School & District Management

5 Things Superintendents Want Their Chief Technology Officers to Know

By Benjamin Herold — April 03, 2019 3 min read
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What do superintendents want from their district technology leaders?

Here are five highlights from a discussion Wednesday at the annual conference of the Consortium for School Networking, being held here this week. The advice comes courtesy of district leaders Mark Benigni (Meriden, Conn.), Doug Brubaker (Fort Smith, Ark.); David Schuler (Township High School District 214, Ill..) Donna Wright (Wilson County, Tenn.), and Randy Ziegenfuss (Salisbury Township, Pa.) Brubaker and Ziegenfuss are former chief technology officers themselves.

1. You’re not the district’s only technology leader.

Teachers, principals, administrative staff, and even coaches and athletic staff all play key technology roles, too, the panel advised.

That means cross-functional teams of department leaders at the district level are a must, Brubaker said. Individual projects will dictate who has a stake in the decision.

But it’s important to remember that a district’s network belongs to the entire district, Wright said. That includes students, who should be allowed “a lot of ownership as far as questioning what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” she said.

2. You’ll need a diverse skill set...

Asked what they’re looking for in a CTO, the superintendent panelists offered a long wish list.

They want a tech leader with strong technical skills, who inspires confidence that details related to networks and cybersecurity and other issues are being handled competently. They also want someone who understands and emphasizes classroom instruction, not just fast download speeds.

A modern CTO must have the “emotional intelligence” to work and communicate with everyone from school board members to school cafeteria workers.

And, oh yeah, superintendents also want “tech directors with a part of their brain that is thinking long-term,” Ziegenfuss said. “A forward-thinking mindset is really important.”

3. ...Because your job description will be complex and varied.

K-12 technology leaders are now responsible for being technical experts, capable problem solvers, and strong communicators; supporting student achievement, teacher learning, and equity across the district, the panelists said.

They’re also tasked with leading effective long-term budgeting and planning efforts; working closely with principals; and constantly balancing superintendents’ desire to innovate with their need to anticipate and manage risks.

In a nutshell, then, the modern CTO has to be “someone I have ultimate trust in,” Schuler said.

4. Communication is key.

Superintendents don’t want a yes-man or -woman. But neither do they want a CTO who reflexively points out the problems with new ideas and strategies. And while they want someone who deeply understands the technical side of a district’s technology ecosystem, they don’t want to feel lectured at or talked down to.

That’s a difficult needle to thread. Here are some of the panelists’ key suggestions for how to make it happen:

“While I don’t want to hear ‘No,’ I do want to here the gamut of possibilities, good and bad,” Ziegenfuss said.

“Never start a conversation with a superintendent with, ‘You just don’t understand,’” Schuler advised.

“Get yourself on the meeting agenda” in order to make sure you’re heard, suggested Brubaker.

And cut to the chase when talking with busy district leaders.

“If you can share the value you’re adding in a concise way, I’m more likely to include you in more conversations,” Schuler said.

5. Own your failures.

Partly, this is practical advice: When it comes to cybersecurity, for example, districts are now at the point where a data breach is a question of when, not if, the panelists said. That means CTOs need to focus as much on response planning and crisis management as on prevention.

But it’s also the case that some district administrators have been loathe to acknowledge mistakes and missteps when it comes to things like selecting instructional technology or protecting student privacy.

These days, that’s the biggest mistake a tech director can make, Wright said.

“Don’t let us sit on a mistake,” she advised.” If it doesn’t work, get off it quickly. The biggest [failure] is when you knew something was wrong and didn’t say anything.”

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.