teaching to the test” as opposed to necessarily helping the candidate to acquire the right set of knowledge and skills to enhance his job performance. Ideally, these objectives are congruent, but I’m not sure that is always the case.

You might consider whether having one of these abbreviations following your name would enhance your professional credentials and make you look more appealing to prospective clients or employers. I’ve always had great respect for adults who went back to school or engaged in focused self-study to obtain advanced degrees or professional certifications in their fields. This shows a real commitment to continuous learning and growth of one’s knowledge, skills, and capabilities. (I don’t hold any of these certifications myself; the only letters I can put after my name are “MS” and “PhD” and those were in organic chemistry.) Some people seem to collect certifications, accumulating a long string of abbreviations appended to their signatures. It looks impressive, but spending a lot of time studying to get certified isn’t necessarily the same thing as gaining a lot of practical, hands-on experience in the field.

If you are, or hope to become, an independent consultant, I encourage you to join relevant professional organizations and attend their local meetings. I always enjoy meeting the people who participate in these sessions. Sometimes there's pizza or cookies. In some cases I've established contacts and relationships that have persisted over the years. The networking opportunities might indeed help you generate some visibility and possibly some consulting leads. If you are already established in the industry, then appearing at such events is a goodwill gesture that helps enhance your reputation as a constructive contributor to the community and all-around nice person. That's not a bad image to maintain.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

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