Professional Organizations for Computing – More than the Elks’ Lodge

There are many professional organizations, serving all sorts of purposes. For instance, the American Bar Association and American Medical Association help to represent lawyers and doctors, respectively, when setting standards, policies, and laws.

Within the field of computing, there are a number of professional organizations of note. Some are specific to certain roles, such as the League of Professional System Administrators. Here I will focus on three that serve software engineers, Computer Science (CS) researchers, CS academics, and those of similar professional interests. Mostly I’m doing this to try and impress upon readers the benefits of membership and participation in these organizations.

I first joined the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Computer Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) when I was a Ph.D. student. By becoming a student member, I subscribed to their monthly magazines, which contained numerous articles of interest. Shortly after finishing my degree I added the USENIX Association to the list.

Initially, the primary motivation for joining (or continuing membership in) these organizations was the significant discounts offered to members when attending conferences sponsored by one of them. Often the savings would more than compensate for the membership fee. In addition, there were personal benefits, such as the IEEE’s group life insurance plan.

The three professional organizations all run conferences, but beyond that they quickly diverge in their services.


I’ll start with the simplest first. USENIX basically exists to run computer-related conferences. They also have a quarterly newsletter, and many years ago published a Computing Systems journal, but the conferences are the reason USENIX exists … and they do a great job of it. The top systems conferences include such events as OSDI, NSDI, FAST, the USENIX Annual Technical Conference, and the USENIX Security conference.   I’ve chaired a couple of conferences for them many years ago, and USENIX makes it incredibly easy for the conference organizers. Instead of depending on the chair to manage volunteers to handle logistics, the chair simply is responsible for selecting content. In addition, USENIX has enacted a policy of making all conference publications freely available over the Internet.


ACM conducts a broader set of activities than Usenix. ACM runs a number of conferences, many of which are among the most prestigious conferences within their domain, but it does much more. ACM is organized into “Special Interest Groups” such as the SIG on Operating Systems (SIGOPS) or the SIG on Data Communications (SIGCOMM). The SIGs run conferences, such as the Symposium on Operating Systems Principals, known as SOSP (SIGOPS) or the SIGCOMM annual conference. Each SIG typically publishes a regular newsletter with a combination of news and technical content (with little or no peer review).   ACM also publishes a number of journals, which provide archival-quality content, often extended versions of conference papers. For example, Transactions on Storage publishes a number of articles that extend papers from FAST, including the papers selected as “best papers” for the conference. Finally, ACM has a number of awards, such as membership levels (fellows, distinguished members, and senior members) and for exceptional achievements (such as the Mark Weiser award).

IEEE Computer Society

IEEE-CS (“CS”) is the largest society within IEEE, though there are other computer-related societies and councils, such as IEEE Communications Society. I’ll focus on CS.

Like ACM, CS runs conferences and publishes journals and magazines. Many of their magazines are much closer to the journals in style and quality than to the newsletters run by ACM SIGs or their CS counterparts, technical committees (TCs). Compared to journals, the magazines tend to have shorter articles, as well as columns and other technical content of general interest. Each issue tends to have a “theme” focusing articles on a particular topic. I was editor-in-chief of Internet Computing for four years, so I led the decisions about what themes for which to request submissions, and I would assign other submissions to associate editors to gather peer reviews and make recommendations. I highly recommend CS magazines for those interested in high-level material in general (Computer, which comes with CS membership, or specific areas such as Cloud Computing or Security & Privacy.

IEEE-CS also sponsors many conferences across a variety of subdisciplines. I mention these after the periodicals because I feel like CS stands out more because of its magazines than its journals or conferences, which are roughly analogous to those from ACM. Additionally, many conferences are sponsored jointly by two or more societies, blurring that boundary further. Conferences are sponsored by Technical Committees, which are similar to ACM SIGs.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that both IEEE and ACM make a number of contributions in other important areas, such as education and standards. The societies cooperate on things like curricula guidelines; in addition, CS produces bodies of knowledge, which are handbooks on specific topics such as software engineering. IEEE has entire Standards Association, which produces such things as the 802.11 WiFi standard. The societies have local chapters as well, which sponsor invited talks, local conferences, and other ways to reach out to the immediate community.

My Own Role

I started as a volunteer with CS by serving as general chair of the Workshop on Workstation Operating Systems, which we later renamed the Workshop on Hot Topics on Operating Systems. I chaired the Technical Committee on Operating Systems, then created and formed the Technical Committee on the Internet. At that point I was asked to join the Internet Computing editorial board as liaison to the TC, but when my term expired I was kept on the board anyway and became associate editor in chief, then EIC. In 2015 I was elected to a three-year term on the CS Board of Governors. From there, I help set CS policies and decide on the next generation of volunteers such as periodical editors.

In parallel, I’ve also been active with USENIX. In addition to serving on many technical program committees, I was the program chair for the USENIX Annual Technical Conference in 1998 and USENIX Symposium on Internet Technologies and Systems (later NSDI) in 1999. I’ve served on the steering committee for the Workshop on Hot Topics in Cloud Computing since 2015.

What’s In It for You?

By now I hope I’ve given you an idea what the three societies do for their members and the community at large. Even if you don’t tend to participate in the major technical conferences, there are local opportunities to network with colleagues and learn about new technologies. The magazines offered by IEEE-CS, as well as Communications of the ACM, are extremely informative. And don’t forget about those great insurance discounts!


~Fred Douglis @freddouglis

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