As technologies evolve, David Alan Grier, IEEE Fellow and former President of the IEEE Computer Society, foresees a dramatic change in how the technological community will adapt. In his multiple roles as IEEE volunteer, professor at George Washington University, and technology consultant to governments and organizations around the world, Grier can point to one strategic development that he says could change everything: entrepreneurial incubators.
“In trying to help a variety of governments and organizations develop high-end technical labor and cultures of innovation, one of my favorite activities has been going to business and technology incubators,” Grier says. “These are people who are taking risks, and they know they have a skill, they have an idea, and they recognize there’s stuff out there they don’t know.”
“If IEEE wanted to make a huge impact on the world,” he says, “that’s the place they should go.”
For Grier, the appeal of these types of organizations lies in their flexibility and adaptability. Rather than training a large group of individuals in the same broad skill sets, as traditional engineering schools do, Grier sees the opportunity for individuals to hone particular sets of skills through apprenticeships, networking, and technical associations. “I realize people don’t always need a fully trained software engineer,” he says. “They can get a technology consultant that will give them basic outline of what they need and help them set up the structure. ”
In this changing climate is a greater role for IEEE – if the organization can think outside the box. Grier says that while IEEE provides excellent resources for its members, it needs to be better prepared for the long term.
“The aspects of planning for the future, of really planning for it, of looking at the social structure and how the engineers who are people form a social structure and work in greater societies, is beyond the skills of traditional engineering,” he says. “The IEEE has a hard time of seeing that fact.”
Grier says it’s the natural inclination of engineers to define things very narrowly, which, over its history, has hurt the organization.
“Putting things in a box tends to push toward purity,” Grier says, “and the modern age demands that engineers work in very broad communities and be ready to grab at whatever ideas they can of how to make it better. ”
Despite this narrow thinking, Grier says he sees signs of growth. “It used to be that IEEE communications were member to member for member benefit,” he says,
“but most of the interesting work was member to fellow traveler. That is, people who would not be members for a variety of reasons but who could benefit by talking with us, and we with them.”
“Now, we’ve gotten to the point where we recognize the need to target those outside the organization, but we still think the purpose of targeting those outside is to bring them into the organization in some way,” Grier says. “Instead, we need to target those outside, including the people who will never come in. We need to ask ourselves as an organization: How do we bring into our community people who will help us go further?”
“If IEEE wants to be the goal that it sets for itself, that is, essentially being the institution that develops high-end technical skills to support a broad range of advancing technologies, it must ask itself, ‘what’s the full range of skills that we need to make this organization work?'”
It was a question Grier was forced to ask himself in the mid-90s. A professor at George Washington University in Washington DC, Grier found himself adrift when the university downsized its computer science department during the recession. “It left me in Washington DC without a career that I had trained for, that I had been involved in since I was a small child,” Grier says. “My father worked in the computer industry, and I learned to program as a grade schooler in his office.”
In his new administrative role at GW, Grier struggled to regroup. “I met Mike Williams at a conference, and he pulled me in, and got me writing for the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, which is something that I could do with no computers, no equipment, no grad students, no program.”
Through his work with the publication, Grier was able to combine his computer skills with his writing abilities, and re-engage with IEEE. He eventually became the editor-in-chief of The Annals, and began writing for Computer.
These positions allowed Grier to rebuild his network within IEEE. He served as the Computer Society’s Vice-President for Publications, First VP, and in 2013, he served as Computer Society President. “Being part of IEEE let me return to a community I thought I had completely lost,” he says. “IEEE gave me my career back. There’s no question.”
Several years after the downsizing, GW upsized its computer science department, and Grier returned to his professorial role. Since then, he’s also served as Assistant Dean of GW’s School of Engineering and Applied Science; Associate Dean for Academic Programs at the Elliott School of International Affairs; and Associate Professor of International Science and Technology Policy at the Center for International Science & Technology Policy.
His presidential year over, Grier is looking forward to devoting more time to his consulting practice, and the mission statement that drives him: “To be a voice for the technological world.”
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