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Revitalizing a Chapter

Sunday, April 12, 2009   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Lynda Padrta
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REVITALIZING A CHAPTER
Back in 2002, there were 40 professional members in this chapter, but in 2006 membership was 21 and has continued to drop. Members have retired, moved away, changed careers, lost interest, lost their jobs, lack time or money to participate - you name it.

A leadership team stepped up in 2007 to kick-start the chapter again, hosting several excellent chapter meetings with dinner and professional presentations (I call these "dinner and a show"), but their professional lives called those leaders to move on by the end of 2007. The chapter president called one last meeting when he was ready to move out of state, to find someone willing to take over the chapter. Nobody volunteered to take responsibility for the chapter, including me, but I volunteered to work on converting the chapter archive documents to an electronic format.

I was sick at heart because my AITP chapter wasn't functional when I needed it. I think we all remember when business in the IT industry began slowing in 2007 and working IT professionals were being asked to do a lot more with a lot less, sacrificing personal time in the process. Members weren't able to find the time to attend after-hours events, much less organize them. I almost didn't renew my membership because nothing was happening in Jacksonville.

Then when the national AITP organization began shutting down inactive chapters in 2008, and they began turning off the chapter's presence on the association's portal, I was horrified. So I volunteered to try to get things going again. Did I know what I was doing? Absolutely not. Did I know what I was in for? No way. Did I have any bright ideas on how to make it happen? Nope. I just knew I couldn't let the chapter drift away because I did nothing.

So I worked with Nadine Evans, Southern District Association Director, to get the chapter back up on the national website again. By spending time with Nadine, I learned a lot about the organization that I never knew before, and I felt like I could at least be a "placeholder" until somebody else would magically appear and take up the reigns of chapter leadership. I remember when I told Nadine how "they say" sometimes the best leader is one who is a reluctant leader. I was pretty reluctant.

While working through the chapter's restart issues, I was pulled in two directions: (1) Observe every last requirement of administering and running a chapter, including a lot of "must do's" like holding formal monthly chapter meetings, providing members with educational opportunities, and coordinating events for student chapters, that were really beyond my capacity, or (2) give up in defeat, because going fishing would be a lot more fun. Honestly, when you're struggling just to keep an organization alive, it doesn't help when someone tells you that maybe the chapter should expire if you can't submit reports on time. Thank goodness that Randall "Smitty" Smith was willing to continue functioning as Treasurer and Secretary, as well as my font of institutional knowledge of the chapter's history. I knew I couldn't make the chapter whole again, with the "dinner and a show" format, so I decided I would do what I could do and not worry about too much else.

Smitty and I attended the Region 7 meeting hosted by the Polk County, Florida, chapter in October 2008. It was wonderful to meet Nadine Evans who had helped me so much! And I met Kathy Drew from Polk County, who was absolutely wonderful. Talk about getting things organized and prepared, and grace under pressure? That's Kathy! I was so impressed with her and Nadine that I decided I wanted to do more with the organization.

I decided to get my chapter moving. After talking with Nadine and Kathy, I decided to start very, very small. In February, I picked a relatively centrally located place in Jacksonville, Dave & Buster's, and I began sending out invitations to chapter members and IT professionals I know or have met. The chapter provided snacks and soft drinks, and the setting was just right for a relaxed round of getting to know each other. The best part was Kathy Drew came up from Lakeland to join the social, and she really helped make it a very fun networking evening. Six people sent in an RSVP, but a good time was had by all eight attendees.

Encouraged with a first small success, I picked a place on the west side of town, Gator's, and we held another social in February. We received 12 RSVP's and 12 attended. Gator's was a little dark and a little on the "casual" side, but the IT professionals who attended had a good time again. A couple of people extra showed up because they heard about the meeting from someone, and they are looking for work. In better economic times, their resumes would be golden, but we have a lot of IT professionals looking for work. So I began trying to make connections to find job opportunities for them, while also looking for work for myself.

Another social was held on the east side of town on March 31 at Ragtime, a nice place where professionals can be found on just about any evening. A tentative sponsor for the event couldn't participate for this event, so once again the chapter sponsored the social. When I talked about the meeting with Nadine, she offered to come down from Charleston, SC, to join our meeting. Nadine also suggested that I obtain some goodies to raffle off to help cover expenses and generate excitement, and got me hooked up with a contact at Microsoft. Boy was she right! Microsoft sent us a variety of stuff, including Windows 7 and Windows 7 64-bit, and we sold raffle tickets to help offset the cost of the social. We had 18 RSVPs, but only 12 participated, probably due to the quasi-tropical downpour, but we had absolutely the BEST TIME! Again, we noted the theme of people looking for work, so we have really identified a current need for our chapter. We also noted that networking at other chapter meetings produced some really interesting results, so we decided to do some joint chapter meetings.

I attended the National College Conference in Oklahoma City. The intelligence and youthful enthusiasm of the students was absolutely impressive! While at the conference, I attended a couple of workshops, including one for preparing to take the ICCP exam. I sat for the CDP exam ages ago, and that was a rigorous test of technical knowledge. I haven't figured out how the ICCP exam would make a difference in my career, so I haven't felt motivated to take it. However, the conference provided me with the opportunity to meet more interesting AITP members, including some who were members since long before I was a DPMA member in the 1980's.

While at the NCC conference, I thought about my career. It takes something special to have a truly successful IT career, unlike any career in business or sales or accounting or child care or the trades. A hands-on IT professional understands the demands to keep systems operational 24/7. These days it means being available and ready to perform professionally 24 hours a day, perhaps without additional compensation or recognition. It means making professional contacts to help you do more with less. Being really good at what you do may not be enough to keep your job these days. You have to watch to see where the huge universe of IT is moving, so you don't get left behind. You must keep re-inventing yourself. In today's economy it means being at risk of losing a good job, whether because the business fails or you are outsourced or your skills become obsolete. If you find a new job, you may very well end up with lower pay for the same job or a lesser job. Or you may end up with no job, few prospects and little financial reserves to keep you going. You must constantly struggle to keep your skill levels current on your own dime and your own time. Today it's really a challenge to be a successful IT developer, tester, supporter, networker, analyst, call desk, webmaster, etc.

With help from Nadine and Kathy, our chapter has progressed from "almost dead" to "something is happening." Our chapter doesn't have money to burn, so we have to be careful with spending and we need to line up sponsors, and we need leaders to help shoulder the effort. I wish there were AITP programs to help struggling chapters get going again, rather than letting them go. I think AITP is in a perfect place for the next few years to grow and do the "extraordinary service for IT professionals" thing. It's very difficult or impossible for people to be successful without resources, members, time or money.

For the record, as I've gained confidence, I think I'm beginning to learn more about this "leadership" thing and will be assisting Kathy and Nadine as they continue the working with chapters in Region 7.

Lynda Padrta
AITP Jacksonville Chapter President
Past Member of DPMA



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