Why Programmers Don't Join The ACM

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 Why Programmers Don't Join The ACM
Written by Alex Armstrong
Wednesday, 06 August 2014

There's a lively Reddit debate currently taking place on the topic of why many programmers don't bother joining the ACM. So if you find yourself asking "ACM?" then read on.

This discussion is an extension of one prompted by the outgoing president of the ACM, Vint Cert, who wrote in an article that appeared in Communications of the ACM and ACM Queue

The question that occupies my mind, especially as the membership in ACM has not grown in a way commensurate with the evident growth of programmers in the profession, is whether and how ACM can adapt its activities and offerings to increase the participation of these professionals .... [and] whether there are things ACM might do to attract the interest of and, more important, support of professionals who are not researchers in computer science.

Among the top 200 comments on Reddit (and there are currently 357 since the original submission on July 31) is one that asks:

What the hell is the ACM?

I've been a professional software engineer for more than 15 years and this post is the first I've ever heard about it. I asked the guys I work with (20+ years and 18+ years experience, each), and they've never heard of it. We are not programmers under a rock, either: we regularly read tech journals, white papers (hell, even had one published on our work recently), follow technical blogs and the like.

There is some incredulity expressed that experienced programmers could fail to know about the organisation but a number of other contributors claim they had never previously heard about the ACM.

It is certainly possible that devs visiting IProgrammer are not aware of the ACM for the reason given in another post:

a complaint I have heard more than once, is that ACM's policies are often not only irrelevant and "outdated" but also too USA-centric. This causes some dissent in non-USA universities, especially in Europe. Some people suggest IEEE as a "friendlier" alternative, even though it's not a purely CS organization.

So for those who aren't aware of the ACM here is Vint Cerf's summary of its origins:

ACM was created by the inventors of computing and the focus is clear from the expansion of ACM: Association for Computing Machinery. We are, of course, about 70-plus years into the evolution of computing. ACM is, itself, 67 years old, having been founded in 1947.

Unless you are a member you probably know it best for its awards, including the annual Turing Award or the Programming Languages Software Award, both of which regualrly make it into IProgrammer's news.  It is also well known for meetings of its SIGs (Special Interest Groups), in particualr SIGGRAPH, which coincidentally figures in today's item Extracting Audio By Watching A Potato Chip Packet.

Programmers, particularly those in academia tend to know about the ACM's journals, including its flagship publication  Communications of the ACM which is included as part of ACM Professional Membership.

However ACM publications turn out to be a major a source of contention. After scrutiny of the feedback on ACM Queue in response to Vint Cerf's request for comments, Phil Johnson writing on IT World points out that one of the three biggest issue programmers have with the ACM is putting content behind a pay-wall. The argument, which has been rehearsed before on IProgrammer, is that research that has been funded by taxpayers should be freely available to all. Johnson quotes a comment which sums up this feeling:

I see the ACM primarily as a racket, acting like a self-interested, for-profit corporation - not an one that represents the true ethos of the scientific community, which involves openly sharing the results of research.

One of the other reasons Johnson points to is the related complaint is that the software used in research published prior to April 2013 is only made available under a restrictive, non-open license with the copyright which effectively prevents it from being incorporated into other products.

The final reason quoted by Johnson is lack of content relevant to non-academic programmers but looking through the Reddit comments there are two other frequently occurring gripes.

The ACM website is repeatedly referred to as horrible and its inability to cope with its own mailing list is also a source of dissatisfaction. An ex-member of the ACM writes:

To top it all off, I haven't been a member for the past 3 years, yet I still get the odd ACM Queue in my inbox but no way to unsubscribe! The only way to get off their mailing list it seems is to log into my account, which is deactivated. Sigh. That's the cherry-on-top for my decision to never return to the ACM.

So the ACM's inability to meet the standards set by professional developers is something that they find offputting.

Part of the ACM's problem seems to be a failure of marketing.

Just as some people haven't ever heard of ir, even fewer are aware that full Professional membership starts at just $84 if you take advantage of a specail offer available via this link http://learnmore.acm.org/joinacm5.html. Better still, you may be eligible for a special ACM Basic Online Membership Package, which costs$30, and is open to people in around 200 so-called "Developing countries" some of which, like places including India, Russia, China, and Brazil are very well-developed in terms of programming professionals

In Professional Associations IProgrammer's Sue Gee concludes:

In a climate where what you know and who you know really matters, becoming a member of a relevant professional body would seem to be a worthwhile initiative to follow up.

And it may be that the ACM isn't such a bad choice.

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