Something Old, Something New

Neha Kumar
Dec 23, 2019 · 7 min read
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The ACM FCA: Old meets New

What do you get when you place a group of 40 computing professionals — from academia, industry, and practice — in a room for two-and-a-half days, engaging and interacting to discover how they might best impact their discipline? A plethora of phenomenal ideas, immense creative energies ready to change the world, and relationships that (we hope) will support and nurture for years to come!

Last week we had our third annual meeting for the ACM Future of Computing Academy (FCA), where the inaugural cohort got to welcome the new recruits. (Yes, the FCA now, for the first time, has non-inaugural members! See our previous post for more info about them.) We deeply appreciate ACM’s efforts to bring us all together. In addition, of course, to hosting us all in New York City, where the ACM’s headquarters are located, we had the honor of the company of ACM President Cherri Pancake, CEO Vicki Hanson, COO Pat Ryan, former President Alexander Wolf, and Secretary-Treasurer Yannis Ioannidis. Their presence was of great value throughout, particularly towards helping us understand what the ACM is about (many things, in addition to the ones most of us are familiar with like publications, e.g., education and outreach), how volunteers can have scalable impacts through their initiatives, and in providing endless guidance on how ACM might best offer support to project ideas emerging within the FCA.

Our top-level goals for this annual meeting were four-fold: a) for us to learn about the ACM and its initiatives in greater depth, b) to learn about the FCA and its role within the ACM, c) to learn about each other as individuals aspiring to impact the discipline from richly diverse perspectives, and d) to learn how we might become better leaders and make our contributions meaningful to the worlds we inhabit.

Getting to Know Each Other (and Ourselves!)

We made good headway with each of the above, starting with getting to know each other at our welcome reception, on Sunday evening, where we played the “Who Am I?” game. Luigi (most able and indispensable Vice Chair) and Akhil (helpful and proactive new member) put together a list of celebrities, mostly within computing (e.g., Alan Turing, Ivan Sutherland, Grace Hopper) but also beyond (e.g., Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates, Marie Curie), wrote their names on labels that were then attached to everyone’s backs where they could not read them. Members were allowed to guess their identities based on a twenty-questions format, asking yes/no questions but posing no more than one question to each new person. It worked! The ice was broken, and by the end of the reception, many friendships had begun to form, while others had picked up where they’d left off! (And just maybe, in a few years, some of our own members’ names will make it to this list!)

Neha, Pamela, Jesmin, Juliana, and Leila at our welcome reception (representing five continents!)

Day 1: Learning about the ACM

The reception set a great tone for Day 1 — Monday the 16th of December, which began with a welcome from Cherri, ACM President, and myself, current FCA Chair. Cherri began by giving a thorough introduction to the ACM, discussing its many offerings, its deep reliance on effective volunteerism, and the current make-up of the ACM membership (e.g., 50% research/education and 50% practice, presence in 190 countries). In the next session, we heard Vicki, Alex, and Yannis exchange thoughts on how volunteering with the ACM throughout their careers had been of significant value to them. We then partook of inspirational lightning talks from Chris Stephenson (Co-Chair of ACM’s Education Board), Theo Schlossnagle (Editor-in-Chief of ACM Queue), and Jake Baskin (Executive Director of the Computer Science Teachers Association), who have successfully made a difference in ACM’s efforts to connect with its target audience for several years now.

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The eight umbrella topics we came up with as a room

Post-lunch, things got a little (or a lot) more interactive, as each member put down their ideas of interest (based on learnings about the ACM) on post-it notes, which Cherri, Luigi, and I consolidated and organized to come up with eight umbrella topics: Education and Learning Resources, Outreach and Informal Communications, Reviewing and Publications Processes, Professional Development and Mentoring, Encouraging Ethical Behaviors, Responsible AI, Underrepresented Countries and Cultures, and Engaging practitioners (photo above). With each round table dedicated to one of these topics, we asked members to engage in discussions with a table or three, and see if they could come up with ideas they would like to explore further. These stimulating conversations were then continued over dinner, as ideas underwent scoping and refinement before they were revisited the following morning.

Day 2: Working with(in) the FCA

Luigi and I ran Day 2, on Tuesday the 17th of December, although the ACM leaders were present and contributed to all conversations. Our first task was to go through the protocol for proposing projects, which involves a team of members, FCA leadership, and ACM leadership collaboratively working towards project definition to ensure that efforts align with members’ aspirations for impact as well as with ACM’s larger vision for the discipline. Next we organized a panel with five of our inaugural members — Andrew, Danish, Julie, Naja, Yonatan — and Cherri, discussing thoughts and considerations for selecting projects based on their individual experiences. Our final morning session involved a second panel with five additional inaugural members — Indrajit, Julia, Katie, Marianna, Sarah — and Vicki, where we discussed challenges and benefits of working in teams, particularly when these teams are comprised of volunteers situated across the world. Julia shared how their team had been meeting every Tuesday at 8.30am Pacific/10pm Indian time for the last 2.5 years, while Sarah mentioned the challenge of engaging team members who were not as conversant in English. Overall, the insights shared and learned will be of value in many other spheres of our lives, no doubt.

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Hard at work!

Post-lunch, still on Day 2, we took our group photo that you see at the beginning of this post! By this time, it was clear that relationships were well on their way to forming and the room was bustling with energy. Instead of going through the “proposal prototyping” exercise that we had originally planned, we chose to go with the flow, configuring the room into a marketplace of ideas where the “sellers” were in one half of the room as the groups who had decided on ideas they were keen to pursue, while the “buyers” started on the other half and shopped for ideas. Everything was beautifully organic and it was inspiring to see everyone charged about the work they were about to get on with. Once it was clear that everyone in the room had a path to pursue upon leaving New York, we drew this session to a close. The closing session was then led by the ACM leaders, who gave each of us a certificate of recognition for our service as part of the FCA, and it was time — much too soon — for goodbyes.

Madness, gratitude, and goodbye!

In addition to all the work and learning that took place, we did have a lot of fun. Luigi and I organized and conducted four “madness” sessions in each of which a randomly assorted group of members took a minute to introduce themselves to the room with the help of one slide on a deck that we had put together previously (with endless reminders, let it be known :)). These took place in 15-minute windows through Day 1, such that by dinnertime we had all learned who the cat and dog people were, the cities and diverse backgrounds that we came from, as well as the consequences of not having slides in by the deadline! During these sessions is also when we missed our absentee members the most — those who could not come for various personal reasons, as well as those who were denied visas to the US (a growing problem that any truly global group of individuals, as the FCA is fortunate to be, must begin learning to contend with). In our next meeting, hopefully less than a year away, our priority will be to have these members attend as best we can ensure it.

There is much gratitude that Luigi and I, as current FCA leadership, would like to extend to the team of inaugural members present in the room. They took notes for the remote participants (and for posterity), shared important insights during the panels, duly mentored the new members as they found valuable, worked to build crucial bridges with the ACM leadership in the room, and gave us real-time feedback throughout so that we could make quick efforts to respond to the pulse of the room. Call us biased, but for us they were the real stars of the show. The new members will have their turn next time :).

Also many thanks to Tempestt for bringing her DSLR and clicking away through the event. We had many contenders for “best photo-taking smartphones” as well. Our hope is to put together a gallery of these photos on our website and link it here, but that may take some time. Of course, there are many other more significant challenges that our members, in their groups, will be facing as we move forward. Timelines are tight and, after a well-deserved winter break for us all, it will be time to get cracking on project proposals and related activities. Watch out, world! And watch this space as we get moving!

And one final, closing word: we invite from our readers all inputs, feedback, connections, any help at all that they can offer in relation to the projects that we hope to be writing about very soon!

ACM Future of Computing Academy

Blog of the ACM Future of Computing Academy

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