Moving with the Times

Moving with the Times

By Alan Griffiths

Overload, 19(106):4-5, December 2011

The ACCU is primarily a way for programmers to communicate. Alan Griffiths looks at its past, and speculates on its future.

I first became aware of the ACCU a very long time ago: in those dark days I didn’t even have a personal email address, the world-wide-web hadn’t yet taken off, and the primary means of communicating technical information was in print.

In a recent C Vu article Francis Glassborow has covered much of these early days of ACCU – or the ‘C User Group (UK)’ as it was called at first. I don’t want to repeat too much of that, but I need to set some context for what I have to say. It is worth mentioning that in these early days the association was primarily its journal C Vu – there was no website, no Overload, and no conference. And C Vu survived only through the heroic efforts of its editor (Francis). I got involved, initially by republishing articles I’d written for internal consumption for my employer (with the employer’s consent obviously).

Over the course of the 1990s the organisation grew. I can’t now remember the order in which everything happened but fairly early on someone set up a website and mailing lists (on a box left under a desk at a university). Our membership got a boost when we absorbed the Borland C++ User Group (which became the ‘C++ Special Interest Group’ and provided a second journal: Overload ). As the membership expanded, and existing members moved into new technology the ‘C’ roots became diluted and the ‘Association of C and C++ Users’ was born. Towards the end of that decade the spring conference got started, initially as a few talks and exhibits to make the AGM a bit more of an outing. We even, briefly, had an autumn conference too.

But Francis edited C Vu , managed printing of C Vu and Overload , handled the review books, chaired meetings, and organised the conference. All this thanks to Francis’s abundant energy. The only problem with this was that even Francis could only do so much – and he was involved in nearly everything the organisation did. There were a few individuals who helped out: there was a someone handling the webserver and mailing lists, there was a separate editor for Overload – there was even, briefly an ‘International Standards Development Fund’ newsletter. But everything went through Francis – or it didn’t get done. Eventually, even Francis reached a limit and the effect of this could be seen in the membership numbers: they stopped rising.

By the end of the 20th century the ACCU was doing as much as Francis could cope with (and his wife was begging people to take some of the load off his shoulders). When Francis announced he’d stand down I thought ‘good – someone can reorganize things so that we don’t burn one guy out’. I little thought that it would be me – until the AGM; when the election came and it became apparent that there was no candidate for Chair.

Something needed to be done and I took on the challenge. There was no way I was going to try to do everything, or be involved in everything. I chose to delegate. The next few years were spent building some teams to handle aspects of the organisations activities.

It wasn’t always easy – people were used to Francis/the chair doing everything. But somehow things moved forward. John Merrills set up an editorial team for Overload ; we separated out content editing for both C Vu and Overload content from the publication work (and then contracted out the publication and distribution). We formed a team to decide the conference content and outsourced the actual running of the conference. I even used one AGM to bully Paul Grenyer into joining the committee to represent the ‘mentored developers’ projects that he was so keen on ACCU providing.

Each of these teams was represented on the committee and I tried to avoid being directly involved in any of them. The committee were responsible to the membership for getting things done and I made sure that the committee was able to do its job. This model means that a lot of people contributed – I won’t try to list them here.

We had a committee meeting every couple of months and most of the committee was able to report progress and go away with a couple of action points. These points were minuted and the minutes distributed in a timely manner so that people were aware of what was expected of them and others. You might think these were long ‘iterations’, but even the committee have to fit ACCU business around a full time job – the important thing is that they were long enough to get some stuff done and short enough to maintain momentum.

Things got done and the membership numbers started to rise again.

While there were many successes, one thing we attempted didn’t go too well – and I feel it is time to mention it. We (the committee) decided the website needed to be revised and the content brought up to date. There was a lot of discussion about how to do this – I was very keen to find a way of producing interesting web content (the best thing we had then was our book review database). Others on the committee felt that the technology supporting the website needed to be replaced first and set about doing that.

Our first attempt at replacing the website was a failure. After this a team driven by Allan Kelly at least got as far as replacing the outdated technology. This took a lot of time and energy – so much so that I quit the chair and Allan the committee before the process of managing the website content got addressed. Sadly, it never has: the book review database has faced repeated problems, and the ‘Overload online’ content is buried and poorly indexed.

Despite problems with the website, many of the successes live on: teams are still doing the things they did then – there’s still a conference team, Overload still has an editorial team, nowadays C Vu also has an editorial team. We now outsource the web hosting (having replaced the box under a desk), journal publication and conference organisation. The committee is responsible for all of this – and, for the most part, follows the model of having a committee member heading each team.

The spring conference has gone from strength to strength, and is a much more significant part of our activities. We have a second conference again and there are some lively local groups organising regular meetings.

However, over the same period membership numbers have first levelled off and then declined.

The committee has once more decided that the technology behind the website needs to be changed. I’m in no position to argue with that, but we can’t afford to repeat our past mistake – we also need to put in place a mechanism for creating and maintaining our web content. Our Overload articles and those in C Vu (since the new editorial process improved the quality) could form the basis of an attractive web resource.

There is a lot of work needed to make that happen – not just migrating the text and images from one form to another, but also making sure that links and indexes are put in place. That’s far more than a part time job for a volunteer! We employ a professional to get the journal material into print, but a professional appearance on the internet is far more important!

Publishing the material we produce on the website does reduce the opportunity for ‘selling’ the journals. On the other hand the journals are our biggest cost and there’s been discussion recently about whether the journals should be published electronically. I would be sad to see the printed version go – as that is still my preferred format for reading material. However, while I read the paper form I don’t think that format is the way things are best disseminated these days.

Another thing that has changed is communications technology. The ACCU purports to be a world spanning organisation. Yet almost all of its activities are in the UK and, most particularly, the constitution only allows voting by those present at a general meeting (usually the AGM, but potentially a Special General Meeting). Even for those in the UK the cost of voting can be a substantial trip. There has to be a better way!

To address this there’s a need for those not able to attend the AGM in person to be aware of the issues to be voted beforehand, and for them to attend remotely, pre-register votes or appoint proxies. Indeed, there are good reasons for informing members of constitutional motions before the AGM – that may effect a decision to attend and vote.

As a case in point, there was a very significant constitutional motion proposed at the last AGM, and were it not for Allan Kelly starting a discussion on accu-general beforehand the first anyone would have known would be when it was raised at the AGM. Even so, this motion was not even voted on – as people didn’t feel informed enough to deal with it then and there.

In the early days of ACCU these constitutional requirements were unexceptional – the only forum for getting together was the AGM, so people made the effort. Physical meetings are less important now: email, blogs, mobile phones, video calls and other media are available and fewer people find the AGM as important as it was.

This doesn’t mean I don’t think face-to-face meetings are unimportant. In fact, I find it very worrying that the current committee has only met twice since the last AGM. (I also find it worrying that the minutes of the last meeting assign almost all of the ‘actions arising’ to two individuals.)

We need to understand what the ACCU offers today, and how best to deliver it. A recent survey found the following points (in no particular order):

  1. Finding other people who will stimulate, enthuse or enable becoming a better programmer
  2. Socialising with other geeks (preferably under the influence of alcohol)
  3. Programming tips, techniques, craft and lore
  4. Discussion of programming languages (except VB and, possibly, Perl but particularly C++)

In the past ACCU was the way for us to get things published, this is no longer true. There are a couple of recent cases that illustrate this: recently Olve Maudal published his ‘Deep C’ slides [ Deep C ], not through ACCU but on slideshare. Similarly, Paul Grenyer is talking of taking his ‘Desert Island Books’ to another forum. They have good reasons for their choices – but it shows that we’ve moved a long way from where the ACCU started, as the only way to get the news out.

The ACCU isn’t dead yet, but it needs work to keep itself relevant.

That work has to be done by you – an ACCU member – working together with other members. The ACCU can be the forum for that work, but it needs to be updated. Don’t expect the people in place to do more – they are already busy doing what they can. Don’t even expect them to carry on – they get tired. If everyone does a little a lot can be done.


[Deep C]

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