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'Surprise! You're a CTO Now.' 6 Tips for New School Technology Leaders

Portland, Ore.

The annual conference of the nation's main professional organization for school technology leaders kicked off here this week, and high on the agenda was advice for new chief technology and information officers.

The biggest lesson new technology chiefs must learn right away?

"You've got to be the bridge between technology and instruction," said Donna Williamson, the technology director for Alabama's Mountain Brook School District and a co-chair of the Consortium for School Networking conference.

To help folks on the ground make that happen, the Consortium is launching a new "early career K-12 CTO academy." The year-long initiative will include about 20 school technology chiefs with four years or less of experience.

Monday's conference session, meanwhile, was attended by roughly two dozen CTOs with similar profiles. In addition to Williamson, a panel of five tech leaders from around the country offered insights on everything from getting yourself into the right meetings to building a talent pipeline in your department.

Here are six big takeaways:

1. Be a bridge-builder.

Building trust with your district's academic and financial leaders is a must, the panel advised. Nothing you want to get done can happen without their support.

To make it happen, they suggested, be conscientious about cultivating a mutual appreciation for each other's needs and ideas. And always do your homework: Don't push new initiatives that aren't aligned with the district's strategic vision. Understand your district's procurement timeline. Know the rules about which pots of money can be used towards what ends. And to build confidence amongst your cabinet-level peers, always bring data, said Keith Bockwoldt, the chief information officer for Hinsdale High School District 86 in Illinois.

"Make sure you have your ducks in a row," Bockwoldt advised. "Help them understand the 'why' behind it all."

2. Relationships matter.

"Don't come in right away and start changing everything you see," Williamson suggested. "Spend the first year making relationships."

That advice extends beyond just cabinet officials, she said. Meet with other department heads, to find out what their priorities and interests are. Go to principals' meetings, just to listen. Get into the classroom. Ask how you can help.

How do such steps make a difference?

"When a data breach happens, if you have a relationship, they're going to feel sorry for you, rather than being mad at you." Williamson said.

3. Be a communicator, not a talker.

"I feel like one of my chief roles is being a translator," said Phil Hintz, the director of technology for Illinois' Gurnee School District 56. "I speak geek, but I also speak education."

Remember that it's not your network, it's the district's, other panelists advised. Understand what different stakeholders are interested in--your CFO might care about total cost of ownership, while parents might care about data privacy.  Stay calm under pressure, and do your best to resolve sticky situations in person, rather than over email.

4. Make sure you're at the tables that matter.

Technology is going to be part of just about every key strategic-planning decision your district makes. The question is whether you're going to hear about those decisions before or after the meetings where they're made, Hintz said.

"Get yourself invited, or invite yourself," he suggested. "The more you are are there at the table, the more valuable your perspective will be, and you can get ahead of things."

At first, the panel advised, making that happen might take some diplomacy. One good strategy: Say you're just coming to listen and learn--and then follow through on that promise.

It's a lesson that Joe Phillips, who was named director of technology for the Kansas City Public Schools less than a year ago, said he's already taken to heart.

"You're not really looked at as a strategic business partner until you get yourself into those conversations," Phillips said.

5. Don't try to do everything yourself.

Getting tapped as a district tech leader can be overwhelming, said Jennifer Lotze, the instructional technology coordinator for Wisconsin's Hudson school district. You'll be expected to write or update policies on everything from acceptable use to data privacy. You'll be issuing RFPs and trying to figure out the cumbersome E-rate process. You're inbox will be flooded with emails from vendors, teachers, principals, your superintendent.

The good news, Lotze said, is there are plenty of people who have been there before and are eager to help. That list includes CoSN, colleagues at neighboring district, state CTO networks, and your state education dept.

"Find the smart people around you who are already doing the work." Lotze recommended.

6. You're a leader now. Start acting like one.

Sure, in a pinch you may still find yourself running cables in a server closet or programming cameras. But as CTO, you won't be judged on your technical skills so much as on your ability to craft a strategic vision, manage projects, and eliminate bottlenecks, the panel advised.

So remember that being a good leader takes intentional practice, Bockwoldt said. Take an hour a week to focus on the kind of culture you're trying to build. Mentor your junior staff members. Distribute opportunities and responsibilities throughout your department.

"If you're only focusing on the technical part, and you're always working on switches and servers, you're missing a critical component of the job," Bockwoldt said.  "You need to teach your people how to fish so they can feed themselves." 


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