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Getting the Most From Professional Organizations

Joining can be the key to IT career success

By Molly Joss

As an IT professional, over the years I have been curious about the benefits and services that IT trade associations or professional organizations could offer me. But I, like quite a few people in the IT profession, am not exactly an extrovert. I don't feel very comfortable in large groups of people, so even though I know membership in such organizations can be beneficial, I haven't been in a rush to join, mainly because I haven't wanted to attend the membership meetings.

Feeling at home in association meetings can be tough for seasoned professionals, but it can be even harder for recent graduates. When you're a college student in a tech-related major, your working wardrobe typically consists of a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, and your biggest professional goal is finishing your latest assignment. So fitting in with IT professionals can seem daunting at first. That's why I was pleased to find that many of the largest IT professional organizations offer benefits designed to attract students and recent graduates into their ranks and to help make them feel at home within the group.

Knowing the Facts

Before you join any trade association or professional organization, however, it's important to understand their function. Trade associations are comprised of companies and members interested in advancing common interests. Typically their main interest is in lobbying the government to get them to pay attention to their core issues.

Professional organizations are groups of working professionals who do similar work and have common interests. Both types of groups offer useful membership benefits; I will refer to both in this column.

Here is a word of warning about trade associations and professional organizations: Anyone can set up a group and start asking for membership dollars. The group doesn't even have to be non-profit or offer useful benefits. Therefore, make sure you stick with well-known, large organizations. And check out the benefits thoroughly before you join up or start making payments.

Membership Benefits

Many organizations offer discount rates for students members, but that's not necessarily enough to make membership worthwhile. You should research an organization to determine whether or not it's the right fit for your needs.

There are specific benefits that various organizations offer that will make membership worth your investment. Many of these benefits are offered by the organizations I listed at the end of this article. Check the membership information available on the organizations' Web sites, and search for the benefits you find particularly interesting. Do your own cost/benefits analysis before you join up. And remember that you can always join more than one group.

Be on the lookout, too, for benefits that you can get without becoming a member. For example, Women in Technology International ( sponsors job fairs that are open to the public. Other membership-free benefits you can receive from some organizations include email newsletters and applications for internships and scholarships.

It's important to be able to sign up for regular contact from the organization through email. Contact can include newsletters, notice of upcoming events in your area, and special offers to members. If you have to remember to go to the Web site and search for information like this, chances are you won't remember to do so on a regular basis.

It's an added bonus if the organization provides information geared specifically for its student members, such as newsletters specifically for students or reminders of scholarship application deadlines.

A listing of job opportunities is a bare minimum benefit. Something better to look for is a database of job openings that the organization actively promotes to companies in the industry. Some organizations will even make an effort to include jobs that are for first-time job seekers and offer to help job-seekers improve their resumes and job hunting techniques. For example, the Association for Computing Machinery ( has many career resources for students and new graduates.

Organizations that have chapters nearby is also an important advantage, otherwise getting to meetings can be difficult. ACM has more than 600 student chapters, so there are plenty of opportunities to find one nearby. (Check their Web site for a full list.)

Another organization with ample chapters is the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers ( It is a huge IT professional association with hundreds of thousands of members around the world and hundreds of student chapters (called branches) in the U.S.

Mentorship opportunities is another great benefit to look out for, but it becomes an even better one when the organization puts a strong emphasis on making the mentoring relationships successful. WITI puts a lot of effort into making its mentoring and networking programs work, and encourages positive interaction between its members.

Membership discounts for things like health insurance and office supplies are standard offerings from most organizations. They leave most working professionals unimpressed, however, because the savings are usually pretty mediocre-not even as much as you'd get if you shopped around and bought items when they were on sale. I imagine this benefit makes most college students yawn, too. A superior benefit, however, is discount student rates on conferences and special events-the deeper the discount the better!

Organizations may also offer discounts for certification exams, software and hardware. College students can get discount prices for many items through their college or university bookstore, but it's always nice to have choices. Related benefits that may be offered include free or inexpensive online classes for certification exams or offers for free practice exams.

Give Membership a Try

When carefully considered, student membership can bring many useful benefits to your new career, and can help you prepare for a successful transition from college to the work world.

Stick with larger, established organizations that offer the benefits you will find most useful. And when in doubt about committing to a full membership, sign up for the free email newsletter. Attend a few chapter meetings first, and then pick one and take a chance.

Molly Joss is an IT veteran who writes about career and job issues, among other topics of note.

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