ACM recognizes excellence through its eminent series of awards for outstanding technical and professional achievements and contributions in computer science and information technology.

Advice to Members Seeking ACM Distinction

Please note:  Effective with the August 1, 2016 cycle, the ACM Distinguished Member program will no longer have the sub-categories of Distinguished Educator, Distinguished Engineer, or Distinguished Scientist.

By Marc Snir and Telle Whitney, Co-chairs of the ACM Distinguished Members Committee

ACM’s Distinguished Member grade was initiated in 2006 to recognize those members with at least 15 years of professional experience who have made noteworthy contributions to the computing field.  As former co-chairs of the Distinguished Member committee we have seen many submissions fail, not because of the quality of the candidates, but because of the lack of adequate information in the submission. We hope that this column will help produce more effective nominations.

The expectation of ACM is that about 10% of its members should qualify as Distinguished Members. The committee cannot independently assess the quality of each submission; candidates come from many different countries and professional backgrounds of which the committee members may have a limited knowledge. Therefore, the committee puts much weight on the endorsements that support the submission; strong endorsements are essential for a successful submission.

The choice of endorsers is crucial.  The Committee tends to trust the judgment of endorsers who are recognized authorities in their field, such as ACM Fellows.  In fact, the guidelines recommend that two of the endorsers be ACM Fellows. The nomination package should also include endorsers who are intimately familiar with the work of the candidate and can provide first-hand testimony of its importance.  Endorsers in the first category can focus on qualitative assessment of the candidate’s merit;  endorsers in the second category should focus on providing factual information on the candidate’s professional activities and their impact. 

A nomination invites scrutiny if all endorsements come from the same institution.  As a rule we expect that candidates will have had an impact beyond the boundaries of their own organization.  Such candidates should be able to find endorsers outside their organization.

    A strong endorsement will provide a personal angle – facts known to the endorser that will enable the committee to better judge the material in the nomination package.    Such insights often help explain the significance of the nominee’s contributions. 

Only the Strong Survive

It is critical to note that content-free endorsements will not prevail. On occasion, the endorsements are reminiscent of the model recommendation letter Benjamin Franklin composed:

“Sir: The bearer of this, who is going to America, presses me to give him a letter of recommendation, though I know nothing of him, not even his name ... As to this gentleman, I must refer you to himself for his character and merits, with which he is certainly better acquainted than I can possibly be. I recommend him, however, to those civilities which every stranger, of whom one knows no harm, has a right to.”

Endorsements that carry little weight include:

  • Endorsements with no attached text
  • Perfunctory endorsements that say only something like “I know John Smith and he satisfies, in my opinion, the criteria for Distinguished Member”
  • Endorsements that merely repeat text from the nomination

As ACM is an international organization, the committee receives nominations from around the world. Unfortunately we do not have representatives from every country, and at times it is difficult to assess the impact of the contributions.  An endorsement from an ACM Fellow or Distinguished Member also helps to calibrate contributions across borders.

It is said that “success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan”. Nominations to advanced ACM membership grades reverse this adage:  A success reflects on the unique contributions of the nominee; failures can be due to a weak case, a weak nomination, weak endorsements, or faulty judgment by committee members. Nominators can improve their odds by following the advice noted here, and by carefully following the instructions on the ACM Web site.