Woody Allen once said, “I’d never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.” For IT professionals, however, joining an organization with like-minded individuals, or at least those in the same industry, can be a boon on many levels.
IT associations run the gamut in terms of focus areas, membership requirements and rates of participation — there’s pretty much something for everyone, no matter whether you’re an independent consultant in New Castle, Del., who wants to stay up to date on IT industry goings-on or a help desk professional in Prague who wants to become a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE).
Additionally, IT professionals can extend their social and professional networks, as well as engage in professional development opportunities, by joining an association that focuses on an area in which they have an interest but cannot pursue on the job, such as a programmer who wants to have a better grasp of network security or ethical hacking.
On the flip side of the coin, IT associations offer professionals the chance to interact with people who “really get it.”
“From a technical standpoint, it’s a great way for these professionals to get together and discuss different ways to implement the technology they’re dealing with, whether it’s a .NET user group, a Java user group or whatever,” said John Estes, Robert Half Technology vice president. “On the programming side, there’s a certain element of science to what they do, but there’s also a strong element of art.
“Having a place where people with similar backgrounds and tasks in front of them get together and swap what works well, what doesn’t work well, etc. — it’s invaluable as they continue through their career.”
Beyond technological aspects, though, being a member of IT associations offers myriad opportunities for professional development and career advancement. It boils down to one thing: networking.
“There are two primary keys to success,” said Claude Williams, (ISC)2 head of business development for the Americas. “One is what you know, and the other is who you know. The second is more important, and any association worth joining will provide you with the ability to network.
“In the network, you’ll have the opportunity to develop both professional and social relationships that have the potential to advance your career, if handled wisely.”
Estes echoed these sentiments.
“Certainly you’ve got the intangible, social aspects,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to meet and interact with people who you probably wouldn’t meet otherwise, because they’re not at your company.”
Members of IT organizations also have a greater likelihood of finding or becoming mentors, which is beneficial on many levels.
“Everyone will tell you that you should always seek mentors in whatever you do,” Estes said. “No matter what level you’re at, you can always seek out a mentor, or you can be a mentor to somebody.”
Accordingly, it’s never too soon — or too late — to join a professional IT association. Learning is a lifelong process, even if you are not in a formal education setting, and an excellent way to increase your knowledge is to join a professional IT association.
“There are good reasons for joining these groups, whether you are fairly new in your career, midcareer or a senior-level person,” Estes said. “First of all, technology changes all the time, so even if you are a ‘senior’ person, you might have all this great experience, but there’s almost no way to have a lot of experience in any current piece of software, just because it changes so much. Also, there’s always a chance that someone might know even more than you do.”
Because of technology’s ever-evolving nature, being a member of an industry association is especially helpful, and in some cases, critical, for IT professionals. Membership offers some benefits to IT professionals that associations in other industries cannot or do not offer.
“It’s unique, in that the speed of innovation in technology is just like the speed of light,” Estes said. “[So] much innovation has occurred just in the past five years, whether it be mobile phones or software development or network infrastructure — it’s amazing what keeps popping up. So, IT professionals are probably more challenged than most professions as far as keeping current with technology.
“But, in general, I would say the major reasons for joining a networking group are the same, no matter what profession you’re in. There’s always an opportunity to learn, there’s always an opportunity to network, seek mentors, be a mentor, etc.”
Williams took it one step further.
“It’s a way for professionals to validate and increase their knowledge of what is really happening in the industry,” he said. “If you really want to know if you know something, join one of these groups and go to the meetings.”
Further, membership in a professional IT organization is an excellent addition to a resume — IT professionals who are members of industry associations make themselves more marketable, Estes said. And it’s not just because membership indicates a life outside of work. Rather, being involved in a professional IT association increases face-to-face interactions, which allows individuals to build up and polish soft skills.
“In days past, IT people were put in a cubicle and just told to do their job,” Estes said.
“You just sat in front of your computer all day long, coding or doing whatever you were assigned to do. Those days are long gone. Nowadays, you have to work well with team members, be a problem solver, be a multitasker and be a project manager.
“By mixing and mingling and being involved with these kinds of user groups, it gives you more of a leg up with what IT people in general need to do their jobs.”
Additionally, having large networks decreases the likelihood you’ll ever be stumped when confronted with a difficult challenge at work.
“It’s so great to be able to say, ‘I’m in an area right now that’s over my head, but I have a great contact over at ABC Company from my involvement in this user group who I think can help me out with it,’ and then you pick up the phone and call them,” Estes said. “Employers like it when people can be resourceful, and what does the word ‘resourceful’ mean? You’re using your resources, and the more resources you have, the more plugged-in your professional network is, the better off you’re going to be technically and the more proficient you’re going to be.”
This has been the experience for Sandra Daniels, associate professor of IT at New River Community College. She has been a member of the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) since about 2001 and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) for two years.
“Being a CompTIA member helps me keep up with the industry and find other people to discuss things with,” Davidson said. “Also, other people perceive me as a professional with that membership.”
In fact, becoming a CompTIA member helped Davidson get a job.
“I was working as an adjunct professor, and I had my own [computer] business, and the college invited me to apply to come on staff full time,” she said. “When I did that, because I didn’t have my master’s degree at the time, I asked them if there was anything else I could do that would make them look more favorably on my application.
“I asked if taking my A+ and becoming a member of CompTIA would make me look more professional. They decided that it would, so I did.”
Davidson said the benefits of her CompTIA membership also help her students, in that she passes along information to them that she gains through the organization’s newsletters and networking opportunities, including the most in-demand certifications, what jobs pay the most, etc.
She also encourages her students to join professional IT associations, even if they protest that they cannot afford membership fees on their student budgets.
“They get their money back very quickly, and they see that,” Davidson said. “Also, I’ve explained to them that if they’re reading and keeping current, then their expectations of what’s happening in the industry are much better. If they’re current with an organization, then they know more about what their potential is.”
Although there are no concrete figures for membership rates across the industry, Williams said he thinks membership is up around the world, not just domestically. He said this is definitely the case with (ISC)2 and that it’s not likely to change.
“We’re seeing our membership grow, and we’re seeing those sister associations that have to do with information security grow,” Williams said. “The reason for this is the state of our country and many other countries right now when it comes to terrorism and the information war that we’re fighting.
“Terrorism isn’t just about the folks who are on the battlefield with guns and tanks — it’s also about controlling the information and protecting the infrastructures of these organizations. Those infrastructures are backed and fortified by computer technology. Thus, these associations are growing [because] the awareness is there, and the preparedness is there.”
Despite the long-ranging, global reach of some professional IT associations, Williams said it’s crucial to have a membership base or headquarters close to home. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to participate in and be engaged with a group when you feel isolated from the rest of the members.
“The key is simply that whatever association you’re looking to join really ought to have local chapters,” he said. “Those local chapters almost have to come down to the city level, because a member has to be able to attend events that the association offers. That’s where the networking comes in, and that’s where you build that professional or social relationship.”
Further, Williams said active local chapters provide a solid foundation for the overarching IT association, as well as fortify it. The benefits of this then trickle down to all local chapters, thus, all members.
“The association needs to have the structure so it can actually get information from a local chapter that might be important to the entire group,” he said. “The local chapter has to contribute to some umbrella structure that can then disseminate that information back down to the entire network.”
Estes said it is also imperative for members of professional IT associations to fully commit to them once they join, even though regularly attending meetings and going to events can be difficult.
“The real challenge with these user groups is attendance — it’s simply getting people to come to the meetings,” he said. “We’re all busy, we all have crazy jobs, we all have families, and a user group is like one more thing on your plate. Again, the challenge is not so much more user groups [to choose from] as getting people to consistently attend and see the value of these groups. Many are starving for people to get more involved.
“People need to check out user groups, but they shouldn’t go just one time — you have to go consistently. Go a few times and check it out, and see over time if it’s something you like. And, if there’s something you don’t like, volunteer to do something, like help get a speaker. Don’t just show up and sit in the back row — get involved with a group.”
The Future of IT Associations
According to Neil Hopkins, vice president of skills development at CompTIA, IT organization memberships assist technical professionals with keeping pace in an increasingly complex world.
“New technologies are making the job requirements for IT workers more complicated, not less,” Hopkins said. “The successful IT worker in the 21st century will need a multiplicity of skills and must commit to ongoing education and lifelong learning to keep their skills current. But, it’s not easy to keep up with the pace of technology, the demands of your job and keep up with what’s happening in the job market. That’s why membership in a professional association is so important.”
– Lisa Rummler, email@example.com
CertScope links to 46 CertMag articles and 132 Web sites on IT associations.