Getting Started in the IETF
The IETF's standards development work is organized into 8 Areas (http://www.ietf.org/iesg/area.html). Each Area has 1 or more Area Directors (ADs), which together comprise the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG). The IESG is responsible for technical management of IETF activities, the Internet standards process, and for the actions associated with entry into and movement along the Internet "standards track," including final approval of specifications as Internet Standards and publication as an RFC.
Within each Area there are multiple Working Groups (WG). Each WG has one or more chairs who manage the work, and a written charter defining what the work is and when it is due. There are more than 100 WGs. The WGs produce Internet Drafts (I-Ds) which often lead to the publication of an Internet standard as an RFC. See http://www.ietf.org/wg/ for WG charters and http://datatracker.ietf.org/wg/ for the list of the Areas, the current WGs and their chairs.
People interested in particular technical issues join the mailing list of a WG (http://datatracker.ietf.org/list/wg/) and occasionally attend one or more of the three IETF meetings held every year. See: http://www.ietf.org/meeting/ for meeting details.
The IETF is completely open to newcomers. There is no formal membership, no membership fee, and nothing to sign. By participating, you do automatically accept the IETF's rules, including the rules about intellectual property (patents, copyrights and trademarks). If you work for a company and the IETF will be part of your job, you must obviously clear this with your manager. However, the IETF will always view you as an individual, and never as a company representative.
The IETF Mentoring Program matches experienced IETF participants with newcomers in order to aid their integration into the IETF community through advice, help, and collected wisdom. The guidance provided by the mentors should speed up the time it takes for newcomers to become active, contributing members of the IETF. For more information, including information on how to request a mentor, see here: http://www.ietf.org/resources/mentoring-program.html.
Some good news for your travel budget: it's possible to participate in the IETF without ever attending a meeting. If you really want to get results, you probably need to attend some meetings, but it's certainly not required to get started. The IETF carries out most of its detailed technical work online, with the primary method being email. Every WG has a dedicated mailing list, and that's where proposals are made and discussed, where issues are raised, and where consensus is established. (Since the IETF has no formal membership, decisions cannot be taken by voting; the method is to establish rough consensus on the mailing list.)
Working Group Mail Lists
A good technique for newcomers is to decide on one or two (not more!) WGs whose topics are interesting or relevant, and join their mailing lists. Beware: if the WG is in an active phase of discussion, you may well receive tens of message a day from each list. You need to be using a mail program with a good method of automatically sorting incoming mail into multiple inboxes. Once you have that working, simply read the mail threads daily, and read any draft documents that they refer to. (See the next section for hints on how to find particular drafts.) It's advisable to wait several weeks before starting to contribute to the mailing list. But when you feel comfortable that you have something new to say, go for it!
The IETF is normally very welcoming to newcomers, and tolerance is the rule. The technical level is quite high, so if you write something that turns out to be wrong, you may get some quite frank replies. Or sometimes you will get a reply from someone whose first language is not English, and they can be rude without intending it. (If someone is seriously offensive, the WG Chairs are supposed to deal with it.) Don't be discouraged; everybody started as a newcomer.
After participating by email for a while, it may be time to attend your first meeting. Details are linked off the IETF home page as soon as available. This isn't free; apart from travel and hotel costs, there is a meeting fee. Be sure to arrive in time for the Newcomers Tutorial, always held early on the Sunday afternoon before the meeting starts. It will give you a lot more information than this brief introduction. Also on Sunday afternoons, typically between 1600-1700 local time, is the Newcomer's Meet & Greet, which is a hosted reception where first-time attendees and WG Chairs mingle informally for an hour. Try to stay at the meeting for the entire week, so that you can sample other WGs as well as the ones you have been following in detail. And make a point of speaking to people around you, during the breaks and mealtimes. There are usually at least 1000 interesting people at each IETF meeting.
Every experienced IETF attendee was once a newcomer. Here is a series of video testimonials from other attendees talking about their first meeting.
The IETF's official products are documents, published free of charge as RFCs. "RFC" stands for Request for Comments, and this name (used since 1969, before the IETF existed) expresses something important: the Internet is a constantly changing technical system, and any document that we write today may need to be updated tomorrow. One way to look at the IETF is as the group of people who work together to improve the technology of the Internet on a daily basis. As well as producing RFCs, the IETF is a forum where network operators, hardware and software implementers, and researchers talk to each other to ensure that future protocols, standards and products will be even better. This is not the only technical forum for the Internet, of course. But it is the forum where the basic technical standards for Internet protocols are set and maintained. The IETF does not standardize transmission hardware (we leave that to organizations like the IEEE and the ITU) and does not standardize specialized application layer protocols. For example, we leave HTML and XML standards to the World-Wide Web Consortium. But the IETF does standardize all the protocol layers in between, from IP itself up to general applications like email and HTTP.
The Tao of the IETF
All the other resources you need are on the IETF web site. On most pages, you will see a sidebar at the left. Initially, make sure it's set to "Extended" mode using the "Customize View" menu at the bottom left. Below, we list a small selection of pages that could be especially useful to newcomers.