Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

My experiences with professional associations and similar groups

with one comment

There are a great number of professional or amateur organizations, associations, whatnot in the IT, computing, engineering, …, areas that on paper could be of interest for someone like me. In reality, they appear to be mostly a waste of money for the typical* member, and do not always work in the interest of the members. At least some (notably VDI, cf. below) have gone down the road of FIFA-ization (cf. e.g. parts of [1]).

*For those members who have the time and inclination to be highly active participants, the situation might be different—if active participation is at all possible. However, realistically speaking, the typical member will not be a highly active participant.

To date, I have been a member of or considered membership in five different organizations of note. I will discuss these briefly and incompletely* below:

*Including because I probably only remember a minority of the problems encountered and because my memory will often be vague on the details of the things I do remember.

  1. ACM: This was my first membership, some time close to the millennium switch.

    I was mildly disappointed with the member magazine, the contents often being too superficial, never digging down in a manner that brought real benefit, and leaving the impression of being more of an abstract introduction-for-executives than educational-matter-for-engineers.* I was outright annoyed at their political activities in the name of the members, especially with regard to the then hot topic of DMCA: While I do consider (at least parts of) the DMCA a bad thing, it is not a given that all members do or did—and using their money for political purposes was unethical. To boot, while I did oppose the DMCA, who knows what ACM would have next campaigned for or against that I would not have agreed with?

    *These problems have been quite common with membership magazines over the years. With hindsight, I even suspect that I would have see ACM as a positive surprise, had I encountered their magazine after e.g. that of VDI.

    With the above I could live, however. What came next was so outrageous that I that could not:

    As I went online to renew my membership, I was met with a form that was very obviously intended for the user to just scroll through and to click “OK”. Half-a-second before my mouse button went down, I was halted in my tracks: Why was the amount almost three times as large as it should be?!? On closer inspection, I found that the the ACM had sneaked in pre-selections for a second membership somewhere else, as well as two (!) “voluntary” donations. Such methods are basically inexcusable when used by a commercial business—but when used by an allegedly not-for-profit professional society?!? I left right then and never looked back: The default should obviously be a renewal with identical content. Any and all change should be made through an explicit action by the users. (I am not entirely certain, but I suspect that the course taken by ACM would be outright illegal in today’s Germany.)

  2. VDI: I became a member a few years back—and had enough within just a few months.

    First, this organization is strongly geared at running its own political and other agendas in a very top–down manner. The members appear to be viewed primarily as a source of money, and their interests are ignored. A common criticism from others is that VDI is more of an interest organization for the industry than for engineers (contrary to the name and ostensible purpose). I would tend to concur, but would also point to the common problem of large and old organizations over time becoming an end in themselves rather than a means—or becoming a means to the end of furthering the careers of its governance.

    Second, there were a number of almost absurd problems around membership friendliness, starting with the fact that the membership charter (or whatever the appropriate term is) was only available to those who already were members. In effect, becoming a member is like entering a contract without being given prior access to the T & Cs…

    Third, the web pages, emails, whatnot, were on such an amateurish level that it makes any engineer cringe. For instance, I regularly received HTML emails that were so poorly written that my email client could not render them—and what engineer sends HTML emails to begin with? Other emails had such absurd problems as the greeting appearing in the “To” header before the email address.* The web pages were often lacking in information but filled with uninteresting and wasteful images of the cheapest advertising kind. Know your audience: Engineers are among the smartest people and most rational thinkers around. You might get away with treating the average citizen like a complete idiot (but still should not!), but here? To boot, there were numerous functional problems with the web pages too.

    *And, yes, I have verified that this was not an issue with my email client. The actual raw message had this screwed up.

    Generally, I had the impression that there was very little of an engineer mentality (including a focus on substance), and much of a business-student mentality (including a focus on appearances). Dilbert would not have felt at home; his pointy-haired boss might have.

  3. VDE: So far, knock-on-wood, the least disappointing organization and the only one where I am still a member. There are some VDI-like tendencies, but they are nowhere near as strong and there is much more of the engineer mentality I found wanting at VDI.

    To date, I do have two complaints:

    First, sloppy handling of address and bank data causing me a considerable extra effort around the time of the first (?) membership renewal. (Unfortunately, many Germany organizations, businesses, whatnot, are thrown off when a member/customer moves or changes bank. Do not ask me why.)

    Second, an extensive prospect trying to sell a trip to China under the guise of an educational excursion (possibly, to a power plant?). From overall context, it is quite clear that VDE (deliberately or out of naivete) became an advertising tool for a travel business. This included aspects like the price being considerably over the top* and the suggestion that the members should let family and friends join them**. (This to be contrasted with the quite legitimate other, intra-German, excursions they irregularly organize.)

    *Out of interest, I did a few online comparisons, and the price was quite unfavorable. This is the more negative as one would normally expect a better price when one organization brings many travelers to the table than when one single traveler orders for himself.

    **If the main reason for the trip was educational purposes, family and friends should be left at home. The educational part does not (or only considerably more weakly) apply to them, and their presence is likely to be a distraction for the main traveler. The real reason? Almost certainly that they wanted filled seats, irrespective of who filled them, and better profits.

  4. CCC*: This is an organization of a very different character, currently best known for a strong focus on political work/lobbying/education for consumer/citizens rights, but with no real member benefits. I originally became a member to give them some economic support when it came to fighting for protection against unethical governmental snooping, for more freedom of information, and similar.**

    *These experiences are the most recent and what moved me to write this post: Do not be mislead by the length of the discussion relative the older experiences.

    **Note that this is a very different situation from both ACM and VDI above: Political activities are not an ostensible purpose of ACM and they took place over the head of the members. VDI, meanwhile, engaged in activities that were not, or only coincidentally, in line with the members’ interests.

    Unfortunately, the CCC turned out to be such complete amateurs with regard to the membership that I not only find it better to not be a member, but also see myself doubting their credibility in other regards too. I am willing to make some allowances for idealism and volunteer work, but somewhere there has to be a limit, and if CCC is unable to stay clear of this limit, well, that does not send a positive signal. I note that CCC, according to the linked-to Wikipedia page, was founded in 1981 and has 9000 members—even a largely volunteer organization of that age and size simply has to have mastered the basics.

    For instance, I have repeatedly received highly unexpected emails that my account would be in arrears since six months back, despite never receiving a notification that any amount was due. No invoice, no statement of renewal, no nothing. Notably, CCC does not support the German standard of Lastschrift or any other payment form that allows the CCC to initiate payment on their own.* That it takes half an eternity to send a reminder is depressing in its own right. Either they, as a group of computers professionals and enthusiasts!, have failed to implement even the most basic of automatic invoice and dunning processes or they are negligent in terms of cash flow…

    *Which makes interaction with the CCC in this regard highly unusual by German standards. With the one major exception of rent payments, virtually all recurring, and many ad hoc, payments are initiated by the recipient, with the possibility of the payer canceling any unwarranted payment after the fact. Correspondingly, people do not expect to actively take steps to pay without receiving a bill. Of course, even when no active steps are required, a bill (or corresponding document) should be sent as a matter of course. Alas, the CCC sees this differently.

    For instance, the member magazine saw its last issue in 2014 (!), yet CCC still mentions the magazine as an advantage of being a member… This to the point that the in-arrears message claims as the one practical consequence “die Datenschleuder wird nicht mehr versandt” (“[magazine] will no longer be sent”). This as opposed to a membership not in arrears where the magazine is not sent either… Now, I do not give two hoots about the magazine*—but I am very concerned about the general attitude and the lack of professionalism displayed. If the CCC over the course of four years has been unable to even just hack together a yearly pro-forma edition of four pages, what does that tell us? If they give members misleading information, what does that tell us? For that matter, when things have taken such a turn, I would simply have officially discontinued the magazine and removed references to it from membership information (apart from the old-issues archive). That the CCC has failed to do so, is a further sign of lacking judgment.

    *But out of sheer annoyance required them to send one, even be it a back issue, for me to pay the outstanding amount.

    Now, if I had trust in their ability to do well in other areas, this might still be tolerable (my membership being intended as an act of support)—but I do not. There tends to be a strong correlation between incompetence in one area of an organization and incompetence in other areas.

    For those who still want to support the CCC: Do not become a member. Instead opt for a one-off donation. The money gets where it should go and you are free from future hassle.

  5. IEEE: I have repeatedly considered membership. Every time I have found myself in the conundrum that IEEE requires its members to adhere to a certain code, while not telling the prospective members what that code is…

A similar area is qualifications like Eur Ing: While the idea behind them is not a bad one, the benefits appear to be limited*, the costs and efforts high, and there is a significant risk that these are just a way for someone to get money from others with a low effort… I have deliberately chosen to stay clear of these for now.

*The main benefit, on paper, would be an added professional credibility and/or a few pre-/post-nominals. Unfortunately, since hardly anyone (in at least Germany) knows of these titles and organizations, this benefit will be small in practice. (However, I have the impression that the situation can be different elsewhere, where e.g. the U.K. has similar country-specific titles that are considerably better known and far older.) For that matter, Germans rarely use any post-nominals and usually only post-graduate academic pre-nominals to begin with.

Aside on renewals:
The almost exclusive form of renewal in Germany is the automatic: If the member/customer/whatnot does not give notification otherwise within a certain time-frame, renewal takes place. In other countries, explicit renewal can be more common, as with ACM above: The member/customer/whatnot is asked whether he wants to renew and if he does not actively do so, no renewal takes places. I find the latter to be much preferable to the former, for ethical reasons, for reasons of control, and (in mutual interest) for clarity of communication. To boot, situations like with CCC above could no longer occur. I would go as far as claiming that many German companies use this strategy in the deliberate hope of customers accidentally missing deadlines and thereby being caught in an unwanted relationship for one more year*, especially with an eye on this being the typical minimum renewal period: If this was not the purpose, why not allow a discontinuation with, say, two weeks notice at any given time?

*As opposed to more legitimate reasons, e.g. saving the costs for the additional communication.


Written by michaeleriksson

March 7, 2018 at 11:00 pm

One Response

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  1. […] written both about my disappointing experiences with professional associations and similar groups ([1]) and absurd PC language in Germany (e.g. [2]; and, obviously, a number of texts on English PC […]

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