Ten Lessons I Have Learned from Leading an Artificial Intelligence Club

Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

Last year, I was elected as the new president of the Artificial Intelligence club at the Lebanese American University for the academic year 2020–2021. Leading the AI club is a major achievement in my university journey and with the help of the club board, we managed to reach many milestones:

  1. Organizing more than ten events and workshops on many topics in Artificial Intelligence such as Machine Learning, Deep Learning, Computer Vision, and Clustering Algorithms.
  2. Organizing the first annual AI Hackathon at LAU in November 2020 to encourage beginner students to sharpen their skills in Machine Learning.
  3. Leading the first annual Student Research Forum at the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at LAU in April 2021 to help student researchers gain exposure by presenting their original research projects in front of the LAU community.
  4. Increasing the following of the LAU AI Club over social media channels by more than 200%.

Over my journey as the AI club president, I had my fair share of challenges which helped me acquire a fair amount of valuable lessons as the time of my presidency came to an end. Therefore I decided to write this article where I will be describing my experience as a club president and the lessons I have learned along the way.

I hope this piece inspires you to apply these lessons to your projects and maybe in leading your club!

Note: Although I am writing this article for readers in communities of AI and technology, many of the lessons I am discussing apply without much modification elsewhere.

With that got out of the way, let’s get started!

1. Plan, Plan, Plan!

One crucial element for leading with clarity is to build a solid plan. A solid plan should contain all the milestones the club board will achieve and the guidelines for all events and projects.

With everyone having their personal way of preparing a plan, I like to keep mine simple; having three basic building blocks:

  • Vision: The big fluffy goal that paves the future direction for the club. It is what inspires the club board to set their goals, and what the members should understand whenever they join the club. Below you find an excerpt of the AI Club’s vision back in the academic year 2020–2021:

The AI club plan will rely on three pillars:

- Family Culture

- Innovative Online Learning Solutions

- Members-Oriented Education

  • Action Plan: After defining the vision, you will need a way to map those abstract goals into concrete and measurable actions. In this section, you will list all the plans reflecting the vision. As for the AI club example, we included the possible events and projects we want to incorporate into the AI Club all while focusing on diversifying the workshops, creating new competitions and hackathons, and hosting discussions with AI professionals..
  • Timeline: The last piece of the plan is dividing the events and workshops over the academic year. We wanted to be conscious of the students’ available times and their exams dates, to avoid any conflict and maximize their attendance.

2. Set Expectations within Your Team

After working in teams on countless university projects, I realized that the best way to maximize the team’s performance (and minimize regret) is to set team rules for meetings and tasks from the beginning. I often found that leading teams with no rules made it more challenging to track the performance and pinpoint the lingering issues. Setting the rules also helps to clearly separate the roles of the team members and reduce overlap of tasks later on. One way to establish rules without formally discussing them is encouraging the discussion of expectations setting within the team.

Back in our first meeting at the AI Club, I made sure to discuss the division of tasks among the team members and the roles clearly. We devised the following hierarchy:

  • President
  • Vice President
  • Secretary
  • Treasurer
  • Supporting Team

This hierarchy is built specifically to match the needs of the club. For example, the supporting team is composed of students responsible for tasks that don’t fall within the other board roles, such as social media management, marketing, graphic design, and logistics.

Another point that I made sure to discuss was setting expectations as emphasized previously. I invited the team members to speak about what exactly they were expected to contribute and in return what they expect the others to provide them. Establishing this mutual trust between the members was crucial to cater to their needs and welcome them to a safe and friendly work environment.

3. Delegate when Needed

“When you delegate work to a member of the team, your job is to clearly frame success and describe the objectives.”- Steven Sinofsky, former Microsoft executive

This is a special message for all presidents and leaders of clubs and communities especially in universities. A common issue I heard from many club presidents is their urge to do it all: prepare events, design marketing material, and organize all events logistics among many other tasks. I watched these presidents burn out under the pressure of their club duties and university studies. Not only does it affect the performance of the president, but also it impacts the performance of the whole club and yields into errors and accidents.

So my advice: Dear President, resist the urge to work on all the tasks, have trust in your team, and delegate all tasks that don’t fall into your immediate responsibilities. By delegating tasks, you leave more time for yourself to focus on essential tasks such as planning the club’s next steps, evaluating the team performance, and reflecting on the members’ feedback.

4. Study Your Audience

The first official task of the AI club board was to study the AI club audience. Why so? We wanted to have a better understanding of the club member’s interests and most importantly their level and background in AI. As a university student-led club, we have a very diverse audience of students from various academic backgrounds, different majors, and schedules. We did not want the members to feel alienated and feel not included in the workshops and events.

We experimented with multiple approaches to effectively the audience including one-to-one discussions with students, brainstorming sessions, and surveys. At the beginning of the fall semester, we sent out a survey to all members where we asked them about their majors, academic standing, and how well they would rank their knowledge in AI. The survey results were very insightful: We found that the majority of the surveyed members are studying technical majors such as Engineering, Computer Science and Information Technology. We also noticed that the majority had little to no background in Artificial Intelligence. These insights were crucial for the club’s success as they helped shape future events and workshops and cater specifically to the needs of the members.

5. Separate Hype from Reality

This point is more related to the AI side of the club. Currently, Artificial Intelligence is receiving a lot of attention and hype, which is in the same time fortunate and unfortunate for the AI club. The field of AI is being embraced by many companies and educational institutions. Many more students and young professionals are becoming more interested to learn more about AI and Machine Learning.

This hype is helping many communities like our AI club grow and welcome many more excited members. However, we noticed that newcomers to the AI club struggle to distinguish the hype of AI from reality. They tend to have high expectations (and rightfully so!) about the skills, AI applications, and topics they think will learn, but sometimes these expectations are misplaced. That is why it is essential to make sure from the beginning that the members understand the difference to clear any misconceptions. For instance, our first event focused on understanding AI, what the AI club can provide them with and what are the limitations of AI. With these new insights acquired, the members gained a clearer view of the AI field and can start their adventure!

6. Make Members Feel Included

There is nothing worse in leading a community or a club when your members suddenly lose interest and move on. Whenever people join a community, they want to feel welcomed, included, and be part of a supportive group. That is why it is essential to keep the members always in the loop, through organizing live discussions or general assemblies (as we called them at the AI Club). During these events, the club president discusses the board’s plans and planned events, and in return listens to the feedback of the members about those events. Such events help the board gauge how much the members are interested and what can improved further on.

Another way to bolster the community feel is to open an online social platform where members are encouraged to join discussions with other members and club boards of any kind. We wanted to make the platform as friendly and inclusive as possible. One tradition we started this year was sharing a weekly recommendation on the club group chat about interesting new AI applications, tutorials, and more. We found that such seemingly small act helped spark many discussions over the group chat. It also encouraged many members to speak boldly and share their opinions freely.

7. Accept and Learn from Your Mistakes

“How much you can learn when you fail determines how far you will go into achieving your goals.” ― Roy Bennett

As much as it is crucial to organize successful events, it is equally valuable to listen to members’ feedback regardless of how positive or negative it is. Whenever you are too busy handling many tasks, you might sometimes forget to put yourself in the members’ place and understand their perspectives. The success of an event should rely solely on the members’ reception and nothing else. And again, I return to the same point: Always put your members in the center of your plans. It might be hard to learn to accept the feedback, especially when it is harsh. Yet, such feedback is the most valuable, because it can sometimes point you to a direction you might have completely disregarded or haven’t noticed earlier. That’s why I find that post-events feedback surveys are necessary for analyzing the club performance after each event.

I also find that holding monthly board meetings is another necessary component. Each bringing their own perspectives, the board members can turn those meetings into valuable reflections they can use to evaluate their performance and learn from their mistakes.

8. Invest in Your Club’s Online Presence

Another lesson that I discovered to be very valuable was to heavily invest in our social media presence. I cannot emphasize enough how important this investment was, as many of our events registrants came through these platforms from many universities and schools from Lebanon. In previous years, the AI club has not been very active on social media. Its presence was mainly through Instagram and Facebook. But with the rise of LinkedIn as the new “Facebook” for professionals and professional organizations, it was only natural to extend the club presence to LinkedIn.

LinkedIn helped the club to have a more polished and professional image, which proved to be crucial whenever pitching for new events with the school of Engineering or looking for events’ sponsors. Strengthening the club’s social presence was essential for reaching more students and matching them to our events and workshops. Moreover, monitoring our social media growth was an important key performance indicator (KPI) that helped us understand the students’ interests, how interactive our followers are, and what type of content and events they would be interested to check out.

9. Diversify Your Club’s Events

Over my years as an LAU student, I participated in many events and workshops organized by students-led clubs inside and outside LAU. And being among participants, I noticed that many students (including myself) cannot stand events following the same layout. As safe as this choice is, this led me to gravitate slowly from events that I found very monotonous. To avoid this issue diluting the impact of the AI club events, I set out with the club board to come with a variety of events. We wanted to cater to the diverse community of the club through technical workshops, talks with experts in the domain of Machine Learning, and beginner-friendly competitions.

10. Ensure the Continuity of Your Club

An overlooked component of leading any student-led community is ensuring the continuity of the community. Many students consider their term ending by the end of the academic year, and they miss this important step at the end of their journey. They fail to ensure the continuity of the club and the handover to the new club board. The handover should be twofold: a transfer of material and a transfer of knowledge through mentorship. First, it is important to make sure that the new club board has access to all the material they need to plan their new term, learn from the previous board mistakes, and avoid wasting their time on recreating already existing material. Ensuring the handover of tools and material frees the new board from working on monotonous tasks and procedures to allow them to focus on more creative and productive tasks unique to every term. From another side, a transfer of knowledge from the old board to the new board is essential. One way would be through establishing a mentorship program where the president of the previous board mentors the new board for the first couple of months of their new term. In this duration, the mentor will be available to answer all the questions of the new board and clear any doubt regarding the procedures to prepare and launch events.

Final Thoughts

So here you go! These ten valuable lessons are all yours now, and it is up to you to apply them! I hope this article inspires you to embark on your own journey and lead your community. I must warn you though: it will not be an easy journey. It will require you to show a great deal of dedication, passion, and patience. But in case you commit to this path, I assure you it will be full of learning, immense growth, and impact. And I believe leaving memorable impactful moments is our goal after all isn’t it?

Originally published at https://anisdismail.com on September 14, 2021.

Undergraduate Researcher | Machine Learning Engineer | Computer Engineering Student @ LAU | anisdismail.com