Eddie Custovic: Engaging Young Professionals

eddie_300x200The future of your Society is fast approaching. Today’s Young Professionals will soon be the leaders of IEEE Societies and Councils, which is why it is so important to engage them now. Eddie Custovic, the Editor-in-Chief of IMPACT (IEEE Young Professionals’ publication) and IEEE Publication Services and Products Board (PSPB) Young Professional member, shares his story of how he became involved with IEEE. He also discusses strategies and tactics Societies can use to recruit, retain, and, most importantly, engage Young Professionals.

What are your current roles both professionally and in IEEE? 

Like most IEEE volunteers, I wear many hats.  In my day job I am an academic and industry project coordinator in the School of Engineering & Mathematical Sciences, La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. I am a cross-disciplinary researcher and facilitator of multi-stakeholder investigations. Most of my research is industry-driven and includes collaborations with defense, communications, power, food and agriculture, automotive, health, sports technology, and civil/construction sectors. Within the IEEE, my involvement ranges from local to international level. I am currently serving on the IEEE Publication Services and Products Board (PSPB), IEEE PSPB/TAB Products & Services Committee and the IEEE Product Ideation Committee. I am the Vice-Chair for Products & Services on the global Young Professionals Committee as well as the Editor-in-Chief of the publication IMPACT by IEEE Young Professionals. Geographically, I serve as the chair of the IEEE Victorian Section and am the Chair of Fundraising/Sponsorship for the 2017 IEEE Sections Congress being held in Sydney. 

Furthermore, like many IEEE Young Professionals, I am deeply involved in the technology startup community within my section, region and globally with the IEEE Entrepreneurship Initiative. For instance, in my role as a mentor at La Trobe University, my students and I have successfully developed innovative solutions that are currently in the process of being commercialized. Many students who have worked in my laboratory have developed an outstanding entrepreneurial flare and have since launched startups and other consultancies.  I am currently in the process of formalizing the launch of the La Trobe University Innovation and Entrepreneurship Foundry (LIEF) that will enable students of all year levels to work together in an incubator and develop products/services that have the potential to rock the market!

Eddie and entrepreneurship, tell us more about that.

Ever since I was a little kid, I had a knack for turning one dollar into two or threeMy grandfather was very entrepreneurial and managed to execute this during communist Yugoslavia. Not an easy thing to do! I think a lot of his approaches to life brushed off on my younger brother and I. When I think about university education, in a majority of cases, engineering and technology related courses have very poorly incorporated entrepreneurship/innovation into the curriculum. Last year I was a part of the La Trobe University leadership team that disrupted traditional engineering courses in Australia and we launched an interdisciplinary engineering course that had a big focus on entrepreneurship and innovation. An undergraduate engineering degree that covered topics such as “Ideas to Innovation”, “Business side of Engineering” and “Commercialising Innovation”. In parallel to the exciting course development, I have been running an informal entrepreneurial lab where the best computer scientists and engineers work together to develop or “hack” solutions for the market.

As a result of this, the lab now has a natural attraction to students who have excelled in various areas of technology and are not feeling challenged in conventional learning environments. In my lab they work freely with the latest gadgets, collaborate with industry and other stakeholders. My students and I are driving the development and commercialisation of a few products, but the latest buzz is our work in developing the CountAkick wearable technology to monitor foetal movement during pregnancy. It is our hope that this device will help reduce the number of stillbirths worldwide.

My passion for entrepreneurship extends to the global scene. I have founded and am chairing the inaugural IEEE congress for students and young professionals on the topic of entrepreneurship, innovation and start-ups in my birth country of Bosnia & Herzegovina. I am hoping to use technology and my knowledge to empower young people in a country which has been plagued by political issues after the civil war. The congress aims to break down ethnic barriers by educating the youth about the power of innovation. It is my sincere hope that we will launch several start-ups in the coming 12 months as a result of the congress. I am working closely with the Youth Employment Project, IEEE Entrepreneurship, the UN and the IEEE Bosnia & Herzegovina Section.

You mentioned your involvement with the IEEE Entrepreneurship Initiative and the La Trobe University Incubator, can you discuss why you believe entrepreneurship is important to technology young professionals?

Entrepreneurship is about taking calculated risks and having a good understanding of the business world. Furthermore, it is the relentless drive to keep going no matter what is happening around you. Tolerance, dedication, focus are some of the key characteristics one must possess to be successful. Entrepreneurs build networks and work across unconventional boundaries to make things happen! The importance of entrepreneurship to technology young professionals couldn’t be more obvious, yet it is often overlooked.

Entrepreneurs can change the way we live and work. If successful, their innovations may improve our standard of living. Creating wealth from their entrepreneurial ventures, they also create jobs and the conditions for a prosperous society. IEEE and our members are at the forefront of technology and young professionals are the prime demographic to take full advantage of the digital world and the disruptive technologies that we as technologists and engineers are responsible for. There are too many instances in the recent past and throughout history where great scientists, engineers and technologists did not realise their full potential, lacking basic entrepreneurial knowledge. Granted not all of us are destined to be entrepreneurs. There is a fundamental difference between being an “innovator” and being an “entrepreneur”. It is possible to be one but not the other. Nikola Tesla is the perfect example of someone who had an extraordinary gift for innovating but was clearly not an entrepreneur, Westinghouse and J.P Morgan were. Unlike the turn of the 20th century, in this day and age all STEM career orientated individuals can take advantage of entrepreneurship information, networks, meet-ups and forums to see their innovations come to reality and most importantly be in the driving seat to see it through! IEEE N3XT is a great source of information and inspiration. By bringing together the technical entrepreneur community, this event will foster collaboration and innovation, as well as provide encouragement and skills building to entrepreneurs looking to make their mark.

How did you initially become involved with IEEE?

I heard about the IEEE while I was in the final year of high school. I was trying to determine what career path to follow while surfing the web and came across an interesting article with the IEEE branding. That logo was something that I remembered. At university, we had many IEEE members but no student branch, and as a result, I had no interaction with the organisation. I remember attending an Australian IEEE student congress and learning about all the benefits of being a member. I was inspired by the diversity of IEEE members who, despite extremely busy schedules, dedicated so much time to help others and advance technology for humanity. I joined that day. Within a few months I established a student chapter at my university and never looked back. I am still involved in that student branch as an advisor, but I must say that I feel enormous pride seeing students at the university undertaking amazing work under the IEEE banner.

What made you stay in IEEE and serve as a volunteer? 

The IEEE has provided me with so many opportunities to further develop my leadership and interpersonal skills. The organisation is filled with enthusiastic, charismatic, and like-minded professionals who all strive to achieve similar goals. IEEE is very unique because it provides opportunities for individuals from one country to collaborate with others to advance technology for humanity. Furthermore, being part of the IEEE Young Professionals program has allowed me to work with motivated and inspirational individuals from around the world creating a powerful network of industry professionals. I am proud and honoured to be part of an organisation that is at the forefront of technology. More importantly, I feel a sense of accomplishment when we (our members) do great things for society, from humanitarian missions providing green energy in African communities to the latest robotic prosthesis development to help someone regain mobility, IEEE is amazing. Our collective knowledge has the power do so much good for this world, and this is precisely why I continue to volunteer and will be a volunteer for the rest of my life.

What can societies do to better engage Young Professionals?

This is an interesting question that has received some attention in the last 12 months. There are well over 100,00 Young Professional members within the IEEE.  In general, the IEEE has to ensure it stays relevant with the next generation of members/volunteers sometimes referred to “millennials”. Young Professional members are finding it difficult to justify spending the amount of money which they pay for membership when it appears that all they are getting are some magazines, a couple of emails each week, and an invite to a section event once in a while.

The true value of the IEEE membership is in the network of people and the opportunities for career growth through technological advancement.

From an IEEE Young Professional leadership perspective, we have been addressing these issues for the last 18 months. There is a lot of disconnect between societies and the Young Professionals’ leadership. While societies may have Young Professional representation, it is far too often only to satisfy status quo. Their representation and contributions lack synchronisation/coordination with the Young Professional leadership group that is driving new initiatives to best represent what young people want from IEEE. However, there are many societies/operational units where Young Professionals are poorly represented in leadership roles. Societies need to ensure that they utilise Young Professionals to understand what they can do to better engage this age group.

One method to best engage Young Professionals effectively is through SIGNATURE EVENTS AND MEETUPS AT CONFERENCES.  IEEE Young Professionals aims to create sustainable, global professional networking experiences at IEEE conferences worldwide by bringing together international conference attendees with local Section IEEE members. This initiative is a collaborative effort between Regional Young Professional Coordinators, Young Professional Liaisons to Technical Societies, and local Section/Affinity Group volunteers. There is no defining formula for how to make a signature event happen – it is very organic in nature and highly customizable based on geography. A recent example of a successful event that engaged Young Professional members and highlighted the collaborative effort involved a panel, hackathon, and “breakfast with mentors” at an IEEE conference. This was followed by an off-site meetup with local members from the IEEE Section. This type of interaction enables international conference attendees to meet and interact with local members to foster global networking relationships, and in turn, truly define the “global” nature of the IEEE.

You mentioned that Societies should establish better working relationships with Young Professionals leaders. What do these leaders uniquely have to offer their respective Society or Council, the Young Professionals program, and the greater IEEE organization?

Like all societies, sections affinity groups, etc., the IEEE Young Professionals group has a governing structure of regional coordinators, affinity group chairs, and society representatives. Our affinity group is led by a global chair and four vice-chairs (products & services, communications & marketing, strategic partnerships, and leadership & training) which regularly work with MGA staff and IEEE senior leadership to develop strategies to best deliver value for young professional members. The volunteers at this level are highly trained and experienced individuals whose main aim is to synchronise all IEEE Young Professional activities. This ensures that the operation of day-to-day activities is smoother, volunteers are trained on a best practice basis, volunteers around the world are provided with regular support, and most importantly, that awareness of activities is raised amongst all members.

One society which has demonstrated outstanding engagement and can serve as an example to others, is the Microwave Theory and Techniques (MTT). The Young Professional chair of this technical society has been deeply engaged with the IEEE Young Professionals leadership group and society leadership, enabling MTT to take advantage of the full Young Professional membership base. MTT’s Young Professionals activities have been trailblazing from technical workshops to social/networking activities at conferences and other major exhibitions and symposia. Society engagement with the Young Professional leadership provides them with an opportunity to attract more Young Professionals and thus improve not only membership numbers but demonstrate why their society is an exciting home for young people.

This issue of TA Spotlight is focusing on Artificial Intelligence (AI), do you have any thoughts on ethics and AI?

While I am not a member of the Society on Social Implications of Technology, I highly admire the work being conducted by this small, yet highly influential Society. I think the IEEE should be and must be a powerful voice in the public regarding artificial intelligence. As a neutral body and trusted voice for engineering and technology we continue to advocate technology for humanity but must ensure that at the core of all our actions we continue to discuss the ethics that govern our society. With advances in AI, humanity will be able to rapidly improve disease diagnosis, medication development, and improve our understanding of the universe. For me, AI will have the biggest impact in accelerating worldwide research and minimising the involvement of humans in dangerous jobs. On the contrary, AI also has the potential to destroy millions of jobs. In this rapid development we must be careful to create a fine balance between the creation of future jobs and the automation of old ones and yet consider the rapid population growth. Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist from MIT, points to this exact challenge and states “Computers have the potential to entrench the power of a wealthy elite and push the majority into poverty. A world where the rising tide of technology doesn’t lift all boats, but sucks under all but the biggest ships.”

What do you see as the future for IEEE?

IEEE will continue to foster the values it has been for such a long time. We are the trusted voice for our profession and will continue to facilitate the exchange of technical knowledge for the profession and humanity. The IEEE of the future will become even more of a global organisation than it currently is. We can clearly see that membership growth is occurring outside of the traditional regions, and as such we must quickly adopt to the needs of these members. The IEEE of the future will be a completely interdisciplinary organisation based on current trends. We can see that technology is embedded in all walks of life, and we will see for example more professionals from medicine, biology, civil engineering, and construction embracing the IEEE. Smart buildings, smart cities, and the internet of things are just some of the technological phenomena which are forcing interdisciplinary collaboration and IEEE has an opportunity to be at the centre of this collaboration.

To learn more about IEEE Young Professionals or to contact the Executive Team, visit yp.ieee.org.

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