What does the SIGPLAN EC do?

I’ve served as Chair of ACM SIGPLAN for the last two years. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to support the programming languages community, working with my fellow members on the SIGPLAN Executive Committee (EC). The current SIGPLAN EC is entering its third and final year of service. Elections for the next EC will be held in early 2018, and the newly elected members will begin serving in July of that year. Who will they be?

In this blog post I describe, in Q&A format, the activities and responsibilities of the SIGPLAN EC and its officers. My hope is that this post will inform possible volunteers about what they can expect to do if elected to the EC, and will help voters match candidates’ aptitudes to each position’s responsibilities. This post will also highlight some of the accomplishments of the current and past ECs, hopefully giving the community an idea of what we’ve been up to, on their behalf.SIGPLAN logo

What is the constitution of the SIGPLAN Executive Committee?

The SIGPLAN EC is comprised of ten elected members: a Chair, Vice Chair, and eight at-large members, two of whom assume the roles of Treasurer and Secretary, while the rest take on various other duties. These ten are elected every three years. In addition, the prior EC’s Chair and Vice Chair serve as “past” versions of their prior roles, on the current EC. Finally, an appointed Information Director manages the sigplan.org site, the mailing list, and other communications duties. (The constitution of the current EC is here.)

What do the EC at-large members do?

Ongoing responsibilities

The SIGPLAN EC has a number of regular responsibilities that must be attended to. For example, we have an extensive slate of awards and funds for professional support (e.g., for travel grants) and we need EC members to help decide who deserves them. To do this, particular EC members put together and run sub-committees to make recommendations in a timely fashion. For example, for the most influential paper (MIP) awards, Satnam Singh organizes committees to decide each award in time to hand it out at the next conference, usually within a few months. For the dissertation award, Susan Eisenbach selects the review committee, organizes the reading and discussion of the nominated theses, and ensures a decision within a few months. Crista Lopes and Gabriele Keller coordinate and make decisions about travel grant and other support requests. Emery Berger organizes a committee to recommend SIGPLAN papers to CACM as possible research highlights, and also organizes sub-committees to decide various named awards.

New initiatives

Members of the SIGPLAN EC also have the opportunity to propose, refine, and develop policies and initiatives. For example

  • Yannis Smaragdakis worked to develop a generic conference policies document, which isolates common elements of similar documents used by POPL, PLDI, and ICFP.
  • Yannis and Peter Thiemann also put together the PL calendar, to help organizers and attendees of PL events.
  • Crista Lopes and I work with Benjamin Pierce on a recently formed ad hoc committee to explore how SIGPLAN policies could respond to the threat of climate change. Air travel is a significant source of CO2 emissions, and SIGPLAN has an extensive slate of worldwide conferences that engender a fair bit of air travel. We have put together an initial report motivating the problem and exploring possible responses. We recently commissioned the development of a “CO2 calculator” for computing the estimated CO2 emissions due to travel to a particular conference, to help gather data that could assist in planning.
  • Emery Berger and I work with Steve Blackburn and Matthias Hauswirth on an ad hoc committee to write a document on best practices for empirical PL research. Given the unfortunately widespread commission of benchmarking crimes, our goal is to help authors and reviewers produce better science.
  • Susan Eisenbach is working to develop a new Distinguished Educator Award, to reward outstanding contributions to PL education, or CS education generally using novel PL-based methods.
  • Kathryn McKinley helped form a PLMW steering committee and developed best practices and evaluation criteria for the popular workshop aimed at encouraging prospective students of the merits of PL as a research area.
  • Jeremy Gibbons, Jan Vitek, and Crista Lopes (with others) worked to help get our top conference proceedings as part of a journal, PACMPL, and to convince ACM to allow this journal to be Gold Open Access, 1 applying a discounted rate. This effort required a fair bit of coordination amongst the various stakeholders, including extensive surveys.

I’m sure there are other things that I’ve forgotten, but the point is this: If you have an idea for a policy, event, service, publication, or other mechanism that might make a positive difference for the PL community, then you have the opportunity to explore and develop that idea as a member of the EC. We welcome your passion!

What does the Vice Chair do?

The Vice Chair is free to propose and participate in new and ongoing initiatives, the same as an at-large member. In addition, the Vice Chair has the particular duty to coordinate and supervise SIGPLAN-supported technical meetings. Doing so involves

  • Ensuring that meetings adhere to SIGPLAN rules, such as SIGPLAN’s diversity policy and ACM’s Open Conference principle. The Vice Chair is a member of the Steering Committees of the main SIGPLAN conferences, and so participates in decisionmaking that affects these policies, e.g., the conference’s location and the constitution of its program committee.
  • Receiving and approving proposals for workshops wishing SIGPLAN sponsorship or recognition, sometimes after chats with workshop chairs, and typically after soliciting feedback from the EC.
  • Managing (the very rare) cases of harassment and misconduct that violate the SIGPLAN code of conduct.

The Vice Chair also participates on various awards committees. Some insight into the Vice Chair’s duties can be gleaned from the 2013 report. As benefits, current Vice Chair Peter Thiemann tells me you get the opportunity to observe interesting examples of human interaction, and you can improve on your leadership skills, particularly when having to deal with difficult or uncomfortable situations.

What is the time commitment of being on the EC?

The SIGPLAN EC meets in person twice per year, with one-day meetings colocated with PLDI and POPL. We also meet virtually once or twice for a few hours, in between these meetings. Travel costs (flight, hotel, and food) are covered by ACM.

Beyond these meetings, the time commitment for an EC member depends on the work they take on. The various awards chairs have bursts of intermittent work, as do the EC members handling travel grant requests. Spearheading a new initiative is a sustained, but bursty effort, in most cases. Overall, being on the EC is roughly equivalent to being on a major conference committee, but the work is spread throughout the year in small chunks.

What does the Chair do?

I’ve left the Chair role for last because, firstly, I know most about it, and secondly, it requires greater involvement and time commitment compared to the other positions.

Per the SIGPLAN bylaws, The Chair is the principal officer of SIGPLAN and is responsible for leading SIGPLAN and managing its activities. There are several categories of activities.

Leading the EC

The Chair organizes the EC. At the start, this involves working out who will do what, in terms of handling ongoing responsibilities. The Chair also calls and presides at the EC meetings, organizing the agenda and distributing action items that result. These action items might involve forming new sub-committees, as we did for the climate action committee and the evaluation committee, or initiating requests to ACM, as we did for PACMPL. Throughout the year, the Chair works with EC members in carrying out their duties. For example, the Chair sits on the MIP award committees and the dissertation award committee in an advisory capacity. The Chair also participates in discussions via the EC discussion board.

A key aspect of this part of the job is figuring out how to channel the passion and skills of the volunteers serving on the EC. They have important insights and experiences and are motivated to serve their community. It is important that the Chair be able to work with them to help make their ideas a reality.

Interfacing with ACM

The Chair is the point of contact for the SIGPLAN EC with ACM leadership. Owing to this responsibility, the Chair attends two 1-day meetings per year (of the SIG Governing Board (SGB)) that involve all of the SIG Chairs and the ACM leadership. At these meetings we learn about the financial health of ACM and the status of its various initiatives and activities. We also share ideas developed within SIGs that might be suited for broader adoption.

For example, a few years back (when Jan Vitek was SIGPLAN Chair) SIGPLAN started paying for the use of hotcrp.com. Doing so meant that SIGPLAN conference chairs could use it “for free” to handle reviewing duties. This approach worked well enough that ACM started paying for it, for all SIGs. The PACMPL journal also started, in part, due to grumblings within SIGPLAN that high-quality conference papers deserved journal-level recognition. At the most recent meeting, I discussed our climate action committee’s study, which included the recommendation to build a “CO2 calculator” service (see above). ACM liked the idea and financed the construction of the service. As with PACMPL, sometimes such SIG-initiated events turn into broader, cross-SIG committees. I was recently on a committee that studied best practices for video livestreaming at conferences.

I find these meetings to be interesting and well-run. The other SIG Chairs are thoughtful, motivated, passionate people and I’ve enjoyed learning from them. The drive to grow and improve the whole computer science community is infectious!

Interfacing with the Community

To serve the PL community, the SIGPLAN EC must communicate with community members. The Chair communicates with PL people directly at “Town Hall” meetings organized at POPL and PLDI. Such meetings provide status reports for ongoing activities, request feedback on potential initiatives, and allow the attendees to ask questions and propose new ideas. For example, at the most recent PLDI Town Hall we asked whether people were interested in having PLDI join the PACMPL journal series. During the discussion, the idea of multiple submission deadlines for PLDI was raised. Both ideas were then actively discussed by the EC and the PLDI Steering Committee. The Town Halls are fun, and not much work since the Chair already attends the relevant conference to run the EC meetings, which in turn are an easy source of content.

As other communications duties, the Chair also sometimes presents awards at the appropriate conference, if the Awards Chair on the EC is not present. The Chair also must write an annual report on SIGPLAN’s activities that is shared with ACM and published on-line; this doesn’t take very much time since it follows a simple template. Other communication is electronic, and it occurs via the sigplan.org site and the SIGPLAN mailing list. These are managed by the Information Director (currently, Matthew Fluet, who does an amazing job!), under the direction of the Chair and the EC.

Advising Conference Organizers

Each SIGPLAN conference is organized by a General Chair and various other volunteers. They are assisted by Annabel Satin, staff members at ACM, and by other SIGPLAN contractors. As with any large event, problems will arise, and sometimes the Chair needs to step in to help resolve them. To keep abreast of how conference planning is going, I usually meet with Annabel for 30 minutes per week, and on rare occasions we need to meet at other times to handle issues that arise.

The Chair and Vice Chair are also members of the steering committees of the major SIGPLAN conferences. The Chair (and Vice Chair) thus can bring ideas from particular conferences to the whole of SIGPLAN, and bring the more global SIGPLAN perspective to individual events. For example, the PACMPL initiative started in some form with the SIGPLAN EC, then was taken up in earnest by SPLASH/OOPSLA, and then spread back to other conferences; POPL and ICFP are now part of PACMPL. In general, SC discussions are sporadic, but with several SCs they are a regular source of (not too time consuming) email.

Approving the Budget

The Chair (with the help of the treasurer) also approves the annual budget, and any expenditures that ACM initiates. SIGPLAN pays a number of contractors to make it easier for volunteers to organize and run our conferences. Annabel Satin does an amazing job assisting in the organization of our major conferences and the PLMWs associated with them. Eelco Visser develops and hosts the software that runs our conference web sites. Carole Mann and Mike Moshell — RSL — handle our registrations (and have for 25+ years!). The Chair helps negotiate their contracts and makes sure they are paid. The Chair is ultimately responsible for approving conference budgets, since SIGPLAN is on the hook if the conference loses money. SIGPLAN also performs some philanthropic giving, e.g., to OPLSS and CRA-W Grad Cohort, among other events; the Chair approves these donations.

The good news is that SIGPLAN is healthy, with a stable funds balance, and steady or growing submissions to and attendance at its main conferences. This gives the Chair a fair bit of freedom to invest in future improvements.

Challenges

Being Chair is rewarding, but also challenging. Staying on top of all of the ongoing activities can be difficult. Solving problems can require dealing with uncomfortable situations. Sometimes discussions about proposed changes or policies can get heated. It can be hard to know when to let something go, and when to press ahead. There are many things I could have done better.

Ultimately, being Chair is about working constructively with other members of the community. Doing so effectively takes patience and perseverance. The effort is rewarded by the palpable difference you can make within and through SIGPLAN. I’ve been fortunate to get to know and work with many amazing people while Chair, and together we’ve accomplished a fair amount, as detailed above. Personally, I’ve made many friends over the last two years, and I hope to make many more before I’m done!

What if I want to run?

SIGPLAN has a nominating committee, run by Jan Vitek. If you think you might be interested to run for the positions of Chair, Vice Chair, or at-large member on the SIGPLAN EC, please email Jan at j.vitek@northeastern.edu. If you have questions about the positions, you can also email me — my contact information is at http://www.cs.umd.edu/~mwh/. I’ll be serving as “Past Chair” in the next EC, so I look forward to working with you!

Notes:

  1. A Gold Open Access journal makes its articles free to anyone, and permits liberal redistribution rights.

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