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Interview: An Interview with Diane Darrow

Steven Pemberton

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Immediately after CHI 97 Diane Darrow, the ACM staff member for SIGCHI since 1990 announced her resignation to move to an exciting new job. She took time to answer a few questions from us to tell us what she did while at SIGCHI, and what she is doing now.


Diane Darrow with Austin Henderson and Jim Miller

When did you first start working with SIGCHI?

I officially began work for ACM and SIGCHI on April 18, 1990. When offered the position I gave six weeks notice to my former employer (the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America) ... which gave me lots of time to rest up for a busy 7 years (smile!) I left ACM and SIGCHI on April 15, 1997.

What was your first SIGCHI event, and what were your reactions?

The first SIGCHI event I attended was CHI '90. I wasn't yet "officially" employed ... but Pegotty Cooper (my soon to be boss) thought that it would be important to see and understand the major event that SIGCHI sponsored. Gene Lynch and Jon Meads were the Co-Chairs for that meeting and they proved to be gracious hosts for my first event. I sort of had some suspicions about the group when the questions from Gene and Jon primarily "Did they (meaning the people at ACM headquarters) tell you everything about us?" (another smile).

I thought the group was interesting and very friendly. Everyone was very involved with the running of the conference ... at that time the conference staff were all (with one exception) volunteers ... but people were very friendly and helpful. I had the pleasure of Paul Henning's company for this conference, because he too was attending the conference for the first time, in anticipation of the support he was to provide to the '91 conference in New Orleans. So ... I had a buddy for the conference. Paul and I still share some smiles over some of the things that happened at that conference. As an example, Paul and I were sitting in a small meeting room and a group of people rolled a grand piano into the room. They proceeded to take the piano apart and install a computer into the piano. Our eyes were wide with amazement and we both said together "I bet the hotel doesn't know they are doing that." Little did we know ... I later confirmed with Gene Lynch that even he didn't know they were doing that. An interesting experience.

What was the state of SIGCHI at that stage?

SIGCHI was a wonderful organization that benefited from the participation of hundreds of volunteers (still is, still does). The organization was very exciting because the volunteers, particularly those involved with the conference, didn't know that some things "couldn't be done" so they did them anyway. The "creativity" of the volunteers and the volunteer leadership was obvious right from the start.

I believe the organization was going through a significant leadership change at that time. And while people were comfortable with the individuals who were involved in the leadership there was a different style of management in place. This is fairly regular "lifecycle" stuff for an organization, but I have yet to see this be easy on any organization. Comfort lies with the people who know "information" ... and people who used to know information ... who no longer know that information ... sometimes become very uncomfortable ... Then you add to the mix a staff person who knows "nothing." Interesting stuff!

What were your responsibilities at ACM?

I started out with the responsibility to work as the liaison between ACM Headquarters (the 93 staff members and the ACM leadership structure) and 7 special interest groups, including SIGCHI (Computer & Human Interaction, at that time); SIGUCCS (University and College Computing Services); SIGAda (Ada, the programming language); SIGCAS (Computers and Society); SIGCSE (Computer Science Education); SIGCAPH (Computers and the Physically Handicapped) and SIGCUE (Computer Uses in Education). As time marched on, and the SIGs reorganized, and it was beginning to become apparent that the SIGCHI involvement was significant, SIGAda, SIGCSE, SIGCUE, and SIGCAS were assigned to another Program Director. I picked up SIGLINK (Hypermedia), and SIGOIS (now SIGGROUP).

Simply put, my responsibility was to bring the best of ACM to the SIGs and the best of the SIGs to ACM. In order to accomplish that objective it was critical to jump right in and learn everything I could about the operations of both ACM and my assigned SIGs. My involvement with each SIG was different but if you have to measure involvement I would say that I was most involved in the SIGCHI and SIGUCCS organizations. These organizations were established and they had an active volunteer infrastructure, which made it easy to interact with. They held regular governance meetings, and they welcomed the participation of a staff person with open arms.

What are you most proud of from your years with SIGCHI?

I am most proud of the significant partnership that was built between the Program Director and volunteer leadership during my time as the Program Director for SIGCHI. While it wasn't always pleasant (particularly in the beginning as we were getting to know each other), the relationship was productive because it was based in respect. Many of the people I worked with became, and still remain, good friends.

What were the highlights for you?

There were so many highlights!

One highlight was the extensive work that was done in partnership with the volunteer leadership, the contractors, and some other ACM staff to better support the conference activities. The Conference Management Committee (CMC) meetings were always amazing because of the amount of work that got done in such a short period of time. The intensity of the emotions at those meetings (because everyone cared so much) were more than one would expect when they went off to attend a committee meeting. The involvement of additional ACM staff to support the conference, particularly bringing in John DeLorenzo and Darren Ramdin from ACM Accounting Services to provide support to the $2 million worth of financial activity was also very special. It was a way to share the intense involvement with and respect for the SIGCHI leadership with other ACM staff people.

All of my work with conference committees was a highlight. Each group brought with them a character all their own -- a new set of challenges to support -- and a new excitement presenting the opportunity to help to make dreams become realities ... without imposing too much bureaucracy upon the process. I was proud of the fact that some people called me the "bureaucracy buster," but I was also proud of the fact that I was able to clear the way for new programs without putting the organization at risk.

Of course, it goes without saying that it was a highlight to work with the SIGCHI Extended Executive Committee -- to work closely with the group of folks that unselfishly give of their time to manage their professional organization. It is through this partnership that the whole idea of a becoming an ACM "society" was born. It was clear throughout the years that SIGCHI wanted to be, should be, and is an important part of the ACM organization, but it was also crystal clear that people who did work in HCI, didn't easily find SIGCHI as a 2nd level down organization in a larger organization. The partnership and trust that occurred in those preliminary discussions were a tribute to a solid relationship. I am sorry that that dream couldn't become a reality while I was still employed by ACM.

The most wonderful highlight was when SIGCHI presented me with a Distinguished Service Award, at the CHI96 Conference. It was a very special recognition because it made me feel like I had made a significant contribution to the organization, and people that I respected recognized this.

What would you have done differently?

Wow, that's a hard question. I am not sure I would have pushed so hard to develop SIGCHI as an organization before I had confirmation of the resources that would help to support the ongoing growth and activity of the organization.

What didn't you achieve that you most would have liked to have done?

I began an effort around the time of CHI'95 in Denver to create the ACM SIGCHI Computer User Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. With everything else that was going on I sort of had to drop that project. I was very passionate about this because I believed that, as a user, I had rights that weren't being honored ... and I believe that if usability is to get the attention it should in an organization, it will be driven by the market ... by the user ... and the user needs education. This was a means to that end. Maybe another day ... or, maybe someone reading this will want to pick up where I left off -- if so, please give me a holler -- (my email is listed below).

I would have liked to have served as SIGCHI's first Executive Director ... once it became a Society. I say that because achieving the status of Society was something that many volunteers and volunteer leaders felt would be good for the organization.

What are you doing now?

I am the Executive Director for the Smart Card Forum and an Account Executive for the Association Management Group (AMG).

For the Smart Card Forum I am responsible for all operational aspects of a young, but vibrant trade association with over 200 corporate and organizational members. The organization's objective is to accelerate the widespread acceptance of multiple application smart card technology by bringing together, in an open forum, leading users and technologists from both the public and private sectors. It is rare in my profession (association management) that you get to move within the same industry ... I started out in motor vehicle parts, went to lighting, then on to ACM. Working with the Smart Card Forum is a good extension to the involvement and work I did at ACM.

For Association Management Group (an association multi-management group) I am responsible for keeping the Smart Card Forum (a client) happy! AMG provides management services to associations, in theory ... similar to the way ACM provides support to SIGs. AMG manages some very interesting groups. The Smart Card Forum offices fall between the Composite Fabricators Association and the certification organization for massage therapists. The water cooler talk is fascinating!

Finally, is there anything you want to communicate to the people you worked with at SIGCHI?

Oh, there is so much ... but mostly thank you, thank you, thank you! As many of you know my work with SIGCHI was truly a labor of love. I believed in the organization, I embraced your mission (as a computer user); and I enjoyed, and hope to continue to enjoy your friendship. Please feel free to stay in touch ... my office telephone number is +1 703-610-0219, my home telephone is +1 703-760-9269, and my email is dld@smartcrd.com (no there is no typo that address, believe me!)

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