A school district CIO has always been a high-pressure job. Some days feel like you are on an island. Your staff is unhappy with you, your leadership doesn’t understand you, and your customers are throwing you under the school bus.
"Despite the ever-changing landscape of education, many CIOs arrive expecting bureaucracy and strong resistance to change"
New CIOs face increasing cyber security concerns, stiffening student data privacy legislation and the growing digitization of all education services. The CIO role has never been more important and unfortunately, doesn’t come with a handbook for success. As I made the leap to the public sector, I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I would be.
I reached out to fellow CIOs and here is the advice they wished they had as they became a school district CIO.
1. Drink From the Firehose – Learn All You Can Fast
“I believe that any successful education CIO has to quickly know “who is who” in the organization, community and board as well as cultivate and bridge alliances with leaders and influencers in the organization.” OlufemiAina, Executive Director, Atlanta Public Schools, Georgia
You can never know enough about your district. School districts are highly mission driven and CIOs must deeply understand the mission because technology is so integral to the student learning.
Know your audience. School districts can be very emotive and stakeholders pop up in every corner. Wrapping your head around the culture will help you shape the approach to day to day IT services. A school principal can be your greatest ally or your biggest challenge.
Learn the lingo. If you thought technology was full of acronyms, multiply education by 2. While technology challenges are similar to other organizations, relating to teachers, parents and other stakeholders in their language helps them know you understand their needs from their point of view and enhances your ability to educate on effective technology solutions to their problems.
Despite your best efforts, mistakes will happen along the way. Apologize, learn from it and laugh about it.
2. Technology Savvy is Only Part of the Equation
"Technologies, knowledge, skills and abilities will only take you so far. The human side of our business will determine long-term success and failure." Joseph McBreen, CIO, St Vrain Public Schools, Colorado
Creating the strategic vision and articulating the value of technology are important, but your ability navigate the culture, forge partnerships, and deliver true change are far more important to your success and the success of your team.
A school district CIO is more about creativity in the face of scarce resources than technology. Whether the challenge is a late-night community disaster or dealing with budget cuts, you have to don your game face and inspire your team each day.
As smart as you may be, a CIO can’t do it alone. Building strong partnerships with finance, procurement, legal and HR will enhance your ability to move quickly and get things done.
3. Your Time is Not Your Own
“I found myself working on educational priorities by day and other projects by night.” Brady Mills, Chief Information Officer, Westminster Public Schools, Colorado
The CIO role will consume all your waking hours. New CIOs quickly learn that a school district CIO is not a 7:30 to 4:30, Monday to Friday job. Parents, teachers, Tuesday night board of education meetings, and Saturday gym fund raisers all drive anytime, anywhere access to technology resources. This opens school districts 24X7 for leaders, teachers, parents, students and a myriad of stakeholders who are not shy about letting you know when something isn’t working.
School district technology is different than private sector in terms of scale. The sheer number of endpoints and other devices attaching to the network is mind-boggling by itself, but add the additional compliance, oversight and odd things that arrive at your doorstep and your plate is overflowing.
The depth of community support required is surprising, be it a missing student after school, setting up an evacuation center for a community disaster, or participating with the safety incident response team while on vacation in Mexico. You are always “on.”
4. To Make Change Happen - Go Where The Energy Is
“While educators may not have the technical jargon, they do know what they want to achieve with technology. The job of the K-12 CIO is to operationalize their visions into systems. For many, many students and staff, school hours are the best part of their day.” Mike Porter, Director of Technology, Littleton Public Schools, Colorado
Despite the ever-changing landscape of education, many CIOs arrive expecting bureaucracy and strong resistance to change. School districts are more hierarchical than I ever imagined and that culture of hierarchy can indeed eat a change initiative for breakfast.
However, many in schools do have a vision and are more than willing to trial new teaching methods and technologies. All they need is a champion to support them and “we can do this” becomes the battle cry. Finding those with passion and energy enables pockets of innovation. And educators definitely spread the word and become champions of what works.
Creating a technology environment supporting teaching and learning that delights your customers is only part of your success. Incubating initiatives that can solve district-wide challenges and accelerate the mission is the rest of the story.
5. Make Friends - You Are Not Alone
“Many of these things naturally evolve for those who possess natural leadership qualities and have had a lot of prior leadership experience but it sure would have been nice to have a team of senior CIO’s act as guides and mentors.” Lawrence DeHerrera, Director of Technology, Fountain / Fort Carson School District 8, Colorado
One of the great things about working in education is the collaboration across school districts. School district CIOs aren’t any more gregarious than other CIOs, but with such scarce resources, collaboration becomes a survival skill. We share RFPS, collaborative bidding, projects, delivery models, practices, and generally commiserate about our challenges.
6. It’s the Toughest Job you'll Ever Love
After attending my first education technology conference, the realization of how much I didn’t know about education was disheartening. But I truly appreciated meeting my peers and their willingness to show me the ropes. There is almost always someone who has been down the path and can guide you. Find those people and make them mentors.
The job is bigger, the expectations excruciatingly high and the pay isn’t comparable to the private sector. And let’s face it, our customers rarely call the help desk and wish us a great day.
And yet talented people are willing to jump in. Some join up because they just have a willingness to help. Others are escaping the rat race of the private sector.
Many are seeking the rewards of making an impact and leading IT. I love seeing my staff grow, their creativity with scarce resources and resilience in trying times. They both humble and inspire me.
The main reason I chose education, however, was the mission. Many of my education colleagues feel the same.
“No matter how good or bad my work day goes, I know that students learned today. And that makes the world a better place.” Steven Clagg, CIO, Aurora Public Schools, Colorado