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David Alan Grier, Global Technology and Policy Authority, Author

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with David Alan Grier.

David Alan GrierDavid Alan Grier is the past 2013 President of the IEEE Computer Society and IEEE Fellow. He has served the society as Vice President of Publications, Director of Magazines, and Editor in Chief of the IEEE Annals. He has a PhD in Mathematical Statistics from the University of Washington in Seattle, and is an Associate Professor of Science and Technology Policy at George Washington University.

He writes on the subject of technology and its social implications. His books include: "When Computers Were Human" (Princeton 2005), "Too Soon To Tell: Essays for the End of The Computer Revolution" (Wiley 2009), "The Company We Keep" (IEEE Computer Society, 2013), "The Computing Machines of Charles Babbage" (editor, IEEE CS, 2010). He is currently at work on a book on crowdsourcing.

He has served as Associate Dean or Program Director in schools of international affairs, engineering and liberal arts. He has also worked in industry, serving as a software designer for Burroughs Computer Corporation in the 1980s. David has created a new video channel on technology, technical workers, management and similar issues with short videos (mostly) released once a week. The URL is

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link

The latest blog on the interview can be found in the IT Managers Connection (IMC) forum where you can provide your comments in an interactive dialogue.


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:19: Now that you have completed your term, what were the top challenges in your 2013 IEEE CS and President role?
"....Getting people to get their knowledge and understanding of technology to the right place and the right job....You don't really appreciate the roles that international boards and countries have in all of this until you are actually out there on the road and seeing what's happening...."

:01:00: What are the top challenges for the IEEE CS going forward?
"....We're really trying to help those top-level, top-skilled people do their work, develop the new projects and get the teams they need. I spent a lot of last year working with software engineering standards and with professional standards to help groups train the next generation of professionals...."

:01:59: Looking back what would you say were your top successes?
"....Top successes for me personally were being able to represent the Computer Society and being able to introduce it into new places...."

:02:32: You are a long time participant and contributor to the IEEE CS and yet there is nothing like being the President, so what surprised you?
"....A lot surprised me. I would say the most engaging was working in China and trying to build contacts and partnerships there, helping strengthen the Chinese technical workforce and realizing that institutions that look just like American universities or American research labs had their own spin and that we had to work to understand what their needs are and that they are often quite different than ours...."

:04:40: Are there any takeaways that could help what you are doing in the US?
"....I think one of the fundamental lessons I learned quickly is don't assume you understand the organization you're walking in to see. It may look like something familiar, but you need to listen very carefully to understand first what their needs are...."

:06:09: What will you do next?
"....I've seen that there is a real need in our community to move between laboratory, academic research, business startups and established business and in particular, help organizations work with technical talent. I think business organizations in particular can be a little bit na´ve about how they get their technical talent prepared and working for them, and I think technical talent can be quite na´ve about how organizations work and they can sometimes be frustrated that they're not being well utilized....What I'm looking at right now (whether it's working with a different organization, working in the IEEE or working on my own), I'm exploring different options about helping people understand how to work with a technical workforce...."

:07:39: You have created a new video series. What prompted this and what are your smart (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) goals? Can you describe lessons in some of your videos?
"....My goal is to get a series that resonates with a certain class of people in business and in research laboratories. The measurable part of that obviously is getting a number of hits and getting feedback that says that I'm reaching an audience....I'm interested in reaching managers who are working with technology and who are either organizing teams or working with teams...."

:09:40: Do you have a social media campaign as well?
"....I have been starting that and have been working with Twitter and LinkedIn because market research that I have at hand says that the kind of people that I'm trying to reach use those two tools the most. I've done interviews now with a couple people who may help me on brand management and they have pushed me toward Reddit and Flashdot and the others...."

:10:08: What kind of tools are you using to do the videos? Something like Skype?
"....I'm using Skype at times when I'm getting people into the video. I'm using the standard video production tools. One of my goals is to not do a big investment in production costs and learn to tell the story right. You want to have a certain quality of production and you can achieve that more by insight than by huge investment...."

:13:09: What are your next books and what value will they provide to the audience?
"....I spent 6 weeks in India, 6 weeks in China, about 5 weeks in Europe, lots of trips to California, Silicon Valley, New York, New Jersey — there's a picture there which is quite interesting about how this community works and how it talks to itself and the role organizations like the Computer Society have in that and I think there's a story there....Something I've been pondering for some time which has become clearer to me, particularly as I've seen the way that leaders of technical organizations work, has been the connection between software and software systems and the way we organize work. I think the discussion between the software systems and the organizational ideas makes for a fascinating discussion. It is also a very interesting marker in where we are as a global civilization right now...."

:15:19: What do you think are the top upcoming disruptive innovations?
"....I think the biggest thing is the increasing use of a combination of machine intelligence and market incentives in large systems. I think they are being used in consumer marketing more and more, but we are also starting to see them in organizational management, in the control of large systems like power grids and freeways and in other ways that are engaging people in large scale behavior....That discussion between those two kinds of data and the kinds of systems that are being built up around them I think are going to be some of the next wave of major disruptive and innovative systems...."

:17:08: What are the top ICT growth regions internationally?
"....I think many of them are places that we know and understand. The two things that have been fascinating me have been India and China....I also think there's opportunity in Africa and I think we are starting to see the point where they are getting enough of the infrastructure and the trained people and enough people recognizing that there is skill and talent there. We'll see how well this develops and advances...."

:19:56: Are there any areas of controversy in the areas that you work?
"....The big area of controversy is one we really don't see and talk about very much (something that has been with computing and with factory production forever), and that is what is it doing to the workforce? There are people and groups of people who benefit tremendously from the technological changes. There are also groups of people who could very easily get pushed to the side and we need to pay attention to them and think about how we engage the talent of these workers and these citizens, and help use that to strengthen their communities as well as the world at large....It's something that we need to be aware of and think how broadly we can design what we are doing, how broadly we can make institutions that help the world at large...."

:25:35: What are your views on the rapid growth in free content?
"....It's going to be the big challenge that we will be wrestling with for the next decade or so. There is increasing free content and there's different kinds of content and we need to start understanding some of the things that puts a value that says this is good, this is not good, this is useful or not and how we provide enough economic incentives to make sure that these things are out there...."

:32:02: There is rapid growth in crowdfunding, what are your views on this?
"....From having seen the startup world I think there is a great deal of value in it and should be able to help people move beyond that first step of funding your startup business off your credit card and moving it into a going concern. Small scale crowdfunding startup equity funds could make a tremendous difference getting small businesses going. We had enough history with Kickstarter and other non-equity forms of funding to know that there are problems and that nothing we can do can get rid of them ahead of time and remove the need for those engaging in these transactions to be aware, do due diligence and pay attention to what's going on. I do think that overall there's value in it and in particular it allows communities to support things that serve them and without having to go to a bank or to a large scale source of capital. This new kind of funding allows local communities to respond more strongly to local needs....."

:35:54:  Do you think it's going to completely change how companies are financed or do you think it's going to be some kind of a merge between traditional (banks, VC, angel) and crowdfunding, or perhaps the two working side-by-side or one replacing the other?
"....I think they are going to end up working together very closely because I think they fill different needs....One of the challenges in starting a business is not just the technical idea. There are a whole set of skills that you have to hit with minimal competency and one of the roles that angel investors do in the initial rounds of friends and family and things like that is often it brings people into your business that have some of that expertise....At the same time I've seen other organizations that have gotten themselves so far on crowdfunding and done very well say they really have to bring in someone who has operations experience to take them to the next stage. That's often an indication that they want, need and would benefit from not only the expertise, but the investment that would come from someone who would directly or indirectly provide that, so they are going to work together to do different things...."

:40:58: What about digital currencies, what are your views?
"....I think this is part of the general trend of the last 15 years of breaking down and weakening some of the positions of traditional institutions, both companies and government institutions....It seems to me that as long as it is a speculative currency there's not a lot of damage that's going to come from it. Once it moves into the greater sense of being a transactional currency it will be interesting to see where it goes. The major currency players have a lot at stake in this and I see it's going to be a long hard discussion and that the results are not going to be decided soon. I suspect there will be a role for non country-based digital currency (least of which for moving things among various country currencies and across borders), but I'm not sure that bitcoin is necessarily it yet...."

:43:56: What improvements in policy should happen in the next two years and what would you like to see internationally (in technology first in the US and then internationally)?
"....Certainly the US is in the final stage of making sure that technical IP coming from government research is freely available....Some issues relating to the movement of the IT professionals around the globe....Most of the standards out there for software engineering don't quite have all of them out there on cybersecurity and I think that actually is going to be the big global issue. How do we deploy standards in those two areas to protect the global IT infrastructure and what responsibilities do the individual countries have for doing it?...."

:46:40: From your extensive speaking, travels, and work, please share some stories (amusing, surprising, unexpected, amazing).
"....I have opportunities to see students, listen to their aspirations about what they are trying to do and the challenges they face in moving from a classroom environment to an employment environment and particularly to a business environment. India was a place where I talked to a lot of students....They've got to engage a world that now stretches to Silicon Valley, that includes the European major software centers, that goes over China, and they've got to get themselves to think in a way that communicates with the rest of the world. How they get their organizations started, how they get support from their local government and how they play it globally is sort of a fascinating thing...."

:49:58: If you were conducting this interview, what 3 questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
"....'If you knew it was going to be this kind of year would you have signed up at the start?'....'What's the issue that we have to address in the next couple of years?'....'If you could change things about the technology world what would they be?'...."

:55:22: David, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your deep experiences with our audience.