A clever way of networking

Beneath the nerdy image of most ITers lurks a bright spark and, as Roisin Woolnough discovers, quite possibly a Mensa member

Beneath the nerdy image of most ITers lurks a bright spark and, as Roisin Woolnough discovers, quite possibly a Mensa member

Roland Berrill and Lance Ware met on a train in 1946. A scientist and a lawyer, the two men found they had a mutual interest in the intellect and decided to set up a club for people of similarly high intelligence. The only entry requirement they insisted upon was that members possessed a high IQ, so they devised a test to determine who would be eligible for membership.

The club was, of course, Mensa. Berrill chose this name for the club because it is the Latin word for table, representing in his opinion a "round table where no-one has precedence". IQ is also derived from Latin, standing for intelligence quotient, the measure of a person's intelligence.

According to Sylvia Herbert, director of Mensa, the club has three main aims: "to identify and foster human intelligence for the benefit of humanity; to encourage research in the nature, characteristics and uses of intelligence; and to promote stimulating intellectual and social opportunities for its members", she says.

Since it was formed, Mensa has swelled to a membership of approximately 29,000 people, with active Mensa organisations in over 40 countries. Some famous UK Mensans include IT's very own Clive Sinclair, Jimmy Saville and Southend United footballer Andy Harris.

According to Chris Leek, chairman of British Mensa and an end-to-end solutions designer at BT, there are a lot of IT professionals in Mensa. "I seem to bump into them all the time," he says. A survey that Mensa conducted recently into members' professions found that 11.7% of those who responded work in IT.

However, this figure is not a totally accurate representation because a number of the respondents were retired, children and unemployed, so the true ratio of IT professionals to other professionals is probably higher.

Ian Coe, another Mensa member who also works in IT, is not surprised at the high number of ITers with Mensa membership. "Programming certainly uses the same skills, the same thought processes of logic," he says. "You are always trying to find gateways to write your line of code and find quick answers to questions."

Anyone who attempts the Mensa IQ test can see that it is all about logic, problem-solving and the ability to think laterally. Leek says the test is actually very similar to the ones used by some companies to determine whether or not individuals have an aptitude for IT. "It is all about logic, the ability to look for relationships between things and visualise the end result," he maintains.

Like the IT industry, Mensa suffers from an image problem. Members are often seen as nerdy individuals who have spent so much time developing their minds that they lack social skills. It is the traditional view of the brilliant but socially-flawed scientist.

"There is an issue with image," admits Leek. "People do not appreciate what it is and what it offers and you get mixed reactions when it is brought up in conversations."

Coe thinks Mensa has such an "anorak" image that it would deter him from including his membership on his CV. "I have the view that potential employers might see it as a bit nerdy and a funny thing to do. I do not think it is good for kudos and there is probably a bit of prejudice against it. A lot of people do not understand it, but basically it is a social organisation for people with like minds."

Anyone who belongs to Mensa talks about the social benefits. There are regional groups around the UK and abroad and people get together to enjoy various activities. It could take the form of a night out on the tiles, poetry readings, discussion evenings, playing games, sporting events and so on - whatever members choose to do.

Coe has just moved to the Netherlands to start work as a JD Edwards technical expert and although he has not done anything with Mensa for the last few years, he intends to get in touch with his local group.

Similarly, when Leek got his first IT job in London, he found himself in a city he had never visited before, with few people that he knew and only a couple of days in which to find accommodation before starting work. After calling up a London Mensa group, one member offered him accommodation and he had a whole social network to help him find his feet.

Herbert agrees that membership can be particularly useful for people who travel or move jobs a lot - such as IT professionals. "It is a networking opportunity. It is a club that allows a meeting of the minds, but it is a social club too."

However, Coe says he went off Mensa for a while because he became frustrated with certain people's attitudes, because members are supposedly in the top 2% of the population in terms of intelligence. "Some people think of themselves as different and better than other people and I got a bit worried about it one time as I thought it was almost approaching a fascist organisation."

Both Herbert and Leek dispute the suggestion that Mensa people think they are superior to others. Herbert says that when some Mensan people join, they find it is the first time they can communicate with people on the same wavelength, without being thought of as odd or a social misfit. "It identifies bright people, some of whom never did well at school because they are so bright. People often would not have understood what they were on about so they might have appeared as obtuse and become isolated."

For IT enthusiasts, Mensa can be a technological haven. There are different clubs within the organisation, including several IT ones. There is one that focuses on artificial intelligence and another one called PCW for friends of the old Amstrad.

Leek has found it very handy having a body of IT expertise within Mensa to call upon when he has needed help. "If you have a computing problem, you can throw it in and will almost certainly get an answer," he says. "I have found it very useful."

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