Barbara Simons, ACM President 1998 - 2000
As ACM celebrates its 75th anniversary, we invited ACM’s former presidents to reflect on their terms in a brief Q&A. In revisiting some of the milestone moments from ACM’s history, we hope for insight into the ever-changing landscape of computing to guide us forward in the next 75 years.
Barbara Simons served as ACM President from 1998–2000.
What motivated you to run for ACM president?
I had been ACM secretary from 1990–1992 (when John White was president), and I had an idea of the amount of work that could be involved as president. So, in 1998 when I just had retired from IBM Research, I felt that I finally had time to do the job justice. I was right about the potential work load. Most ACM presidents also have fulltime jobs and nonetheless are able to do a good job. I’m sure I could have done the same, but being able to devote myself to being president without having work constraints gave me a lot of flexibility and allowed me to focus on a number of critical issues.
What are some of the most memorable moments from your term?
Seeing my old friend John White appointed as ACM Executive Director and CEO. Also, I was really touched that so many busy people were willing to devote a lot of time and energy to figuring out how ACM should deal with the licensing of software engineers.
What are some of the most memorable moments from your term?
There are several, including John White’s appointment as ED/CEO.
I am very proud of my work in creating a tiered pricing structure for ACM’s Digital Library, the goal of which was to make the library available to institutions and individuals in economically disadvantaged countries.
I also wrote a quarterly President’s column in CACM in which I discussed timely issues that on occasion generated lively letters to the editor—which at least showed that some people were reading the column.
But by far the most time-consuming issue, which lasted from the beginning to the end of my term, was the debate over the licensing of software engineers, including whether or not ACM should continue working with the Software Engineering Coordinating Committee (SWECC), a joint committee with IEEE-CS. As I subsequently learned, ACM had been involved with questions related to software engineering since 1993. Because of legislation in multiple states (we learned early on that the state of Texas had just passed a law requiring the licensing of software engineer) and Canada that include legal definitions of an engineer, we could not even consider the issue without first understanding a host of related topics.
Since I knew little about the licensing of software engineers, I commissioned a blue-ribbon panel, co-chaired by Fran Allen and Paula Hawthorn, to consider what ACM’s role should be. The other panelists were: Barry Boehm, Fred Brooks, Jim Browne, Dave Farber, Sue Graham, Jim Gray, Ken Kennedy, Nancy Leveson, Dave Negal, Peter Neumann, Dave Parnas, and Bill Wulf.
The panel issued a report, but the members could not reach consensus on licensing Software Engineers. However, a significant majority opposed licensing. Consequently, ACM Council declared that “ACM is opposed to the licensing of software engineers at this time because ACM believes that it is premature and would not be effective at addressing the problems of software quality and reliability. ACM is, however, committed to solving the software quality problem by promoting R&D, by developing a core body of knowledge for software engineering, and by identifying standards of practice.”
Based on the panel’s recommendations, I commissioned two task forces to explore the topic in greater depth. One, co-chaired by Nancy Leveson and John Knight, examined safety-critical software and the second, chaired by David Notkin, reviewed the status of the body of knowledge
The safety-critical panel determined that the definition of licensing meant licensing as a Professional Engineer (PE) a state activity with legal liability for PEs. Since the PE license does not distinguish between subdisciplines, part of the licensing process requires an eight-hour exam that tests a wide array of areas, such as chemistry and fluid mechanics, that have nothing to do with software or computing. For this and other reasons, the panel’s first recommendation was that no attempt should be made to license software engineers engaged in the development of safety-critical software using the existing PE mechanism.
The body of knowledge panel also had a negative overall conclusion: “The current software engineering body of knowledge efforts…are at best unlikely to achieve a goal of critical importance to ACM, which is he ability to provide appropriate assurances of software quality for software systems of public interest.”
After the panels’ recommendations were submitted, ACM Council concluded that the framework of a licensed professional engineer, originally developed for civil engineers, does not match the professional industrial practice of software engineering and would preclude many of the most qualified software engineers from becoming licensed.
All three reports contain a number of excellent recommendations that I don’t have room to quote here. I hope the reports will be made available on the ACM website for anyone who is interested in software engineering and related issues, or even just for historical reasons.
How would you like your term to be remembered?
Given the plethora of issues with which I was confronted, combined with the effort to determine how to deal with the software engineering question, it’s fortunate that I was able to devote a lot of time to the position. I hope my term will be remembered as one in which consensus was prioritized.
In hindsight, is there anything that you would do differently?
I’m sure there were a great many things, but it’s been a while.
What are some of the moments from ACM’s history that you think we should highlight during ACM’s 75th anniversary?
ACM has been a leader in trying to diversify the profession, though unfortunately women and people of color are still seriously underrepresented.
I’d also like to give a shout out to the ACM staff. Their help and support (and Pat Ryan’s encyclopedia knowledge of the history of ACM) were invaluable to me during my time as president; I know I’m not alone.
Do you have any interesting ACM memorabilia in your collection?
Just my memories and friendships.
During ACM’s 75th anniversary, we promote the accomplishments of ACM’s former presidents. To better understand how they served the organization, we invited each of ACM’s living former presidents to participate in a brief Q&A. Through the Q&As, we also learn about important milestones during ACM’s history.
ACM organized a special one-day conference to celebrate its 75th anniversary. This event was truly a memorable day of panels featuring world-leading scholars and practitioners on topics central to the future of computing. Panelists imagined what might be next for technology and society. ACM’s 75th Anniversary Celebration took place at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco on June 10. View the livestream on demand. Visit the event webpage for more details, including the program.