Silicon Valley Chapter Revitalizes Itself

LOS ALAMITOS, Calif., 8 March, 2010 – When he took over as chair of the IEEE Computer Society’s Silicon Valley chapter earlier this year, John Swan was warned not to expect more than about 60 people to turn out for the monthly meetings.
However, with attendance of more than 100 for the chapter’s February meeting and nearly 200 registered for the March meeting, Swan has easily exceeded those modest expectations, and handily beat last year’s chapter attendance average of 42.
Furthermore, those who showed up seemed to enjoy themselves. “The first meeting, the excitement was so thick you could cut it with a knife,” said Swan, a former Motorola employee with more than two decades of SoC experience. “People showed up a half-hour in advance. You could envision 90 people sitting in the chairs looking at the welcome slides waiting for the talk to start. But this wasn’t like that. People were standing around, engaging in conversation. We had to get everyone to sit down.”
With assistance from IEEE Life Member Dick Ahrons, Swan and members of his committee are revitalizing the Computer Society’s largest chapter by securing speakers with broad appeal for technical talks, using social networking tools, and adhering to the goal of serving members’ interests.
The chapter currently has about 1,700 members, down from the Silicon Valley’s heyday, when the area was a top technology employer. The chapter revitalization plan presented to the IEEE Sections leadership in December calls for turnout of up to 200 for each meeting. “We needed that challenge,” said Swan. “My thinking is if we’re appealing to the larger membership, we should have a decent draw.”
The chapter’s first meeting featured Lennart Frantzell, a technical consultant at the IBM Innovation Center in San Mateo, whose topic was “Cloud Computing meets IBM's Smarter Planet Initiative.” Michael Monkang Chu, product manager for AMD’s ATI Stream software offerings and ecosystem, is slated to speak on “GPU Computing” at the March meeting—a topic inspired by a GPU computing article in Computer magazine.
Topics for future meetings include Android, Supercomputing and NASA, and Intel’s 48-Core Cloud Computer. Technology companies are invited to expand the breadth beyond academia. 
The meetings are publicized on social networking sites and through the IEEE Grid, which is emailed to 25,000 IEEE and Computer Society members in the Bay area.
Previously, Swan said, the meetings had “an exclusive club atmosphere” and typically featured the top-known researcher in a field. Ahrons, who is on the IEEE’s Silicon Valley Milestone Committee, said among the board’s mostly new eight members are many “young computer tigers” representing some of the largest tech companies in the Valley.
For the February meeting, held at the Biltmore Hotel, the recruiter Aerotek set up a table and attracted a healthy crowd of jobseekers. The recruiter proved popular enough to be invited back for March. Microsoft Research has agreed to host future meetings. Swan said co-sponsored meetings, a coding contest, and an appearance by IEEE Computer Society Computer Pioneer Award nominee Lynn Conway are among future possibilities.
Social networking tools are used extensively to publicize events and boost interaction among members. Chapter committee member Char Deloche, who has worked as an executive assistant to technology CEOs, is driving both the Publicity and Professional Networking efforts.
The chapter’s two-week-old Twitter account already has nearly 100 followers and the chapter’s Facebook page nearing 100 members. Membership in the IEEE LinkedIn group is encouraged by offering copies of the presentation only to LinkedIn members. The chapter also has a website and an e-newsletter.
Community interaction is fostered by speakers submitting questions on LinkedIn two weeks in advance of the technical talk. “A lot of our speakers are becoming savvy with Web 2.0. This is a venue to let them do that. They love the fact that we’re becoming Web savvy,” Ahrons said.
The board is drawing on best practices from sister chapters to hone their approach and would be happy to share their own success stories with other chapters or societies. “We’re still very much in startup mode and learning mode. Some of these ideas we are happy to push out to sister chapters and report their success or failure,” he said.
Swan’s chapter chairmanship grew out of his work with the IEEE Education Society in 2009 and the IEEE-SF Bay Members in Transition, a networking group for IEEE Members in search of job opportunities. Swan, a Computer Society and IEEE member for more than three decades and former Secretary of the IEEE Education Society chapter, said he wouldn’t have been able to take over as the Santa Clara Valley chapter chairman had he not been in between jobs himself.
Swan thinks attending chapter meetings to network and hear thought-provoking technical talks is more valuable than sitting at the computer “poking around looking for jobs.” He has repeatedly advised out-of-work members to retain their memberships to take advantage of the networking and other benefits.
“Regardless of where you are, the individual needs to take responsibility by renewing themselves. That is something specifically that the IEEE and our chapter Society meetings offer. Get out and meet these speakers. Hear a presentation. Ask some thought-provoking questions. Make yourself available to your association—whether you’re in India, China, the Midwest, or the Silicon Valley,” he said.
“We’re excited,” said Swan. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

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