Charles House, ACM President 1996 - 98

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.

Chuck House served as ACM President from 1996 - 1998.

Encouraged to stand for ACM President by Past President Gwen Bell, I demurred since I wasn’t a member of ACM. Moreover, having just accepted a new job as CEO of a small software company in California, my Board of Directors were skeptical about the potential time conflict. Joining ACM forthwith, I asked the current President, Stuart Zweben, about the task. “It doesn’t take much time,” he averred. “Probably just a night a week for email, and a meeting once a month or so.”

Elected nonetheless in spring 1996, I eagerly joined the annual SIG Chair meeting at the Fairmont in San Jose in June. Asked to say a few words by Joe DeBlasi, ACM’s CEO at the time, I began a bland introduction, only to be immediately accosted by a recalcitrant SIG chair, “What qualifies YOU to become the ACM President?”

Whoa! Indeed, what DID qualify me, I thought. And then, you have an out-of-body reaction, where you seem to float above your body, and looking down, words to this effect came from somewhere: “That isn’t the question—the question is how can an organization of 60,000 professionals not find someone qualified from within?”

It was an inauspicious start to a job that was one of the most challenging, stimulating, and rewarding experiences of my life. It was MUCH more than a night a week for email, and by the conclusion, I’d traveled the globe several times and attended some thirty-three SIG conferences along the way.

Were there substantial accomplishments? Not really, although we did launch the Digital Library project, which has turned out absolutely marvelously for ACM and for its members and the profession at large. And I did lobby for greater inclusion and acknowledgment of practitioners, including attracting Steve Bourne to run for President, which resulted in establishing Queue, and re-establishing the episodic Presidential Award, citing Sun co-founder John Gage for creating NetDay.

Did I change ACM in any dramatic impactful way? No, but I did manage to move a number of long-term volunteers into new assignments, where it seemed that some of the groups had become a bit stultified. Similarly, I helped Joe DeBlasi further his retirement plan, and stimulated the search that concluded by hiring John White. Changing top leadership is a tricky task, requiring tact and diplomacy that were not my strongest suites, but I think we pulled this transition off pretty well for ACM.

Would I urge others to seek this job? Absolutely

During my term, we fêted ACM ’97, the biggest gala ‘ever’ for ACM’s 50th anniversary. James Burke opened by commenting about the invention of the most important advance in civilization’s history—paper—as he tossed rolls of toilet paper into the crowd. The first five speakers, all luminaries, beginning with Burke, then Gordon Bell, Carver Mead, Joel Birnbaum, and finally Vint Cerf, spent their time predicting the future. Not one described the Internet as imminent, and only Cerf even mentioned it, who said “in the next 25 years, it will be significant.”

I spent the next year and a half explaining to audiences around the world how ironic that this stellar group, when asked about ‘the future,’ missed the most imminent and important event of the decade. I had a hard time explaining that one!

I was foolish enough to imagine that ACM could build a stronger coalition both in the US and Internationally, by aligning more closely with IEEE and with the British Computer Society. Each attempt failed, but Pat Ryan recalled for me the time I was exhorting BCS about something, sitting on the floor in a cloistered room in a London college, with my shoes off. She whispered to me, “Put your shoes back on, in case we need to run.”

Upon reflection, I admit that I felt strongly about generating much more participation and recognition for practitioners, and since I had spent a high-tech career working in some fifty countries, that ACM needed much more emphasis on international members and activities. My perspective on these topics led to several specific activities:

  1. I commissioned and led an ACM Council Retreat in Lansdowne, VA to discuss membership. The focus was to determine the most appropriate member categories, strengthening connections to industry, and the development of products, programs and services for practitioners. This built the basis for three things— (a) creation of the Distinguished Member category as a level beyond Senior Member (although it took seven years to get this program launched); (b) the successful Queue launch by Bourne two years later, and (c) promoting more heavily awards such as the annual Paris Kanellakis Theory and Practice Award.
  2. A specific result from the retreat was forming the Software Engineering Coordinating Committee (SWECC) with IEEE CS to foster and maintain software engineering as a professional computing discipline, to develop a software engineering body of knowledge and to develop a code of ethics for practitioners.
  3. I also led a delegation of 17 folks to Beijing and Shanghai, seeking effective ways to establish ACM in China. Three events from that trip stand out: (a) a talk to several hundred students at Tsing-Hua University (the MIT of China) where I had a live camera feed embedded into my PowerPoint slide deck to their total amazement and amusement; (b) realizing that a $1.00 charge per person for the Digital Library would be the practical limit vs. the $100.00 charge for others; and (c) trying to get ACM COO Pat Ryan to enjoy the Duck’s Feet menu item.

Four years later, as ACM President emeritus, I had the lunacy to agree to co-host ACM1, conceived as another 2,000 person ‘show’ with 30,000 attendees for the co-hosted Demo fair. Bob Metcalfe was the host, and Dave Kasik managed the Demo Fair.

Three things stood out from that show:

  1. It occurred just three months after the “Dot.Com Meltdown” began, so the audience in San Jose was more muted than we’d have hoped for. Hard to be enthusiastic about the future when your start-up is failing.
  2. As fund raising chair, I was pleased to expect a $500K check from Michael Dell. Standing in the cavernous Dell Inc. foyer in Round Rock, Texas, Michael asked if I worked for “that ahhhh...Andy Grove” at Intel. When I said “yes”, he held up the check and ripped it in half, saying that Andy’s talk to the Joint Economic Council a few weeks before about taxing sales on the Internet was so bad, he wouldn’t support me, Intel, or ACM, thanks. And, he didn’t. Sun, HP, Microsoft, and Intel did, thankfully.
  3. For the black-tie dinner and Turing Award speech, hundreds of us were in the 2nd floor ballroom as I introduced Israeli computer scientist Amir Pnueli for his Turing talk. I was seated on the stage fifteen feet behind the speaker, along with past-ACM President Gwen Bell, when someone slipped me a note that read: “We have a bomb threat. If we think it is real, we’ll wave to you from the far door, and you’ll need to evacuate the building without causing panic.” I had not handled many such notes, but I figured Gwen, as head of the Computer History Museum, must have considerable experience in such a case. I turned to her, handed her the note, and said, “What do you think we should do?” Her reply was unexpected—she fainted, and fell to the floor. Easy enough now to get the audience attention.

One thing that Stu Zweben failed to share with me was the ongoing attraction of ACM for its servants. Once infected by the enthusiasm of the SIGs, I found that continued involvement in ACM was a wonderful thing. So, I’ve happily served five years on the Fellows Award committee, and a decade on the ACM History Committee, and co-wrote a chapter for Moshe Vardi’s seminal study about outsourcing. At the moment, I’m halfway through a six-year project to video-interview roughly 150 ACM Award winners for their website page, and also to provide material for snippets about stimulating students for computer science careers.

Past ACM Presidents Reflect on Their Service to ACM

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.

Register for ACM’s 75th Anniversary Celebration, June 10

ACM has organized a special one-day conference to celebrate its 75th anniversary. This event will truly be a memorable day of panels featuring world-leading scholars on topics central to the future of computing. Panelists will imagine what might be next for technology and society. ACM’s 75th Anniversary Celebration will take place at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco on June 10, with a reception following the panels. The conference will be free and open to members, but registration is required. Space is limited, so reserve your spot today. Visit the event webpage where you will find registration information.