Ken Myer, Outgoing Head of WTIA, on the Challenges of Trade Associations and Nonprofits—and His Future

First Rob Glaser, then Ken Myer. Who’s next? (These things always seem to come in threes.)

As a journalist, it can be hard to take off a holiday like MLK Day—you never know what juicy news you’re going to miss. Myer announced yesterday that he’s stepping down from his post as CEO and president of the Washington Technology Industry Association as of early April 2010. During his three years of service, he has presided over the WTIA’s evolution into something that encompasses more than just software companies—it now includes sectors like hardware, electronics, and cleantech, across a diverse membership of about 1,000 (representing some 125,000 employees). He also seems to have injected some fresh ideas and talent into the nonprofit trade organization, whose staff numbers a modest 11.

I caught up with Myer, 52, by phone this morning. The former IBM executive and co-founder of Interval Systems seemed his usual self—in good spirits and focused on the present. We touched on a few issues, including the challenges he has faced as the head of one of the largest statewide tech associations, and his plans to dive back into the commercial sector.

On the history of his involvement with WTIA: Myer says he was a volunteer with the organization, formerly known as the WSA (Washington Software Alliance), from 1997-2002. (He even met his wife through it.) He also served as a volunteer board member. When former CEO Kathy Wilcox said she was retiring in 2006, Myer thought that was “interesting,” but he figured he wouldn’t go after such a position until he was much older. He changed his mind and submitted his application on the last day resumes were due.

On running WTIA like a startup: “I thought I’d take a business approach to a trade organization,” Myer says. “And I wanted to give back [to the community]. It’s been really fun. It’s a young staff, and very different from those in the past. People have a lot of responsibility at a fairly young age. I’m running it in some ways like a startup. We took a step back, and said, ‘What are we about?’” Myer says he wanted the WTIA to have more of an impact on the younger generation. To that end, he also recruited startup leaders like Keith Smith, now CEO of BigDoor Media, to the board.

On the main challenge of trade associations: “Trade associations and chambers of commerce have definitely felt it: the Internet. What an association is, it’s a group of people getting together and talking to peers. If [people] can do that online, you have to be really focused to deliver value,” Myer says. “Every new job, you have to adapt. What are the issues in this business, and what are the rules of the game? You are clearly appealing differently to people when you’re selling a membership in a trade association than when you’re selling a particular product or service. You’re appealing to their community instincts. You appeal to their return-on-investment needs, and their feelings of belonging to the community they’re part of.” At the same time, he says, “there are opportunities to partner [with other organizations] in this world that you don’t have in the commercial world. You’re mission driven, not profit driven.”

On his timing and the future: “It’s principally time to make a change,” Myer says. “I really like big challenges, big problems to solve, big opportunities to go after. This job is not over. There’s always more that can be done. We’re just at the beginning.”

I pressed him a little on whether he’d return to an executive role at an established tech company. “I don’t know yet,” he said. “There was something very satisfying in doing something very different.” He added that he’ll probably look at both options—trying something new again, and returning to the industry in a more conventional role. “I’ve relied on my gut sense of what feels right. The common thing, as I look at my career, is I view every job as a new tool for my toolbox.”

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