What I’ve Learned Moving from the Association Industry to the Tech Industry

By: Lisa N. Powers, CAE, CTA

I really thought I understood technology. When I worked for an association, I had written basic HTML code for their website. I had regularly pulled reports out of multiple association management systems. I was even the staff member that was asked to figure out a new system and it’s uses in order to train other staff members.

Then, a little more than a year ago, I shifted my career over to a technology company that develops websites and custom applications for associations. I learned quickly how different these two worlds are and the challenges each face when it comes to technology, communication and expectations.

I came to realize that tech isn’t quite as easy as I thought it might be. This was shown to me shortly after I joined i2Integration when I had a meeting with one of our developers and a client looking to connect disparate systems. At one point in the meeting, I drew a line in the air, and said “once we connect this system to this system, you’ll no longer need to do dual entry.” The developer chuckled at me and said, “I just want you to know that the line you just drew in the air will take dozens of hours depending on the amount of connection points. It’s doable, it’s just not simple.” I had reduced his job down to a line in the air. Not cool!

Now that I’ve seen the expectations from both sides of the proverbial fence, and also being sympathetic to both industries, I’ve learned a few things that I think can help us learn how to grow from here (and ultimately, be more successful on both sides).

First, I’ve learned that just because something looks simple, doesn’t mean it is and that the complexity mostly comes from what the tech guys call the Back-End work which is tied to the database and business logic of whatever project they are building, versus the Front-End work which is the stuff you and I see.

For example, i2Integration was asked to provide a quote on developing an association website. To me, it looked like a pretty simple website refresh. Their current website was outdated, developed in an old coding language and was not highlighting the content important to their association on the home page. Seemed standard to me. Once the back-end was reviewed however, a certain custom search feature was found that would significantly increase the time involved in this quote if it needed to be built in their new site. I was bombarded by the developers with detail questions like, “Where is the data coming from?” “How are the systems connected?” “This is a custom search field – is it pulling from the CMS or the AMS or a combination of both?” “Which system wins when initiating a search?” Yikes. You mean you can’t just click a button and make the systems talk to each other?! (Solid, nope!) Also, what the heck is a CMS?

Which leads me to another thing I’ve learned: that tech people talk in code. AMS, CMS, LMS, oh my! I often have had to stop meetings to say, “wait, what is an API, again?” The developers didn’t realize that not everyone inherently knows that an API is a data bridge between systems, or that a CMS (content management system) is better known as a website. But, this is inherent in associations as well, who also have their own lingo. Some, for example, say they have an AMS (Association Management System), which could also be called an MMS (Member Management System), or some call it simply their member database. In short, I’ve learned to be both a translator between the two worlds, and have helped my tech company to better communicate and articulate expectations in terms that their association clients can understand. Keep it simple and try to reduce the number of crazy acronyms!

As a sales person from the association world, here’s one thing I’ve learned that’s refreshing: tech people (developers especially) have no agenda. They are almost universally straight-forward, speaking honestly and openly of their thoughts and findings. There’s no “upsell” happening there. I have sat in multiple meetings where our CEO has told potential clients how to complete their goals in alternate ways that in some cases talks him right out of a job. I’ve seen this similar behavior in many of the tech organizations I’ve had the pleasure to come across and work with lately.

Technology now permeates almost every facet of business and requires a collaborative spirit between teams. The decisions that are being made in relation to technology are more far reaching than they’ve ever been before – and that trend will only continue to increase. It used to be that business professionals would lob a question over to the tech team, and the tech team would lob a solution back. Tech staff and consultants can no longer “work in a closet by themselves” and try to provide a workable solution. Since we’ve seen how wrong assumptions can be made and expectations can be completely different from both sides, we need to come together on these projects, communicate effectively, roll up our sleeves, and do the work to provide the best solution for the member and the association that will work now and into the future. It’s definitely a learning curve, and I’m still learning, but I’m loving what I’m experiencing!

Lisa Powers, CAE serves as the Director of Business Development for i2Integration, a Mid-Michigan small business, that has been working with Associations for over 25 years providing technology solutions. From Design Thinking consulting services to building, supporting, training and integrating pre-built or custom systems, i2 knows your technology needs are as nuanced as your business.