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Oral-History:Michael Lightner

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It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:  
 
It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:  
  
Michael Lightner, an oral history conducted in 2009 by John Vardalas, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.  
+
Michael Lightner, an oral history conducted in 2009 by John Vardalas, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.  
  
 
== Interview  ==
 
== Interview  ==

Revision as of 17:28, 30 June 2014

Contents

About Michael Lightner

Michael Lightner is the son of two Bell Telephone employees, and grew-up in various parts of Florida as his father was promoted within the company. He received his bachelor's and master's in electrical engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and then moved to Carnegie Mellon for his doctorate program to work with Professor Steve Director. After graduating, Lightner worked for Bell Labs in North Andover briefly before going to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for two years, and then moving to the University of Colorado in 1981. Lightner joined the IEEE as a student in 1970, becoming a full member in 1978, with his home society being the Circuits and Systems Society. He participated in society work including being a member of the Board of Governors and VP for Technical Activities, before serving as President of the Circuit Society in 1995, and he subsequently became more involved in the Institute at large. He held many positions – including Division Director – and worked on many committees and boards including TAB, the Executive Committee, and the Board of Directors. Lightner also served as IEEE President in 2006.

In this interview, Lightner discusses his education and career, but focuses mostly on his work in the IEEE. He covers his work on the society and Institute level, and also describes IEEE societies as a sort of ‘parallel universe’ to the larger Institute. He talks about issues faced during his years on TAB, the Executive Committee, Board of Directors, and as President, as well as how meetings on the various committees were run. Lightner also discusses why he ran for President, and the various issues that were important to him, such as the IEEE membership model and international activities, particularly in China. He also touches upon his opinions on matters such why the IEEE is important to academics, how he sees the IEEE as a ‘professional fraternity,’ and the importance of changing the reputation of engineers within the United States.

About the Interview

MICHAEL LIGHTNER: An Interview Conducted by John Vardalas, IEEE History Center, 30 March 2009

Interview #495 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, NJ 07030 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Michael Lightner, an oral history conducted in 2009 by John Vardalas, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

Interview: Michael Lightner

Interviewer: John Vardalas

Date: 30 March 2009

Location: Boulder, Colorado

Background and Education

Vardalas:

It is Monday, March 30th, and I'm at the Engineering Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Vardalas:

Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. Let's first start off by a little bit background about yourself. Say something about your family background as it impacts your becoming an engineer, and then your education.

Lightner:

My mother worked for the phone company as an operator right after World War II. She was born in Maine, and moved down to Florida. My father, who was in the Seabees in World War II in the Pacific, was working for the phone company as well. And so they met in southern Florida, and got married. So I was basically an AT&T brat or a Bell Telephone brat. As he was promoted, they transferred him to various places in Florida. We lived in nine or so different places growing up. I always had an interest in Math and Science.

The telephone connection was a good one. My father was not an engineer. Nobody in my family had gone to college. I was the first one. But he worked on the frame, he knew about repairing equipment, and so when I was trying to do something, like building Heath Kit radios or being a ham radio operator, he was helpful there. We got to tour the telephone company. I had an early job, still in high school, actually, working on the frame in a central office in a telephone company. So technology was a consistent thread. Not that we were a technological family, but we were in that milieu.

Vardalas:

When did you first exhibit your interest in Math and Sciences? How early do you remember that happening?

Lightner:

Well, it came and went. I remember very clearly, in what we would now call middle school, being interested in Science and Math. The Science classes were great fun. We moved around a lot and, depending upon the school and the length of time we were there, there was either great interest and great support, or, "Well, hmm. You dropped in in the middle of the year, you're leaving at the end of the year. You didn't do very well, did you?" [Laughter]

The place that it really took off was in high school. I went to a parochial high school in Jacksonville, Florida, and the President was a priest, but he was also a physicist. So he had his degrees in Physics as well as Theology. And we helped—there was a small cadre of people that worked with him - to build a closed-circuit television studio for the school. And this was back in 1965 or 1966. Working with all of the electronics, seeing all of the gear, putting together the closed circuits studio, helping to run it was a big connection for me that brought me over to the electrical engineering side as opposed to sort of a generic Science interest.

Vardalas:

Could you summarize your formal education after high school?

Lightner:

I went to the University of Florida in Gainesville for my Bachelors Degree, and was an EE student. The first two years was a general education, then you started your focus on Electrical Engineering, or whatever discipline you chose. During that time, I continued the ham radio activities that I—

Vardalas:

[Interposing] Well, you were also a ham radio—

Lightner:

I was a ham radio operator. I did that in high school.

Vardalas:

I always ask every ham radio operator if they remember their call sign.

Lightner:

W-B-4-I-U-J.

Vardalas:

[Laughter] All right.

Lightner:

I was in the ham club in Gainesville. I really, really enjoyed the undergraduate program there. The faculty were great. I had a lot of opportunities to work with faculty. The first one, and the one that was the most influential, was the person that became my Ph.D. advisor, Steve Director. He was finishing a textbook on circuit theory. I was in the first circuit theory course. Basically, I was finding misprints. I mean, you would always have misprints, right? It's the first thing. We had mimeographed notes back then. And of course there were typos. There were all sorts of mistakes that come in any first draft. I was the person who was finding those. Steve eventually hired me to write a solutions manual for the book.

I ended up working with him on some projects as an undergraduate. It was like a senior honors project. And then I worked with him in graduate school. I finished my Bachelors and Masters at Florida. He then went to Carnegie Mellon. I was in the middle of the Ph.D. program in Florida, and working on a particular topic. I thought, all right, this is an okay topic, I can do this, but it just wasn't exciting, and so Steve said, "Well, you can come up to Carnegie Mellon with me, but only if you change topics, and we pursue something different." And I replied, "Hey, absolutely." I had started that different topic when I worked as a summer student at IBM Watson Research Center. So that's where I sort of got into the new topic.

Vardalas:

What was the topic?

Lightner:

The topic was Multiple Objective Optimization, and connecting that to the yield of integrated circuits. So you use optimization techniques to improve the performance of a circuit. What you often have, though, is competing objectives. So this was a way to actually formally capture that competition. One of the competing factors is the yield of a circuit. So you may know that when you build an integrated circuit all of them don't work. The number that work over the total number you build, say, on a wafer is the yield. And so the harder you push the design—the more state of the art it is—the lower the yield. We put together a system where we could trade off yield for performance. That was great fun.

Joining IEEE and Early Employment

Vardalas:

I'd like to switch to your involvement with IEEE. You were a student, a student member of IEEE—

Lightner:

Right.

Vardalas:

—in '70. What made you want to become a student member? Did somebody say that you must become one? Do you remember?

Lightner:

You know, honestly, I don't remember. It's probably the case that it was associated with publications. As a student member, and then becoming a graduate student, I could get some of the publications myself. I think that probably drove it. I was not really active in the student branch at the time. So it was all connected with research. The faculty were IEEE members, they were going to IEEE conferences, we were reading IEEE papers. And as I went to graduate school, it was the thing to do.

Vardalas:

Okay. You became a member in '78. What was your first employment, after getting your Ph.D.?

Lightner:

I went from Carnegie Mellon to Bell Labs. I had interviewed, had a number of different offers, and I was really intrigued with a branch lab of Bell Labs up in Boston. There were some personal reasons for going there, but it was also because the Computer-aided Design Group, and that's what I was doing, was servicing the whole Lab. So I was going to get a chance to see a wide variety of problems, work on a wide variety of interesting things. I had had an offer to go to Murray Hill, but it was going to be working on a topic that I wasn't particularly interested in, and it was very focused on one thing. The idea of something general really appealed to me. I went to the North Andover Bell Labs, and there were high-level IEEE members on staff who were active in the Circuit and System Society, which is my home society. And so even then, there was a connection in the first job. But about six months after I got there they reorganized the Lab, and now every group had one or two people who were doing the computer-aided design activities for that group.

And so what I had gone there for had disappeared with the reorganization. I also had an offer from University of Illinois, in Urbana-Champaign . They said “we'll leave this open for a while, see if you're interested.” So I called them up, and said, "I don't like this reorganization, it's not what I was looking for. Are you still interested?" And they said, "Yes. Come on out.” I went out there, and I was at the University of Illinois for two years.

I had been working with a researcher at IBM, his name is Gary Hachtel. He was first a mentor to me, and then a colleague. And he was moving from IBM Research to the University of Colorado. They told him that he could hire someone else in the area to build up the group. So he called me and asked, "Are you interested?" And I replied, "I have no idea." You know, I had not, other than some traveling, been west of the Mississippi. I was an East-Coaster. I didn't know anything about Colorado. So I came out and interviewed, and they offered the job. And once I was out here, I decided, "Oh, this is really a nice place." [Laughter]

It didn't compare rank-wise with Illinois, but one of the things that was a challenge at Illinois, for me anyway, was the fact that it was so large. It's a very large school. It's an excellent school, but at the time, there was a lot of transition going on. For example, I was the first person to want a terminal on my desk in this particular lab. I was trying to change things. And when you're one out of 125 faculty, it's hard to do that. And here, in Colorado, I was going to be one out of, at the time, maybe 25 faculty, and it was a more dynamic environment. There were pros and cons, without doubt, but I was sort of taken with the challenge of building something up here instead of fitting into a really, really fine program. I got here in the Fall of '81, and except for some sabbaticals, I've been here ever since.

Vardalas:

Just one comment. It’s very interesting that you said you were a Bell brat, you know, but your first job was—

Lightner:

I know. [Laughter] My father enjoyed that.

Vardalas:

Did he?

Lightner:

Yes. He did.

IEEE as Professional Fraternity

Vardalas:

In your participation in IEEE as a volunteer you had a lot of hats. The official record of you does not do justice to everything you did in the early period before 1995; actually 1992. So I'd like to go over those old activities. But before that, let me frame the kinds of questions for you to consider as you go over your IEEE involvement.

Why did you choose to become involved in a specific committee or board? Like what makes you decide, "I'm going to do this."

And then if you can tell us about the major issues you faced being on this committee or this board, etc. What do you recall were the major initiatives during the time you were on this committee or board. And, of course, if you could say something about the structure of a particular committee or board you were on, and how it related to the rest of your organization.

And finally we would like to know how involvement in IEEE activities evolved in parallel with your career. How one feeds off the other.

Lightner:

Absolutely.

Vardalas:

Before we start on your pre-1995 volunteer roles in IEEE, let me ask you, which of your volunteer activities gave you the most satisfaction? Which was most exciting? Is that a fair question?

Lightner:

Well, it's a hard question, and let me not answer it.

Vardalas:

All right.

Lightner:

Okay? Because I think that the activities in IEEE, as you span the range of what's possible, provide satisfaction in different ways. And so I can say, "Well, this was really satisfying, but then this was really satisfying, but in a different way." And so rather than saying an apple is better than an orange, I'd rather talk about what was exciting about apples, and what was exciting about oranges.

Vardalas:

Fair enough. Fair enough.

Vardalas:

Okay. I can see why you became President. Very diplomatic.

Lightner:

[Laughter] No. It's true. I mean, I just can't—leaving aside the presidency, I can't really separate some of the things.

Vardalas:

You said [you] start[ed] participating in activities in 1981.

Lightner:

No. It started before that. First let me say that it is impossible to separate what I've done in my career from the IEEE.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Lightner:

Fundamentally impossible.

Vardalas:

Why do you say that?

Lightner:

Because as a faculty member, as a researcher, you need your research community. You need to publish, to have people who are critiquing your work, appreciating your work, and partnering with you in your work. And that is what IEEE provided; the conferences, the societies, the journals you publish in. All of that is part and parcel with the work that we do. So, maybe there's another place to publish, but, IEEE is the place as far as I'm concerned.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Lightner:

You become part of a professional fraternity. Your professional colleagues are not gathered because they are in the same department. For people in universities, for people in research and development arms of companies, there may be one, two, people who are in your same area, if you're lucky. But most people aren't doing what you do. And so you have to go outside of that work community, and into the professional community to actually build up your cadre of colleagues.

Vardalas:

I see.

Lightner:

And that's done with the conference activities and with much of what IEEE enables. So it really is, in my view, impossible to separate career and IEEE for people in our field. In other fields it is different professional societies but that blend is really part and parcel of our work. And so you can't separate them.

Pre-1995 Volunteer Work

Vardalas:

Well, given that statement can you then give a résumé of your volunteer work until 1995 when you became President or Chair of the Circuit Society. I think that's when it happens, you become—

Lightner:

Yeah. I know, I think I was President in '95.

Vardalas:

Can you summarize what you were doing up to that point?

Lightner:

Sure. It falls into three categories. The first category is related to what I would call generic technical activities, mostly associated with conferences. I started in '78, '79 participating in the Computer-Aided Design Technical Committee. It's called the CANDE Committee inside of Circuits and Systems. I went to their meetings, I was meeting the luminaries, if you will, in the field by going to these workshops, and I got to the point where I was chairing that committee. So that was a path to meet colleagues and to participate. At the same time, I was submitting work to conferences, and presenting at conferences. That very quickly led to being on the technical program committees of conferences, helping to form the tracks of conferences. And after a few years, I was then in a leadership role for the ICCAD, the International Conference on Computer-Aided Design. And so I went up through the tracks of that, and became Technical Chair, and eventually General Chair. I was doing some similar work in the Design Automation Conference on technical program committees helping to put together workshops. So basically, you become part of that community, assuming you are interested and willing to do this kind of work. Then you are reviewing papers. I was reviewing papers for different Transactions. But the first track was around conferences. So conference participation, technical committee participation, various positions on program committees for conferences. And that was one thread that went through the work of that period you're talking about. So a number of different conferences and workshops.

Vardalas:

Before we go to the next two threads, that from the sound of what you said, it takes a lot of your time.

Lightner:

Sure.

IEEE for the Academic and Private Sector

Vardalas:

What motivates one to say, "I want to keep doing this," even though it's just as easy to walk away from it, just do your own stuff? What keeps you interested in that?

Lightner:

We're in the middle of interview season for faculty candidates. And when we get junior faculty candidates coming in, I meet with them and talk to them, I tell them that we will not burden them with every little university service their first seven years here as they're trying to get tenure inside the university, but that I fundamentally expect them to be participating in IEEE activities along the way.

And I tell them, "I am urging you to do that, do some of the things that I had a chance to do, because when we judge you in the end, we're going to ask people in the field to write letters about you, your work, how you contribute, so forth. It's quite possible for people to know you by reading your papers, or at least to know something about you. Fundamentally, the way you become known is by being visible in the community. You're visible in the community by participating in the conference program activities, being session chair, doing all of this work. So to help build your reputation, to become known to the community, to become an integral part of that community, requires you to do this. And that's what you need in order to have people write letters that say 'your work is good, I know his work. I know her work'." So it really is not just a pro-bono kind of thing, it's part and parcel of, at least for academics, being successful.

Vardalas:

Obviously, this is a very good way, a natural way, for academics to get involved.

Lightner:

Right.

Vardalas:

Do you think it is also a rationale in the private sector? Why should individuals working in a company get involved in volunteer work early? Is the same dynamic at work?

Lightner:

The dynamic is not exactly the same because the reward structure is different. However, there is no ivory tower with an individual person at the top of it, whether that's in the most elite research and development organization or in a university. You're working fundamentally as engineers in a community, and that community is a global community. The more that you participate in these activities, the more you know, personally. Not just so that you can quote a name on a paper, but the more you personally know people working in the field, the more contacts you have, the easier it is for you to get help when you need it. You're in a company, you're working on a problem, you go, "I’m really stuck here. But you know, my friend, Sarah, who's at a university in Australia, I've met her at conferences, she's really expert in this. I'm going to give her a call. I'm going to send her an e-mail today.” And that sense of building a professional community that helps you in your job, I think, is the motivation for industry participation. I'll tell you a small story.

I'm in Boulder, but the section we have is the Denver Section. And I've been at meetings where people in companies who—and I won't name companies here—but companies who might be competing for business, but within the umbrella of the Section meeting are asking each other, "Yeah, but how does this really work? What's going on here? Or what about this X?"

Vardalas:

I understand.

Lightner:

And people in the Section may say, "Oh, well, it works this way." These are people who are really engaged in their profession, they know what they're doing, they like what they're doing, and somebody asks a question, and they start answering it. You don't disclose company secrets, but it really enriches your ability as an individual engineer to solve difficult problems if you have a large network of people that you can call on when you need them.

Publication Activities

Vardalas:

Point well taken. Now let's go back to the other two threads.

Lightner:

The second thread is publication activities. What happened for me was I published papers then I was asked to review papers. Eventually I became Associate Editor for the Transactions on Computer-Aided Design and then Editor in Chief of that Transaction. So I went through a period of moving through the editorial side. That was very interesting for a couple of reasons. One, you're concerned about a broader range of topics than you might personally be concerned with. So you get a broad view of the field, and not just your own narrow area. And second, it forces you to make serious decisions. It's one thing to go to a conference and go, "That was a great paper," or, "That was really a lousy paper." But it's already in the conference. So as an attendee, you look at it, and you go, "not so good," and you can be somewhat cavalier about your opinions. But when you sit in a position to make a decision about whether a paper appears, and you're approaching other experts in the field to provide reviews—you're trading on the name of IEEE, the name of the journal, some of your friends, colleagues, asking "Please, can you review these papers?"—which is serious work. Now you get opinions back. If everyone says it's great, it's not an issue. If you've got conflicting opinions, then how do you tackle that? Do you read it? Do you apply your judgment? Do you get other reviewers coming in? It builds up a sense of gravitas around the activity that is in contradiction or in contrast to the flippant opinions you might have at a conference.

These people are serious. They've put a ton of work into it, they're looking at the IEEE, they're looking at a journal that you're responsible for, and they're saying, "We want a serious hearing here. We want people to be serious about our work." And so you begin to develop or are forced to develop a sensitivity in your decision making, and a sensitivity to the people who submit material to the journal. So that was one set of threads. And then I did some work on some other journals, some non-IEEE journals as well, Associate Editor and so forth.

Vardalas:

Do any broad issues come to mind about the effectiveness of a journal, the review process, etc; something that you had to tackle or IEEE had to look at? Or did you face standard things that any journal faces?

Lightner:

I would say that at least across the range of journals that I've been involved in, and that IEEE has, there's nothing that is unusual. However, until you faced it and had to deal with it personally it is new and challenging. There might be a process, there might be rules and procedures that the IEEE suggest to you, but you still have to engage in that. So when you have people whose papers are rejected, and they start filing formal appeals, how do you deal with that? Papers where you have split decisions. Do you inject your own opinion, which is perfectly valid—you're in a position to do that. Do you get other people's opinions in the field? How do you go to a group of people, ask them to review, and know that, or feel comfortable that this is a fair group of reviewers. They aren't people who would immediately dismiss the paper, they would give it a fair and honest review. And they might represent—the paper might represent a particular thread, or way of approaching a problem. You don't want people who are against that thread but you don't want to dismiss the views of the others in the specific area. So it's a sense of balance, a sense of fairness, and then a sense of dealing with controversy that we often don't have to face in other settings.

Vardalas:

Did IEEE or other group of editors of the various Transactions and journals ever come up with the idea that we have, we should provide guidelines or something to help our new editors? Is there any process to create a structure to help people get through some of these things?

Lightner:

The answer is yes, and it's one that is continually evolving. I'm not sure they had it when I was Editor, but there is something called the Panel of Editors. So this is a meeting—it actually just took place this last week in Atlanta—the editors of all the journals are invited to participate. They get together, they talk about a range of issues, anywhere from getting timely reviews to handling complaints to dealing with multimedia material, on and on and on. There is a really an extensive set of policies that exist in the IEEE for some of these issues. I was part of developing the plagiarism procedures and rules and processes that we have, but that wasn't when I was an editor. That was later on in the PUBs Board (PSPB). Everybody is facing these issues, and I think that we've done a really good job of developing and capturing some expertise inside of the IEEE. However, if you haven't done it before, you come in new, and you just have to face it. And our job, as an Institute, is to make people aware of what we have that can help them so that they don't feel they have to handle it in the corner by themselves with no help.

Vardalas:

Is this kind of thinking take place in PUBs? What part of IEEE handles it?

Lightner:

It's handled in a couple different areas. One place is inside the societies themselves.

Vardalas:

Right.

Lightner:

And, I can talk about that when we get to the third thread. But then inside what is now the Publications Department, by the Publications, Products, and Services Board (PSPB), that's where it would take place.

Society Work

Vardalas:

Now let's go onto the third thread which is societies -

Lightner:

The third thread is the societies themselves. These other activities, even Editor in Chief, you're doing it within a society. It's a journal that is part of a particular society. However, you're not part of the governance structure of that society.

There is really an overlap. Conferences came first, then the journals, but they were overlapping. The journals overlap some of the governance activities in the societies. And so inside the society I was elected as a member of the Board of Governors for the Circuits and Systems Society. So now you're part of the governing body, and you're brought a lot of different problems that you deal with. And you also deal with strategic planning for the society—where do we want to go? Now that is in many ways a mini version of what we call the Technical Activities Board, but it's just within one society. And so you've got a governing board, but then you also have the president, president-elect, the vice-president for technical activities, vice president for publications—

Vardalas:

So it's almost like a parallel universe.

Lightner:

Yes. I was on the Board of Governors a couple of times. I became VP for Technical Activities once or twice, and then stood for, and was elected as President of the Society. Now, the thing that is really critical, I think, for anyone to understand that looks at IEEE, is exactly what you were saying, this parallel universe. So the societies are a parallel universe, they're on their own, they deal with their budgeting. They interface in various ways with the rest of the Institute with other societies, but the governing body of a society really doesn't have to know anything else about the IEEE other than they're a society, and there are a few points where they have to agree to do things in a certain way.

I came up through the IEEE through this whole period, up to '95, or '94 when I was President-elect for the Society, having no idea that there was a Technical Activities Board, that there was a PUBs Board, there was an Educational Activities Board, that we had an IEEE-USA—it had a different name back then USAB, that there were big regional activities. I mean, I had no idea.

Vardalas:

Was this just you and your society, or was it something that would have probably happened in any other society?

Lightner:

It would happen in any other society, because you don't need to know it. The impact on you is negligible, and it's the big IEEE that is either a brand that you are part of, or they're doing something that you don't like. I mean, fundamentally, that's roughly what it was. In '94, as President-elect, I went to a Technical Activities Board meeting, a TAB meeting. It was the first time I knew that such a body existed, that we had these board series meetings, and so forth. And I went there because we were in the middle of transitioning the Solid State Circuits Council into the Solid State Circuit Society.

So I was Circuits and Systems, we were one of the societies who were part of the Solid State Circuits Council and this was going to disappear. It was going to move somewhere else. So some people had big concerns. I was supportive of the move, but other people in the Society were not. It was a controversial issue, and so we had to work through that. This was my first exposure to the fact that there were 30-plus other society presidents that met together. I had seen ballots before, I probably even had voted for a president or for a division director, but I didn't know what it was about. So you can have gone through essentially 15–17 years in the IEEE doing a lot of things, and know nothing about the rest of the IEEE structure.

Vardalas:

Oh really?

Lightner:

Now I might have been blinder than most people, I don't know.

Academics in Societies

Vardalas:

This is fascinating, of course. While you were involved in the Society over 14 years, or whatever, 17 you already mentioned, and particularly if you were an academic, how many academics in societies in IEEE get involved in sections and regional activities?

Lightner:

It varies dramatically.

Vardalas:

That's another door through which to understand what IEEE is about, right?

Lightner:

Yes. In my view, (some people have transcended this view, but in the environments that I have been in, this was a reasonable view to have) the Section is primarily industry-based. Much of the industry here in Denver is not fundamentally an R&D industry. You don't have a lot of people doing fundamental research who are part of the section. The Section does tremendous things. Other Sections are great, too. But as an academic, sitting in a university where any day of the week I could find five talks that I was interested in, I have colleagues in different disciplines that I can ask specific research questions, I had connections with research colleagues in different companies and universities. The appeal of the Section—and I was doing a lot of volunteer work anyway—was not enough to make me add the additional activity.

I have colleagues in universities where that's not the case, where there is a tradition of being more connected with the Sections. It's certainly the case outside of the U.S. that Section activity and university activity are more closely connected. But in the experience that I have, inside the U.S., it's not such a close connection.

Society Issues and TAB

Vardalas:

Let’s return to TAB, you'd just gotten to TAB. Were there things within the Society that prepared you for tackling bigger issues in IEEE? Were there issues in your Society which really reflect every society's view? A common universality?

Lightner:

No. And that was the most interesting part. Because if you think about the societies, at least as I experienced them, you've got one president, and you've got some vice presidents. They've got committees underneath them. You're all working in a common environment for a common goal, and there may be some competition because you've got limited resources or time. However, you go to TAB, and the number changes, right? Not sure the exact number of societies when I first went to TAB so I'll just pick a number. Okay. You've got 40 presidents, 40 people who are on the top of their society, who spent anywhere from 10 to 20 years working in their society. They're at the top of it from a volunteer perspective, and now they're among 40 other people who are in the same position. You hear that something is proposed and you ask whether it might hurt your society.

And so finding a mechanism to work among a whole bunch of presidents, a whole bunch of societies, where from their perspective, rules are being imposed that limit them, that force them to do things that they don't want to do, but which from a higher perspective make sense, that make the institute run better. But the society presidents with, let's say 15 to 20 years inside their society, are concerned only about their society's health, and how to make it better, and make the conferences better, the journals better? And now they've got to sit with a whole bunch of other people where there's competition.

Vardalas:

Can you recall some of these things while you were at TAB, some of the issues? Can you elaborate on how this worked out or—

Lightner:

There are always elements on how money flows back to the societies. They don't collect the money directly. The Institute collects the money, say, for your membership, or for the purchase of intellectual property. Now it's in the electronic form, back then it was much more in paper. How does that money flow back? Who controls it? How much is taken off the top in order to run certain aspects of the Institute? That was a problem then, it's a problem now, and it'll be a problem in 1,000 years. It's a fundamental challenge. Another challenge is starting new journals. For example, if I want to start a new journal. Well, what's the area of the journal? Well, the area of the journal is say apples and oranges. Well, one society says sorry, part of my mission is apples, and in particular it's apple cores. Therefore, that society president objects to the new journal, saying that the proposed journal would take away from my journal or society’s field of interest.

Within the Technical Activities Board you work to find a way forward. Partnerships are developed, compromises made. Having so many societies, each of which is quite broad, naturally leads to overlap of areas in publications, in conferences and so how you work through the overlaps is a challenge. And it's a different challenge than you face in societies.

Vardalas:

Did you find yourself taking positions when you were on TAB that you wouldn't have taken wearing a different hat now saying, "I'm also not only my society representative, but I'm also thinking of this meta-group called TAB."

Lightner:

In some cases, yes. In some cases, no. Meaning for a particular topic, I might be able to see a broader question, and be engaged in the broader question, and be able to vote in a way that if I had a limited hat on, I might not. Where that shift took place is after I was Society President, I became a Division Director. So the societies are broken into divisions, so you have a bunch of societies in a division. And there is a director elected by the societies of that division. That director sits on TAB as a voting member, but also sits on the Board of Directors of IEEE.

And then you say, "Well, wait a minute. I really do have to see it from across a number of societies. When I go to the Board of Directors meeting, I have to look at the Institute as a whole." And then after being a director, I was a VP-elect and VP of TAB itself. And so now you look at all of the societies, you also then sit on the Board of Directors, and you go, "Well, how does this issue play out? How do I make it work?" And having a sense of appreciation of the importance, the hard work, the contribution, the intellectual horsepower, the person power that goes into all of the activities and societies—really appreciating that—allows you to translate that into standards activities and regional activities, and so forth. But to really appreciate that leavens your judgment at the corporate level.

I can make some grand pronouncement at the corporate level, but having gone through all of these other activities, you appreciate that well, wait a minute, it's not that simple.

Vardalas: One question before we take the break. Can you recall any vivid incidents where your judgment at the corporate level got you into conflict with your constituents, as to why in the world did you do that in your society? Any issues on which you faced flack?

Lightner:

Well, there are always issues, and I say that not to trivialize your question because I think it's a good one, and it might get into some juicy detail, but fundamentally, sitting at the Board level, you make decisions on how resources are going to be allocated. And it's not micro managing, but if somebody wants to start an initiative that has to be paid for, that money has to come from somewhere. We don't go out and say, "Well, here's money we found on the street." That money comes from the mechanisms by which the Institute brings in revenue. And those are activities associated with memberships, societies, conferences, publications, and you're thinking that all of these people are working and generating resources, and we're going to take a piece of it and use it for something else. Not use it for something in the societies, not using it for something that might be directly related to a membership activity, but for the Institute as a whole.

Vardalas:

And you have to justify that to the societies.

Lightner:

Well yes. They're going to look at that, and they may not agree. You just have to make the arguments. And so as a director, that was certainly the case.

One interesting point that was important for me understanding how TAB meetings worked. I had only attended one TAB meeting before becoming society president. The TAB meetings are run in a way that was quite different than the way my society was run.

Vardalas:

In what way?

Lightner:

Really using Roberts Rules of Order, having an agenda, here are our motions, here are the discussions for them, it’s a really careful process. We're not going to allow one person to grandstand for two hours about some particular issue. We're going to force a pro and con kind of discussion. So as a person presiding, you say, "I've heard three people speaking against, does anyone want to speak for?" Or the opposite. Now we can have somebody against, somebody for. If nobody is willing to give the other side, then we're done with the discussion. You don't continue to have all the negatives, for example, piled on.

So the way of running meetings that I learned going to TAB meetings, I took back to the Society. We would have meetings that would start at 8:00 in the morning and end at 1:00 in the morning or something like that. We didn't run them well. And one of the things that I did was bring the TAB lesson back, and we really had, I think, much better meetings. Whether we made better decisions or not, I don't want to say.

Vardalas:

Something I saw that I found very interesting is, in looking at your background, you became a member of several societies in '97 and '98: Laser & Electro-Optics, Electron Devices, Solid State Circuits. Is there a reason why there was this flurry of joining societies?

Lightner:

[Sigh] I don't remember when I joined various societies, and you would have the record. Well, one of the elements is that those were in divisions that were related to what I was doing. So in order to be a part of what was going on, to feel more able to represent people I joined them. I would get the material, and read it, and so forth.

Committees Within TAB

Vardalas:

Tell me more about the TAB Management Committee and the TAB Strategic Planning Committee. These various committees within TAB on which you were a member and Chair of some of these.

Lightner:

The TAB Management Committee is a creature that changes over time. And so my particular remembering of the activities relates to 12 years ago. We would worry about the issues that TAB was facing in between the TAB meetings. So it was essentially like an executive committee that said here's a range of individuals, and we're going to be on call in between regular meetings. Furthermore, one of the things that we would do is review the agenda for the meeting. And as a management committee, we would go over it: "This is a contentious issue, are we prepared for it? Do we have all the data? Who's going to do it?" We would often preview the material that was going to be presented: "Is this going to help us solve problems?" So we would try to take and front load the effort of a meeting, not just by saying, "Here's everything we have to do, here's the agenda. Okay. Thank you, we'll go run the meeting." But by asking what actually are the difficult topics? Can we move them around? When do we have to place them? Do we have enough backup material?

Who on the staff, for example, might be backing up a volunteer who's making a presentation so that when the diving goes too deep, and the volunteer might not know the detail, we've got a staff member who might be ready to step in and help. So it really was about preparing the meeting, and making sure the activities took place in an effective way between the meetings.

Vardalas:

I gather then that the Strategic Planning Committee is a little bit different.

Lightner:

Strategic Planning was different, and it has evolved over time. What we were worried about were several issues. Fundamentally, if you think about it, the broadest group that looks at technical activities in the IEEE is TAB.

Vardalas:

Right.

Lightner:

Okay. It's built into the name which is not to say that there aren't technical activities of different forms everywhere else. But the broadest scope of it is inside of TAB. And so strategic issues such as looking at new areas of focus. Why don't we have a journal in this area? What about that area? Do we need a conference in this area? Challenges with membership: how can we build more membership in societies?

Moving to Electronic Publications

In that middle-'90s we faced the move from paper to electronic publications so we had experimental programs, we had something that—depending upon who's listening to this—was called Opera. And that was our first— or one of the first electronic offerings that the IEEE had for Transaction papers.

Vardalas:

It was called Opera?

Lightner:

Opera. And eventually we evolved to the current Xplore platform, and the various products on Xplore. But that transition from paper to electronic was not an easy one. There were a lot of people who said, "This is not the way we should go. We shouldn't spend money on it. Maybe we'll pilot it." And so driving that activity, trying to look at the issues that might be associated with it and how they would affect the societies as well as the Institute was an element in the strategic planning as well.

Vardalas:

Were these debates purely over technical capability or was there something broader at stake here other than pure technology?

Lightner:

It wasn't really are we ready to do it. It was about “do our customers want it?” That’s so hard to believe today when I can walk 10 feet over there, and I can get everything the IEEE has ever published, basically from my computer because my university is an IEL subscriber. In those days—sort of late-'60s, early-'70s, and then all of '70s in school, and then in the '80s entirely - you would walk into a faculty member's office, and they were defined by the color of the journals on their shelves.

Every journal had a different color. I had mentioned the Solid State Circuit Society, then Council before, they published the "Red Rag." Now this wasn't pejorative in any sense. It was “here's the Transactions, it's covered in red, that's the "Red Rag," that's Solid State Circuits.” Here's what Computers looked like, this is what Circuits and Systems looked like: sort of the yellowish kind of color. So you could walk into a faculty member, or a researcher's office, look at their shelf, and see all the Transactions. People were used to the colors, they were defining themselves in this way, and it was also a mechanism by which the societies then branded themselves. And so the issues were not about “is this really something that is going to work,” we worried we'll put a bunch of money in it, and people won't want it. What about branding? What about our identity?

It evolved to the point where you could get it online, but then what do we sell? Because we don't know what people are going to want. So there were a lot of unknowns, and we pushed forward, and staff was great, volunteers were able to convince other volunteers to do it. Do all the societies have to participate? Suppose some society says, "We don't want to do that. We think this is fundamentally the wrong way to go. We don't want to participate." Now if you're trying to sell an electronic product to a major library, academic or corporate, or governmental, and you say, "Well, you can't get everything. You can only get some things, and you have to get paper for others," that's not a product you want to sell.

This was a time when some societies wanted to do it, some societies didn't. The idea of bringing everybody onboard in one way or another, either by convincing them, by having mechanisms that allowed them to experiment, or in the end by saying, "Thou shalt," was something that had to be worked through, and had to end up with what we have now, which is one of the, the major, I think, showpieces for the IEEE among the research community.

Vardalas:

Now was the driving force for this from within TAB, within the publications and -

Lightner:

There were parallel pushes which was good. The first pushes, I think, came from societies. We had partners inside of staff for publications, and probably with the volunteers there, but I don't remember. And that partnership led to some experiments which led to various people getting more excited, and eventually it was funded by the Board, for a lot of money in order to actually pull it off. That last push with the Board was spearheaded by the publications board. Both societies as well as the staff deserve—I mean, some key societies as well as the staff deserve tremendous credit for that.

Vardalas:

Well, that probably also led to a considerable increase in IT infrastructure to make this thing work.

Lightner:

Absolutely. Were we going to host it? Immediately? Eventually? So there were just huge questions, and it leads to bigger infrastructure, more staff. More requirements on authors. So how do we get conferences in there? Do the conferences come in a year after they appear? What if conference publications appeared in our Xplore database contemporaneously with the conference, would people still go to conferences? So as we started to delve into it, one could see numerous issues that could have been very disruptive. And so people were, I think, reasonable to be cautious.

Vardalas:

Yes. So this was part of a strategic planning.

Lightner:

There was the strategic planning, there were activities by societies that simply wanted to push it inside of our products committee, not the PUBs Board, but a shared joint committee. There were issues hammered out around all of this. So it was not centralized, necessarily. There were lots of parallel conversations, but eventually we did end up with the Board funding it. So—

Vardalas:

Were there any moments when you'd think it wasn't going to work?

Lightner:

Sure. Basically because there were a number of societies for some of the reasons that I cited who said, "Well, we'll do some, but we won't do all. We'll do journals, we won't do conferences. We'll do conferences, but a year afterwards." And so the ability to capture the IP, and create effective products was being challenged all the time.

Executive Committee and Board

Vardalas:

Please talk about your work on the Executive Committee and Board of Directors; the experience of being in those two. Let's start with the Executive Committee. How do you recall the operation of the Executive Committee when you were on it? I think that you were VP on it at one point—

Lightner:

When I was VP of TAB, I was on the Executive Committee, and then VP of PUBs I was on the Executive Committee, and then the President-Elect through Past-President roles.

Vardalas:

What were your first impressions when [you] joined the Executive Committee, how it operated? What were the big issues facing the committee when you were on it?

Lightner:

The Executive Committee was constituted, like the TAB Management Committee, to do the business of the Board in between the Board meetings. That was the chartered function of the Executive Committee. There were, in addition, activities that the Board gave to the Executive Committee to do independently. Reviewing all the contracts over a certain dollar value was one such activity. The staff did the basic review and the ExCom looked at the summary. There was typically at least one contract presented in detail. The Executive Committee did the work in between the Board meetings. The one thing that the Executive Committee, which no longer exists as you know, did that I think was really good, and it is being done in different ways now, was to hold one meeting a year outside of the continental USA.

So you would have the three Ps, secretary, the treasurer, the various VPs, staff, end up maybe having 20 people, maybe 25—I'm not sure what the number would be—who would say, "Well, we're going to hold our meeting in …. Pick a place. We're going to have it in Hong Kong, and it's going to be in conjunction with another Region 10 meeting." While we were there, we would visit industry, we would visit universities, we would give talks, as an outreach activity. It's really impossible to do effective outreach with the Board as a whole.

By taking the VPs of the OUs, the three Ps and so forth, taking them outside of Regions one through six, and really getting them involved in universities, companies, Region and Section activities, I think it did a lot to support a coherent operation, coherent communication, face-to-face communication between volunteers at different levels, and this Executive Committee, and by extension, the Board.

Vardalas:

So your recollection is that it worked well then?

Lightner:

Yes.

Vardalas:

And what's replaced that process?

Lightner:

There was then, and continues to be, a joint TAB-MGA visit activity. Now you'll get the TAB VP, the MGA VP, some of the key staff, some society presidents, a few others, and they will form a group, and they will go visit particular geographical areas for the same purpose. And before we had twice as much activity that was going on because we also had the Excom visit. And my experience of that was very positive

Vardalas:

What about the Board now? Since you said all the real stuff gets done in the Board, or I don't know if I paraphrased you correctly.

Lightner:

I wouldn't say that. [Laughter]

Vardalas:

A lot of work gets done at the Board level. What was your experience? You were on the Board for many years - six, seven, eight years?

Lightner:

Yes. Something like that.

Vardalas:

First of all, did you have any expectations on how the Board worked before you got on it? And were those expectations realized or crushed?

Lightner:

[Laughter]

Vardalas:

And then we'll go on to what do you remember the issues on the Board [were], and—

Lightner:

I may be anomalous, I don't know. I may just have been too narrow, but as I indicated, coming from a society to TAB was like “what is this thing called TAB? Oh, look at all of these people.” It was totally outside of my experience. Even while being on TAB as a Society President and in some committee positions and so forth, I knew the Board of Directors existed, I knew they did things to us, never for us, but to us, but I had no idea who they were, how they worked. I had no clue. And so when I was elected as Division Director, it was the first time that I went from the TAB body, if you will, to the Board. And there were very few people who in TAB—and this is probably true now, and I wish it wasn't true, but I think it really is true - who felt that the Board did things for them, and not to them.

When you sit on the Board, you see things differently, but nonetheless, you know, it's not something that people get warm, fuzzy feelings about, it's not something that the real volunteers, the people doing conferences and section activities and editorial work, and all—doing all of the real nitty-gritty work of IEEE, as opposed to administrative work of IEEE - they don't pay attention to the Board of Directors. They don't care about the Board of Directors. It's just a nothing. Because in one model, that's the tip of the pyramid, and we're down here busy doing our work, and we haven't got time for them. So long as you don't mess with us, we're okay with you doing whatever it is you do in your room. So that, I think, is an important context to have because it's not as if the Board is a body that is universally respected, known, and whose pronouncements are awaited with baited breath. It's not that at all.

Board Meeting Procedures

So going to the Board then was a very interesting experience because it is the most formal of the activities that I had taken part in, even though the other ones had increasing levels of formality. Everybody's there, everybody's in a suit, it's strictly Roberts Rules, here's the agenda, this is how it works. You know, you say this, people listen. You take the vote. It's a very formal structure. And so, again, understanding how to work effectively in the different bodies is important. It's not unfriendly, but it's not the case where you then say, "Well, let's just stop for 15 minutes, and go talk among ourselves." No. You're there in the meeting. You've got a Board book, which is all the agenda items, and the background material, and so forth, which in paper form was literally three inches thick.

And you were expected—some people didn't manage it in some meetings—but you were expected to have read that, and to have your questions, your opinions, be ready to ask questions and then vote. Here is the budget. The budget is a huge item. The Finance Committee or FinCom does all of its work, but then it comes to the Board, and the Board has to approve it. So you need to pour through that, and think about it, and ask questions, and really be mindful that you are a fiduciary of the Institute. The level of responsibility is much greater. The questions are often, not always, but often, Institute wide. You may have a particular set of issues that could come back and impact a society, a region, so forth, but fundamentally they're large issues. So as an example of one that was done a couple of years ago, and just concluded this past February, is whether IEEE should merge, and in what way should it merge, with Eta Kappa Nu which is the Electrical Engineering Honor Society.

Well, that's not a particular society issue or a region or section issue, or standards or even educational activities, although that's where the initiative came from. It really is an institute-wide question. The budget is an institute-wide question. Strategic activities related to IEEE visibility. All of these are institute-level questions, and you need to put on a hat that attempts to understand and respect all areas of the institute, and then carefully weigh the issues. What's important? Can we do this now? Because it's always a trade off. It's going to cost more money, and so forth.

The challenge as a member of the Board was to try to be prepared for the meetings, and that was a lot of work; to listen very hard; to know when you wanted to ask a question; and by the way, you don't just say, when Leah (Jamieson) was president for example, you don't go, "Leah, I'd like to say something." That's not the way you work it.

The president is up there trying to manage the meeting. You raise your hand, somebody is working with the president—often it was the executive director or someone else—taking a list of names. You would get that person's eye, they would write your name down. Your hand would go down, and then they would get to you in order unless somebody before you said, "Well, call the question," or whatever it might be. So a very formal process that tries to give everybody a chance to say things, and depending upon time, says, "All right. You get two chances." Roberts Rules, you've got two chances to come in and say something.

So it was excellent training in meeting preparation, in thinking about the Institute at large, in thinking ahead of time where issues might arise, and there you might talk with your colleagues on the Board, "Gee, what do you think about this? Can you help me understand some elements?" So you would do homework outside of the Board meeting not to form coalitions, if you will, but to understand issues.

So I think each of the areas that I've worked in the IEEE has operated in a different way, with different kinds of rules, different requirements on how you think about issues, and all of them have been incredibly useful to me. The biggest learning, to put it in that phrase, that the IEEE has given me, and the biggest skill that it has pulled from me—that isn't to say that it wasn't there, but may not have been used—is a combination of two things that are really critical. The first is to listen. Listen, listen hard. Listen for what's really being said, listen to the words, listen to the subtext if you will. Listen across a number of people. Try to understand what they're saying, and then integrate that. Can you integrate this into what the issues really are? So as a member, it is critically important to be able to listen well, and not just have your say at it. But also as a person who sits at the table trying to run the meeting, whether it's a TAB meeting or a Board meeting or whatever. Can you integrate what people are saying? Can you be active enough in your listening and your ability to synthesize that you can say back to people what they said. Because the biggest challenge I've found, and certainly this is a fault that all of us have, and we work to try to reduce, is not really hearing what the other person said. So you might say something to me, and I might be listening to you, and then I say something, I'm given permission to say something back, and I'm saying back nothing that is related to what you said. All right. So I've put it through my own filter, it's my own biases, it's my own concerns, and I say, "Oh, well, you know, you said this." And so the person trying to run the meeting, to be referee, says, "Wait a minute. I think this was said over here. This was said here. This was said here." Can you create a neutral environment where you restate what people are saying, try to synthesize that, and move the meeting forward.

Vardalas:

For the meetings that you attended did this process work efficiently, or were there times when you wondered is this—

Lightner:

It varied dramatically, in my view, depending upon the person running the meeting. And I got a chance to see a number of IEEE presidents, in different roles in the Institute. Not just their role as a president, but VP of PUBs, or VP of TAB or RAB or what have you, and learned from what they were doing. But the thing that you have to learn is, and some people don't, that as the person running the meeting your opinion doesn’t matter – in fact, in many cases, you don’t even have a vote. Your job is running the meeting. The issue belongs to the Board, not the President. I think the presidents in general learn it as the go through, and end up being a president.

You may be the president, you may be the vice president, but your job is to run the meeting. It's the people around the table whose opinions matter. It's those people who will vote. You don't vote. I mean, you may be able to break a tie, and there are various things like that, but you have to take a very neutral position, an enabling position, and one where unless it's with respect to a procedural matter, you hold your opinions in abeyance. You don't try to force your will on the group.

Vardalas:

That must be tough.

Lightner:

[Laughter]

Vardalas:

Especially if something's being discussed which you are kind of championing as President from the beginning, or something.

Lightner:

Yes. So if there is something like that, then there is a mechanism. Whether it's as president or VP, you give the gavel to someone else. You are no longer the person running the meeting, but a participant in it. But really it's being able to say, "My job is to facilitate the work of the directors, the work of the Society presidents and division directors, and so forth." And if you can take that role, and run the meeting so people see that, and you're respecting them, even if you have to cut off discussion and so forth, you really do it in a respectful way, you can get a lot done, and you can keep a real sense of community going. If you can't, if you really have to insert yourself, then that can be very divisive—it might be the right thing to do at that time, and everything coalesces, but fundamentally, you are not taking the role in the meeting that you should have. Your role as President or as VP of TAB outside the meeting is different than inside the meeting.

Board Issues

Vardalas:

Do you recall any of the issues with which the Board struggled to come to terms?

Lightner:

At any particular time or?

Vardalas:

Well, over the span of that you were directly on the Board.

Lightner:

Sure. So one of the key issues was reserves. So how do we deal with our reserves? How do we invest them? And we were operating the Institute in a way where we were balancing the budget with the reserves. So there might be an operational budget, and it might be negative by so much, and we go, "Okay. Well, we've got reserves to balance that."

So there was a huge issue of the purpose of reserves, how do we build them up? How do we form a budget? Should the budget actually be a break-even operational budget, and then we have a different set of rules for investing our reserves into new initiatives? It was a really big challenge to go through that.

Another issue was our back-end business management system—the BMS. And we certainly needed to change, there is no question, but now the Board was seeing it being implemented. Do we like this? Do we not like this? How are we helping to pass judgment on what the staff is fundamentally doing when it's not our expertise, but we're really concerned about the experience of the member using our systems?

When Dan Senese retired as Executive Director, then we had to ask, what do we want in the next Executive Director? How do we do this? Who is on the search committee? How will the board decide among the finalists?

So there is always a wide range of issues, typically, around fiscal matters or high-level personnel matters that are difficult to deal with.

Vardalas:

Do you recall any issues that were divisive?

Lightner:

Oh, of course.

Vardalas:

—very divisive that he Board was really split and fighting over certain things.

Lightner:

Oh yeah, absolutely.

Vardalas:

Were they all that way or just—?

Lightner:

[Laughter]

Vardalas:

—or were the fiscal ones the divisive ones?

Lightner:

In general, the fiscal ones are the divisive ones because you have people with fundamentally different fiscal philosophies. We want to be very, very conservative, we want to be more aggressive. We want to use our reserves in order to have a very fluid budget, as opposed to having a very strict budget. We have a sense in which the investments we make into our infrastructure are viewed as enabling or crippling. The more we spend on infrastructure, the less goes back to the key tasks encapsulated in societies, and so forth.

Vardalas:

Right.

Lightner:

And so is spending money, and [also is] increasing the size of the infrastructure crippling the organization or enabling it. Well, that's a ‘which side of the coin are you looking at’ question. Various people with all the right intentions have different views on that. I think that the easiest way to describe this is to talk about agendas. So the Board typically with the President and staff, and perhaps the Executive Committee, operates by creating a consent agenda.

And so for those who may be looking at this that don't know how it works, you've got a regular agenda: we're going to have reports, we've got action items, and so forth. But there's a whole bunch of stuff that just has to be done, and by the rules. It has to be approved by the Board. There is no controversy there. So we build this big consent agenda, and when you come to the Board meeting, you have a chance to say, "I'm sorry. I want that pulled from the consent agenda. I want to talk about it." And anything that isn't pulled from the consent agenda is approved when you approve the overall agenda. So you do a whole lot of work very quickly. And therefore, by definition, what's left for the Board to do is contentious or requires a level of discussion that is not trivial.

Running for President and Platform Issues

Vardalas:

Let's move on to your presidency. What made you decide to run for President?

Lightner:

[Laughter]

Vardalas:

Why did you do this? Were you pushed into it, or did you jump into it?

Lightner:

I think that this an important question, but it's not a question that should be asked just about the presidency. You know, why did you agree to X?

Vardalas:

Oh, yes. Yes.

Lightner:

Serve on this committee—

Vardalas:

Yes. Yes.

Lightner:

—chair this committee, stand for election for a vice-presidential slot, whatever it might be. The fundamental answers have a couple of components for me. Everybody's slightly different. For me, there were people who were asking, and they were people who I respected, and I felt both humbled and honored that they would ask me if I would consider this. So being asked is an important component. I never asked anybody to put me up for any of these positions. They said, "Would you consider it?" And so the role of nominations and appointments, the role of colleagues in asking you if you would do something, I think is very critical. And it's very important for the IEEE, and all of the volunteers in the IEEE to know that. You see someone who is doing a reasonable job or is doing a job that you approve of—two different things—and you say, "Gee, would you consider doing this?" So asking is really an important thing to do. So I was asked. And…

Vardalas:

But accepting?

Lightner:

Accepting is more complicated. It has several components. The first is do you think that you could do the job? And the job is nothing that you necessarily know about or what it really is about, but you think you can do it. So there is that question. Do you think you would enjoy doing it? Would you get some sort of satisfaction at it? Do you have some ideas that you would want to accomplish— that you think you might be able to accomplish in that particular role— as President, or whatever role. Does your family and work allow you to do that? It's more time commitment. So when I was first asked, it was at a challenging time for my wife's mother, who was in her last year, turned out to be half a year. And my wife was traveling a lot back and forth to Delaware where her mother was. And so it was just not the right time to do that, because we didn't know whether she would live for six months or three years, and it was just too much. So I turned it down. I told the Nominations Committee, "No. Thank you very much, but this is not the right time." When it came to the Board meeting where the slate is actually set, the November Board meeting, it's sort of a sad combination of activities, but basically I left the Board meeting, or the Board series, in order to go to the funeral of my mother-in-law, and at that point, I asked my wife, "What do you think?" She said, "If you want to try, go ahead." So I came back, and was nominated from the floor, and got on the slate, and ran, and lost.

Vardalas:

How many of you were running that time, just two?

Lightner:

There were three nominated: Cleon Anderson, VP of RAB (now MGA); a society president, VJ Bargava, a very good candidate, who had to withdraw because he took a job as the Head of the Department at the University of British Columbia, and his dean said, "You can do other IEEE things, but you can't be department head and IEEE President at the same time." And he accepted that and withdrew. So it was Cleon and myself. We had a very, very, very close race, and I learned so much from going through that. I just can't tell you how useful that was for me in understanding the Institute, understanding the range of issues, talking to people all around the world. It was very, very powerful. You know, disappointing when you lose, but nonetheless—

Vardalas:

But did you discover any particular thing you could have done better? Was it clear to you what you had to do if you campaigned again?

Lightner:

No. Because I did the same thing the second year, and I won.

Vardalas:

[Laughter] All right.

Lightner:

So we might say that Cleon did a better job. And certainly in the sense of winning, he did. But what I learned was about the Institute. What I learned was about what was going on in different parts of the world. I learned a lot about the regional activities, and sections, and chapter activities. In my view, whether you win or lose, going through that process is what prepares you for being a president.

You have a lot of other IEEE experience, but the leavening that comes about when you have to talk to people from all different backgrounds, in all different parts of the world, to explain what you think is the case, but more importantly, to listen to their issues. "Why doesn't IEEE do this?" "Why don't you do that?" On and on and on. "You should do this." That is the thing that opens your ears, opens your mind and your thought process, and opens your heart to the volunteers, and the members around the world. And that is equally, if not more important than yes, you've been on the Board, you know how it operates, you can do all of the mechanics. You know, putting your mind and heart around it is what happens during that process, or at least did for me.

Vardalas:

So why then did you try a second time?

Lightner:

Because I was asked. And I said, "Well all right. I know what my issues are. I know what I'm going to say." I'm in the race against different candidates, the candidates are equally qualified. In my view, and in the opinion of the Board, these candidates are qualified to run, so I thought, "Okay. I can go and do this again. I won't do it a third time." You probably wouldn't be asked a third time because running is a lot of work. But I still thought that I could do a reasonable job, you know, I had something to contribute, so I'll try one more time.

Vardalas:

Do you recall what your platform was? I've got some slides—

Lightner:

[Laughter]

Vardalas:

—I won't ask you - but I'm just curious, do you recall? Because, I have the highlights of some of your slides. For example, “this is a time for change.”

Lightner:

Yes. So some of the issues that I was really interested in, and what was sitting on the slides, I don't know.

Vardalas:

What you recall?

Lightner:

Improving our membership model, being able to have better value for our membership dollars, and whether that was a way to have a lower-priced membership, to have a cafeteria model for membership. Basically I had been hearing, and other people had been hearing, that the cost of membership is too high—

Vardalas:

For what they get.

Lightner:

—for what they get. The value is not there, and that needed to be improved. So that was one thing that I really thought was important, and talked about. Another issue for me personally at the time was pushing our membership and our activities in China. How do we go into new markets? How do we go in and expand membership, provide value in the Asia-Pacific region? My initial concern was China. The phrase that I came up with after I was elected, which it would have been marvelous, I think, to have beforehand, was the goal of IEEE is to enable technical professionals to compete in a global marketplace. So through our publications, through our networking, through our educational activities, through participation in standards, on and on, technical professionals can compete effectively in a worldwide marketplace, in a global marketplace.

Vardalas:

Compete against whom?

Lightner:

One another. People were worried about outsourcing and so forth.

Vardalas:

So you're enabling them to do this.

Lightner:

IEEE enables our members to compete effectively in the global marketplace.

Vardalas:

So if you're not a member of IEEE, you're missing this.

Lightner:

You don't have as many elements in your competitive bag as you would if you were a member, and that that's one of the key values that we would provide.

Value Equation for IEEE

Vardalas:

On your campaign you used the phrase, “[the] value equation for IEEE's broken.” What'd you mean by the value equation? Do you recall that phrase?

Lightner:

I’ll give you a current example, and it was essentially the same example back then. And I'll do it from my own myopic perspective. So right now I'm a member of maybe four or five societies. I probably pay $350 a year to IEEE, $360, something like that. And every publication that IEEE has I can get for free because I work for an employer who has made it available to me.

Why in the world would I belong to the societies? Well, you know, I've been in this thing for a long time, I think they're valuable, I think they provide community, it's important, so I want to support them. But as a person standing aside from that, I don't need to join to get anything. I get a discount at their conferences by being an IEEE member, not by being a society member. Now I look at IEEE. Well, I can get Spectrum just as well as I can get anything else. What is it that you're offering me IEEE for my $120, my $160, depending, and so forth, if I don't take advantage of it? So I can answer the question of what's being offered. The offer is local activities, chapter activities, section activities, participating in technical communities. You can go on and on about what is possible to do, but suppose I just want to join? Suppose I feel like I should be a member of this because I'm an electrical engineer. But you're charging me this much money and I'm not taking advantage of any of these things, and I don't want to take advantage of them. They're not part of how I live. I'm too busy at my job. I'm too busy with my job and my family. I'm not going to go to these other things. They're part of what you force me to pay. I don't use them, therefore the value proposition for me is not a good one.

Vardalas:

And what was your answer to that, or what were you suggesting IEEE do? Did you have a program?

Lightner:

Well, the thing that I tried to do, and I tried to do up until February of this year when we failed, is to create a lower-cost membership model. If I don't want to do these things, what's the minimum I can pay, and be an IEEE member?

Vardalas:

Did you run up against resistance?

Lightner:

Well, the failure was we couldn't create an economic model in which this was viable for all members and the IEEE. The cost of our membership is very high. I'm going to say the following, and I don't know that it's true at all, but I'll say it anyway. I get National Geographic, or Smithsonian. I pay them 70 bucks, or whatever it is, and I get the magazine. I get a little card that allows me to go into the museum in Washington, and that's it. And I don't know what else goes on with that money, but probably at least $50 of that goes for the magazine, if not more. And I'm happy to pay that. For IEEE, a person who doesn't know what's going on in IEEE pays twice that, or even more depending on the region they're in, they're going, "And I get this? And this is Spectrum and the Institute?" What's my value equation compared to other organizations that we look at, whether it's Smithsonian, National Geographic and so forth? And we basically create our membership. And these other organizations get outside grants to do what they want to do and what have you.

We create in the IEEE an organization funded in a complex way, but out of a lot of this money that comes from membership, we create an organization that supports education where we have awards that makes public visibility possible, that supports The History Committee, that supports a wide range of activities which we feel as an overall portfolio are the right thing for a learned professional society to have, are of benefit to the general population, as well as to the profession, and provide opportunities for participation that are rich and rewarding. However, if as a professional all I want to do is pay some dues, and say, "Yeah. I want to be a member of this. I want to support this," it's not $120 or $150 worth of value. And so we create, I think, a rich, powerful, and enabling environment for those people who want to participate in it.

For those who don't want to participate in it, the value isn't there. Perhaps many people want in some way to participate, but they can't. They're just way too busy. And so therefore, that value equation is broken.

Vardalas:

Did you ever get an estimate of how big a segment of the market that you've just identified is compared to the current membership?

Lightner:

Well, we've done a lot of work, and we've done major studies of members and non-members. We've looked at price points and if we were able to offer a cheaper membership, and make it work, we could get 10, 20, 30, we don't know how many more thousand members. I think we could over time get many more if we offered a bare-bones option. But it fundamentally challenges the way the Institute is organized.

Publishing Activities

Vardalas:

In your campaign you also mentioned the challenges to publishing activities, and you said there's a lot of money tied up at risk - I guess IP. What did you mean by that?

Lightner:

So the challenge then as well as now—it hasn't gone away— is that a huge portion of our revenue comes from the sale of our intellectual products. And that's not a bad thing, that's just simply a statement. However, the movement towards open access in the publishing industry could fundamentally challenge that. We offer a wonderful aggregate package. However, it is not cheap – but it is of high value. If a nontrivial portion of the product was available for free then the value of the overall package is challenged and in these tough fiscal times that would challenge our overall business plan. This single large segment of our business, if challenged, could challenge the health of the Institute. Now that's a gross overstatement because we have membership and conferences and so forth, but the leader in terms of revenue is the publications, the IP, and it's never a comfortable position to say you have only one key product.

Vardalas:

How did you propose to diversify? Did you have any ideas in mind when you ran for President?

Lightner:

I'm trying to think what we were proposing at the time.

Vardalas:

I did read a mention somewhere, an allusion to an iTunes.

Lightner:

Right.

Vardalas:

Yeah. What was that about?

Lightner:

Well, I'm laughing because just yesterday, so this is a Monday for anybody who's reading. Yesterday was a Sunday, I was at our publication's Strategic Planning Committee Meeting and this is still being discussed. In iTunes you go in there, and pick a song for $1.99. Can we be an iTunes for the professional world? Not only our intellectual property, but other intellectual property. Can we be the place where people go for technical information?

Vardalas:

Right.

Lightner:

And you want one paper? Great. Instead of being $30 for non-members or whatever, or $12 here, it's a buck ninety-nine. What can we do that would dramatically increase traffic? Traffic to the IEEE. Whether it's an IEEE-branded store front, whether it's a different way of approaching IEL, whether it's partnering with Google so that our material is found quickly, and comes up first. What are the mechanisms that we can have that really increase the visibility of IEEE so that we're not so much dependent upon large sales, but we have a large volume of small sales as well?

Reputations of Engineers in the US

Vardalas:

Another issue that you brought up was the challenges of the reputation of engineers and computer scientists. Did you feel that was—

Lightner:

[Laughter]

Vardalas:

—was that something just to, to get some discussion? Did you feel that there were tarnished reputations here?

Lightner:

Oh, well there are a variety of issues associated—

Vardalas:

[Interposing] Or awareness. Was it a question of reputation or awareness?

Lightner:

No. It's really a complex issue. If you look inside the United States you don't find engineers on the top of the list of professions that parents want Susie and Johnny to grow up to become. Doctors, lawyers, etc. are on the top of the list, engineers further down. If you go outside of the U.S., engineers are often held in much higher esteem, and engineering is held in much higher esteem.

The National Academy of Engineering—I think it was just this past year—came out with a study called "Changing the Conversation." Which focuses on how we talk about engineering, how the public thinks of engineering, and what we have to do to change that conversation so that they understand what engineers do, the value that engineers provide to the society at large, and therefore, the sense of wanting to do the hard work it takes to become an engineer is really valued and promoted.

And so that's essentially what I was alluding to in the points that I was raising, and I think that Leah Jamison has increased public visibility for IEEE and for engineering–for electrical engineers, computer engineers, computer scientists and so forth, in addition to the work in the National Academy, which she had a part in as well, all of that helps address my concern. And so that isn't to say that I, necessarily, did anything, but this was a concern, and I think it was a concern that other people had, and we've had action come out of that joint concern.

Vardalas:

Just to follow up on that, isn’t [it] more than just [a] “pipeline” issue. Do you see this reputation also being, for the largest part of the population, a matter of understanding and appreciating the value of engineering as opposed to trying to just pipeline people into engineering?

Lightner:

Absolutely. The label "engineer" has been co-opted in many different ways, and perhaps the most significant way that I hear people complain about—engineers complain about-is "Oh, well no, you're a sanitary engineer." So they hear "engineering," and the thing that they hear most is well, we're going to call the sanitary engineers, we're going to call this. So you go to major hotels, you go to places, well, we've got—here's the sanitary engineering department, here is the something engineering department. You know it's—

Vardalas:

A train engineer.

Lightner:

Well, that's not so much anymore. You know, we don't have enough of that, but it really is a sense in which the word "engineer" in engineering has been taken away from those with formal education in engineering as opposed to technicians, which of course we need dramatically and in significant numbers. But they do a different work than engineers do. And so I think that the term has been diluted. I think that it therefore loses a respect and that just cycles in on itself with respect to pipeline.

We also are challenged, and I think that this is an issue that's very hard to solve and it goes back to being IEEE President. So being IEEE President isn't about writing the best paper, it is indeed a political position. You are elected, you stand, and you say things, and people like you or not, and they elect you. It's not proving a theorem or something else. So what many engineers have is an aversion to politics and politicians. And this has hurt us, I think, as a profession, because if you look at least in regions one through six, in IEEE speak, if you look at the United States, you don't have very many people in political leadership roles that are engineers, or have engineering training, and I personally think that engineering is one of the best liberal-art degrees you could get in terms of being able to think about a wide variety of things.

Vardalas:

And that manifests itself, doesn’t it, in the fact that engineers when they work for companies say, "I want to stay doing technical things. I don't want to go into management."

Lightner:

Right. They say, I'm interested in technical issues. But we need their thinking and analysis on the often times more complex social and political issues as well.

Vardalas:

Okay. I just wanted to continue on just one point before we go to your presidency, about this reputation of engineering. Do you see reputation as also being important when important things are being debated, that the public look to IEEE for expertise, and that unless the public understands the value of who IEEE is or who they represent, who's going to listen to you?

Lightner:

The challenge that I think that we face, and I'm going to come to your point in a slightly circuitous way, is the degree to which a large part of the population is scientifically, technologically and mathematically poorly educated.

Many, many people go through their education, and they end up with a very poor understanding of science, a poor understanding of technology. They're certainly not innumerate. I mean, they can add, subtract, and multiply, but they don't think about things quantitatively. Their quantitative skills do not prepare them, or allow them, to think effectively about statistical and quantitative data that is presented. The challenge then of much of what we face in the world today is about technical issues. Whether we're talking about global warming, energy, renewables, how much money goes into a renewed grid, whether we're looking at microclimate variations due to huge wind farms, or how we work with nuclear wastes, and dispose of them, what about nanotechnology, etc. So you have issues that are scientific and technological, they require a level of scientific and engineering literacy or technological literacy as well as numeric literacy that many people don't possess, including those lawmakers who are making decisions. That is the first and foremost scary thing that we have to deal with and is why affecting the education of our young people so that they really can think critically about scientific, technical, and numeric or quantitative issues is so important. Given that current lack, how do you make up for it? Where can you get opinions that you can trust?

Vardalas:

Right.

Lightner:

And so one of the places that you go to is to the scientists, and scientific opinion. I think we would ask that to be broadened, and say the technical opinion or the professional opinion is needed. Then you ask the question how does that technical opinion become formed, and agreed upon, and communicated? And we don't have, necessarily, good mechanisms in any part of the world for doing that. So we have science advisors to governments, we have national academies that do study groups, we have activities in the IEEE that might lead to this information. However, as we know, there will always be people who disagree or have a different view.

That disagreement fundamentally challenges the trust that the general public, and/or the decision makers place in the scientific opinion. The source of the distrust is the fact that in this professional community there is not one, and there will never be one, single view, and we don't present things in a way that allow people to see the give and take why we make a certain pronouncement. Whether it's the IEEE and its reputation and brand, or other professional organizations. And the general public isn't necessarily able to nor does it want to wade through this kind of discussion because of their lack of scientific and technological education. So it would be wonderful to say that the IEEE says this, or this is an IEEE standard, or this has come out based on some study, and so forth. I think that we are doing that, we will continue to do that, we will do more of it, and I think it's very important, but I think that it has to be done in a way that understands the intellectual milieu in which it will be presented.

That's a very, very difficult thing for technical professionals to do. That's the inherent challenge and I wish I could put on a very happy face, and go, "Well, IEEE will jump into that, and our reputation will make all the difference because decision makers will trust us." Decision makers of a certain ilk may trust us, but not all of them. The general public, who really does not know us, won’t necessarily trust us. It is a complicated and difficult issue, but one that is critically important and that we have to continually engage.

Presidency Issues

Vardalas:

Finally, let's go back to your presidency. Thinking back on it now, are there any disappointments, things that you wanted to achieve that just didn't pan out while you were in the presidency?

Lightner:

So that question, which I assume you're putting to everyone - [Laughter]

Vardalas:

Yes.

Lightner:

—has to be prefaced with a couple of things. The first is you have a three-year period, if you're lucky, to accomplish things, because you come in as a President-elect, then your sitting year, and then your past-President year. And if things work well, you have the ability to work on projects over a three-year period. The second thing is no matter what, you will be able to do less than you want to do.

There are significant demands on your time. As a president you have basically four things you can do. You act as the person who sets the agenda for the Board, which is the decision-making body, and you help run that meeting. Your job is to facilitate the directors in making the decisions of the Institute. You act as the public face of the organization. Public both for the general public as well as for the volunteers. And you act as the CEO. But even as the CEO, in most settings, you have an Executive Director that takes care of most parts of the organization. In the end you have very little individual power.

You have the power to try to influence people, you have the power to do a good job so the Board can do a good job but it's not like you come in and you're the president of a company, and you can do anything you want. You really have an obligation to the organization. The thing that I think is most disappointing to me, and it wasn't that it wasn't accomplished over my term as President, but that as we have finally done all the work—and the Board has gotten behind this, we've invested a lot of money—but we haven't been able to come up with another membership model. We haven't solved that problem of value yet.

The MGA is pushing forward a project about [a] 360-degree view of the member—how can we engage the member, and provide value, and not wait for the member to come to us to find out what we have to offer? That may help with the value proposition, but I think the value proposition is still a big issue. It certainly is going to be a big issue in this year when we look at what's happening economically around the world. Next year as well. Will I renew my membership? Is it really of value for me? So I would say that's the disappointment because we have not been able to figure it out—it's not because people were unwilling, it's not because we haven't put in the money, the people power and consultant power, and everything else into it. Very, very serious work has been done, and we haven't been able to figure out a solution yet. And that's a disappointment because I think it's still an important issue.

Vardalas:

Let's flip the question around. What was your high point? Do you remember what, what were you most pleased about, during your term's presidency?

Lightner:

Our activities in China. We opened an office in China and we expanded our presence in China. We have—we in as the IEEE, we as in our volunteers in China, not we as in myself or the Board-we have increased our membership in China dramatically. We have many more conferences taking place in China. Our whole integration into the Chinese professional technical community has been increased dramatically. And it's such a large and powerful country, it's a country where entrepreneurship and technical know-how is dramatically valued. When we were pushing this in 2006, the top nine people in the Chinese government all had engineering backgrounds. That is such a rare thing.

We were able to work with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, with their engineering institutes. This isn't to say there aren't issues, there aren't challenges, but as a step towards advancing IEEE's ability to serve professionals around the world. This, I thought, was very successful. India was much further along, which is why we started with China instead of India.

India had many, many more members, its sections were more active. There was much more going on there, and so even though much more can go on, it seemed like the initial challenge was China. And so we started there. And I think our efforts to work with developing countries and countries that are becoming developed countries now, and really be part of the technical professional infrastructure of those countries, in that we have conferences there, we have members there, sections, we do all the things that we do and we are accepted by those countries and the professionals in those countries is really where we're going to see our significant growth, and where we can have significant impact. It was exciting then, as are the activities [that] are going on now in India, in Vietnam and elsewhere. At the same time, we were looking to ask the question how do we grow in Region 9: Central and South America?

It's a different set of challenges. We have fantastic volunteers in Region 9. They are just an amazing group of human beings, independent of being engineers and computer scientists. They are a fantastic group of people who have a sense of community that we don't see in many other parts of the world.

Vardalas:

And now we have the new President-elect.

Lightner:

Yes, indeed.

Vardalas:

From that region.

Lightner:

Well, from Puerto Rico. It really is marvelous to have had that happen, to have Pedro (Ray) come in. And the really critical thing, and this was actually brought up by Jim Tien, who was running for President when I was running the second time, he said the IEEE really should think globally and act locally. And that’s very true. He was quite right, in that what is needed is different in Vietnam, in India, in China, and in different countries in South America.

And so we really have to ask how we can serve members in different parts of the world, and the answer to that question is, well, we're going to serve them differently in different parts of the world. And so looking at that as we go forward, I think, is one of the rich ways that IEEE is going to be able to grow and evolve.

Vardalas:

Well, on that note, Mike, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. And we'll get the transcript to you as soon as it's ready.

Lightner:

Great. I enjoyed it very much.

Vardalas:

Thank you.