Network For Success

Finding Value in Group Affiliations

by Sharron Kahn

Contract Professional Magazine Networking Issue November 2000
Joe DiNunno

Five years ago Diane and Mike Herrera were living outside Philadelphia and commuting four hours daily to their clients in New York City. The couple, who develop Windows- and browser-based graphical user interfaces, figured there had to be work closer to home, but they didn’t know how to find it. Then, flipping through a newspaper one day, Mike noticed a listing for the Independent Computer Consultants Association (ICCA). He and Diane checked out the local chapter and liked what they saw. A few meetings and some networking later, the couple landed their first local client.

“And the rest is history,” Diane Herrera says. Since then, their revenues have increased more than 400 percent, and their firm, Client Server Specialists, Inc., has grown from the two of them to a staff of 12. Best of all, “no more daily commuting to New York City,” Diane Herrera says.

“While I can’t say it’s all due to the ICCA, I can unequivocally say that a large portion of the growth has come from the networking and contacts we’ve made through the ICCA,” she says.

With initials like ICCA, ACM, AITP, IEEE, and CPSR, there’s a tongue-twisting array of associations out there for the IT professional. While one contractor insisted that it’s easier to herd cats than to organize his peers into a group, there are plenty of people like the Herreras who say running with the pack ain’t pussyfooting around.

Indeed, computer contractors and consultants say their group affiliations have expanded their professional network, enhanced their technical skills, boosted their credibility, given them a voice, and, in some cases, improved their social lives. Jeffrey Garfield, for instance, says he has made “real” friends since he joined the New York City Metro chapter of the ICCA over three years ago. Jeff Johnson’s affiliation with Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) puts him in touch with clients who share his ideology. Darryl MacKenzie credits his Association of Information Technology Professionals (AITP) membership with helping him win the contract that lured him from Nova Scotia to San Diego 17 years ago.

“I attributed that [the person who offered the job] had greater confidence in me, despite the geographic differences, because I was a fellow AITP member. Without this initial contract in California, I might still be in Nova Scotia,” says MacKenzie, who develops client/server applications through his firm, Nova Millennium Systems.

While success stories like these seem as common as startups in Silicon Valley, anecdote suggests that only a tiny fraction of independent computer contractors and consultants are affiliated with an IT organization. Some speculate that the booming economy has lulled computer professionals into a false security. Like modern-day versions of the fabled grasshopper who plays all summer and then goes cold and hungry when the snow flies, they aren’t concerned with keeping their referral network active. Others say work is so plentiful and demanding that there’s little time left over to spend on professional development. John Miano, would-be cat-herder and president of the fledgling Programmers Guild, says computer programmers with their sought-after skills feel almost “invincible.” They don’t need anyone to fight for them because they’re content with the way things are.

“There’s a naive view from programmers that their skills will help them go a long way. People think, ‘I’m great, and if I’m so good, people will watch out for me,'” says Miano, who two years ago founded the Programmers Guild to promote the profession and lobby in Washington on issues affecting programmers. Miano was astounded to find that his offer of free membership attracted only about 500 people. “I expected to get 10,000 people right away because I thought it was such a good idea and it doesn’t cost anything,” says Miano, whose software development firm, Colosseum Builders, Inc., is located in Summit, N.J.

Other professional and technical organizations, unlike the Guild, charge annual dues. For that, members get concrete benefits such as specialized publications, discount car rentals, and group health insurance. However, it’s the intangibles that members cite when they say the money and time are worthwhile investments.

Professional Development

It was the economic recession in the early ’90s that propelled Bill Fennell of San Diego to an AITP meeting. He was working for a high-tech company when it occurred to him that he would be smart to diversify his skills as well as his network of people in the industry. He heard about the AITP, then called the Data Processing Management Association, signed up for a seminar in Visual Basic, and joined a Visual Basic users group.

His long-term goal was to become an independent contractor, and it was through his legwork and AITP connections that he was able to make that leap. Now president of the San Diego chapter of the AITP, Fennell encourages potential members who are still in college to join a student chapter of the organization in order to make industry contacts. “They’ve only seen the boom times, they haven’t seen the bust times,” Fennell says.

Some say the networking is the most valuable feature of groups such as AITP and ICCA. Jeff Johnson, a member of several groups, including the Usability Professionals’ Association, notes that while a keynote speaker is the centerpiece of each monthly meeting, the mingling is often the main attraction. “There’s schmoozing before and after the talk,” he says. “Sometimes the talk is the least important part of the meeting.”

Others have learned that whom you give business to is as important as whom you get business from. MacKenzie found two high-quality, low-cost subcontractors through the technical mailing list WebSanDiego. Diane Herrera routinely calls upon her ICCA contacts when faced with a job outside of her expertise.

“I want to be known, and I think all other consultants want to be known, as someone who can solve your problem, whether it’s because I know the answer or because I know someone who knows the answer,” she says.

Skill Development

Independent contractors have to know not just their stuff, but the stuff of an accountant, a marketer, a tax lawyer, and an administrative assistant. While the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), tend to be more academic in focus, the ICCA addresses business concerns at its national conference and monthly chapter meetings. The ICCA Chicago chapter, for instance, devotes about an hour of each meeting to topics such as finding clients, selling services, and creating a Web site, according to Chapter President Pat Scharmer.

While corporations keep their employees’ technical skills fresh with training plans, independents have to take it upon themselves to stay current. Organizations such as the ACM can make that relatively easy to do, as Ken Wadland discovered. Wadland, a Westborough, Mass., system architect and software designer, needed to know more about the C++ Standard Library. He found a one-day course through ACM and was able to apply his newly learned skills immediately. Both ACM and IEEE’s Computer Society address the technical needs of their members through workshops, classes, and publications.

Wadland, who is also a member of CPSR and IEEE’s Computer Society, says he takes a professional course through ACM’s Greater Boston Chapter nearly every year. These are taught by college professors who are not only well-versed in their topic, but are skilled instructors.

Gretchen Robertson, a Washington, D.C.-based programmer, says she has found the IEEE Computer Society’s publications invaluable. “Because I work as a contractor and do not have access to much of a company training plan, I have to do my own thing to keep abreast of developments in the field,” she says.

Activism and Advocacy

Working solo has its advantages, but without the backing of a strong organization, the independent contractor has little clout. Jeff Johnson realized this when he joined Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility two years after it was established (which was 19 years ago). Through CPSR, a public-interest alliance of computer scientists and others, Johnson has found a channel through which to air his views about the impact on society of such technologies as the Strategic Defense Initiative, telephone caller ID, Internet privacy, and computers in the workplace.

“So much is controlled by computers that we as computer professionals have a lot of leverage in what happens with them,” he says. “We didn’t want to be like so many computer engineers who are like, ‘Look, I just developed a technology, and what happens to it is somebody else’s problem.'”

As a side benefit, Johnson’s affiliation with CPSR helps him attract the kind of work he can live with. “Consultants are always grubbing for jobs, often you just have to take what comes along. But often what comes along is, ‘We have to develop this missile control system,’ or, ‘We have to develop a system that will spy on workers so we will know what they’re doing when they answer customer calls,'” he says. “I can be a little more choosy about selecting work because I have offers coming to me not only through the normal channels, but through my contacts at CPSR.”

Like CPSR, the ACM Special Interest Group, Computers and Society, also focuses on ethical and societal concerns surrounding new technologies.

Social Benefit

Finally, there are the friendships that seem to develop organically from monthly dinner meetings and biweekly technical demonstrations. There are some people, such as Jeffrey Garfield, who join hoping to find fellowship. For others, the camaraderie seems a pleasant byproduct of their membership. Members of the technical list WebSanDiego became so tight with one another through their e-mails that earlier this year they took it offline and began meeting for lunch the third Thursday of each month. ICCA Atlanta Chapter President Joe DiNunno recently got together with fellow ICCA members for a birthday celebration.

“I used to be the typical computer geek. When I became independent I really enjoyed being away from people,” DiNunno says. “Now, I look for opportunities to get out and socialize at night.”

Getting Connected

If you decide to give networking a try, consider these tips for getting the most out of group affiliations.

Volunteer. ICCA Chicago chapter president Scharmer says he became active in the organization immediately upon joining two years ago because of the opportunity to shine as a leader. “It gives you a chance to demonstrate your stuff. By being involved, people get to know you through your actions,” he says.

In some cases, the high profile of an active volunteer leads to other opportunities. DiNunno was asked to write technical articles for the newsletter and Web site of the National Association for Financial Planning Alternatives.

Mingle. Networking is still one of the best ways to attract business and to find other independent contractors who complement your own skill set.

Diversify. Join more than one group, or at least attend meetings of different organizations that mesh with your own needs. “I think it’s important that a professional be involved in several different types of organizations, in addition to going to educational classes and seminars, because you meet different types of people,” says Fennell. Robertson joined IEEE’s Computer Society for its publications, the ACM for its one-day courses, and The Information Management Exchange (TIME), a local group in Washington, D.C., for the support of other members. She also attended a few meetings of Washington Women in Technology, which she found somewhat helpful for networking.

Of course, says MacKenzie, who is active with AITP, Web San Diego, the Association for Internet Professionals, and the San Diego Software and Internet Council, “one of the problems is you can spend your life going to these things.”

That’s Wadland’s point when he notes that he strives to maintain a balance between his professional life and his professional affiliations. A card-carrying member of three organizations, he says he keeps a tight rein on his involvement. “My time is limited, so I stick to those,” he says. “It’s non-billable time. That’s a bad thing if you’re a consultant.”

Then of course there’s Diane Herrera’s view. Herrera, who belongs to the local Chamber of Commerce and a user group in addition to being president of the Delaware chapter of the ICCA, says the time she invests in those three groups has paid back dividends. She has become a more effective marketer, an adept networker, and better all around at what she does. And, she has a surplus of four non-commuting hours per day.

Sharron Kahn is a freelance writer who lives in Mendon, Massachusetts.

Originally Published in Contract Professional Magazine in November 2000