Building a Better Technology Team

From the archives: Education technology is on a fast-moving trajectory. Here’s how schools’ technology department staffing structures can keep pace.

Feb 9, 2017

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By Gabriel Lucas, EdTech Recruiting and ATLIS

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2015 Net Assets.

Decades ago, independent schools began introducing computers in a low-stakes manner to improve efficiency and enrich the curriculum. Growth happened organically, and the resulting “tech team” that exists at many schools today often came together organically.

Recent developments have changed. Whether to satisfy tech-savvy customers or to revitalize a curriculum, most schools have no choice but to establish a robust technology program, along with a strategically designed staff to support it. Staffing matters tremendously, in fact, but scaling up can be intimidating. How to design the right staffing arrangement, let alone afford, find or manage the talent?

My advice is to begin with a strategic plan that guides every step you take. Technology planning should not occur in a vacuum; it should be part of a broader initiative. Moreover, as with developing a campus master plan, technology planning should comprise a balance of constrained and unconstrained thinking. Dream big, but be realistic about budgets and priorities.

And then there is this key ingredient: getting the structure right.

Start at the top. Do you need someone designing technology strategy—or implementing it? It is somewhat trendy to hire a CTO (chief technology officer) or director of educational innovation. Bold seniority may be appropriate if the head of school has a broad vision that includes several new edtech initiatives and wholesale changes. However, if you already have a successful edtech program and just want to weave in a few new best practices, the better hire might be a more traditional director of technology, or perhaps a coordinator or instructional designer.

To help guide the development (or reorganization) of your tech team, I suggest reflecting on these 10 key principles.

1: Take Stock

Audit your existing technology team and assess each person’s strengths and weaknesses. Importantly, look beyond the technology department to other staff members who interact frequently with technology. For example, if your school has an academic dean who spearheads innovative technology projects within faculty, it may be redundant to hire a senior CTO or equivalent. The point here is to determine whether you need someone designing strategy or implementing it. It’s easy to say both, but rarely are those two needs equal.

What are your team’s blind spots? Perhaps your communications staff is struggling to integrate social media, or your library is stalled in outdated traditions, or the registrar is not managing the SIS vendor relationship well. In such a case, a seasoned CTO could collaborate with other senior administrators to revamp the communications, library or registrar functions. A more radical solution could be to enlarge the technology department to include CTO supervision of one or more of those functional areas.

2: Consider Other Functions for Technology Oversight

As suggested above, some “non-technology” functions and departments might benefit from technology management. Consolidation is another possibility. If nothing else, consolidation can mitigate overstaffing by obviating the need for additional directors or senior managers. Consider these areas for expanded technology oversight:

  • Academic technology
  • Library services
  • Media literacy
  • Independent studies
  • Online and blended learning
  • STEM/STEAM
  • Robotics/makerspace
  • Computer science
  • Global studies
  • Information technology
  • Database services
  • Registrar
  • Communications
  • Web services
  • Strategic initiatives
  • Professional development
  • Space redesign and modernization

3: Evaluate Various Staffing Models

What position(s) are you actually trying to fill? This really does matter.

Just as a CFO is not a business manager or controller, neither should “academic technology director,” “director of IT” or “technology coordinator” be equivalent or interchangeable. Spend time researching and understanding titles, defining responsibility scopes and planning the desired seniority of your technology leader. These details matter greatly when it comes to attracting and hiring the right talent.

In general, the big decisions are twofold:

Seniority (pick one)

  • Entry-level: e.g., integrator, technician, specialist
  • Mid-level: e.g., manager, engineer, designer, administrator, coordinator
  • Senior: e.g., director, CTO, CIO, assistant head, VP

Scope (pick one or more)

  • IT
  • Systems
  • Academic
  • One or more auxiliary areas

In practice, the technology leadership position could play out many possible ways. See the scenario at left for four common options, bearing in mind that these are only suggestions and can be combined or modified in numerous ways.

CoSN, the Consortium for School Networking, has developed a robust framework for the essential skills of a K–12 CTO. Access this document at www.cosn.org/framework to help determine whether the skillset of a CTO is what you have and/or need.

4: Define Reporting Structures

Reporting structures give clarity to where the ownership of an issue, system or service resides. They also make it easier to manage complex projects and set priorities. No one model is necessarily better than another, but a technology department whose leader reports to the CFO will function differently from one whose leader reports to the head of school, for example.

Intentional reporting structures are critical in the business sector. Large corporations reorganize all the time, creating new collaborative teams as the business strategy evolves. Even startups, which often have a flat structure and run everything through the CEO, make an intentional choice in the name of creativity and collaboration. On that note, it’s worth pointing out that independent schools with a flat hierarchy are like entrepreneurial startups by definition. Therefore it should come as no surprise if strategic technology initiatives struggle to trickle down evenly to faculty and staff.

Details matter. Dotted lines are unwise: A person with two or three managers will feel pulled in too many directions—imagine the technology integrator who is expected to answer simultaneously to the librarian, dean of faculty and director of technology. It’s tempting to give everyone a stake in the game, but at the end of the day you have to make choices.

Finally, at the risk of stating the obvious: A school’s leadership team should identify the school’s needs and then place a position into the appropriate department. Not the other way around.

5: Conduct Market Research

Explore how your peer schools are organizing and staffing their technology departments. It can help to know how other schools are advertising and announcing job openings, along with what responsibilities are tied to various positions and titles. See how others articulate duties and qualifications.

Talk to consultants as well, but do not get caught up in an arms race. Also, keep in mind that the number of technology professionals needed is rarely a function of the number of students, but better correlated with the number of technology initiatives launched.

6: Keep Culture Paramount

When building or rebuilding a technology team, be aware of your school’s unique culture and dynamics. Technology is a department where the rubber hits the road. It is as much about execution as design, and it is operational as well as strategic. If the new upper school schedule fails to come to fruition, the world goes on. If the Internet shuts down, panic.

A successful technology department, then, requires the resources and the power to say no to some ideas in order to stay within budget and focused on major priorities. With that, a bit of advice for school leaders who want a technology department that says yes to everything: Don’t waste money on a CTO. Hire foot soldiers instead.

7: Avoid Alphabet Soup

With the possible exception of network administrators, most technology professionals’ technical experience rarely matters. Almost any technology skill can be learned. Instead of being distracted by resumes loaded with acronyms and geeky-sounding words, focus on attributes that often cannot be taught: collaboration, patience, problem-solving.

Job postings requiring certifications and application-specific knowledge are curious. Do you really need someone who is “Apple Certified” or has experience with iLife and Prezi? What you need is someone who is smart and independent, can explain and communicate effectively, and above all can learn and evolve on the fly.

8: Set Priorities and Timetables, and Track What Matters

When building or restructuring your technology team, focus on a realistic set of priorities. If you have three projects in mind for the next few years, a successful director will likely be able to address two and might finish one. Reality always sets in.

I suggest not making one of those initial projects the integration of all your IT systems. This lofty ideal is a distraction from successful technology planning. Instead, consider integrating each system progressively as you re-evaluate it at the end of its proper life cycle. If you just chose a new system that integrates with nothing, let that sleeping dog lie until it’s up for review again. Focus on something else.

To analyze the success of your technology initiatives, track two numbers relentlessly: annual spending on professional development for technology staff, and capital investments by way of technology depreciation.

Of all school employees, technology professionals are most challenged staying current in their industry. Moreover, they are usually the school’s trainers and explainers. Yes, there is value in sending a math teacher to a conference on online learning, but good luck spreading those ideas beyond the math department unless you dispatch an academic technology professional as well. (Disclaimer: I am a founder of ATLIS, the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools, a nonprofit organization launched last fall to serve the independent school technology office, just as NBOA serves the business office. I encourage school technology personnel to explore ATLIS at www.theatlis.org.).

As for capital investments in technology, don’t put the cart before the horse by planning “a long-term budget” based on current and future projects and their estimated costs. Set an annual dollar figure that you’re comfortable with, and then let the CTO manage these projects with the help of an advisory committee. Don’t worry about projects in the years ahead. Some needs will go unaddressed, but at least you’ll have a strategy that the board can compare and adjust from year to year, within the technology department as well as against other strategic initiatives.

9: Look Outside the Box for Talent

Good people and technology “farm systems” are everywhere; you just have to find them. Local colleges can be a goldmine. National independent school associations (like ATLIS, NBOA and NAIS) as well as regional associations provide job listings and various other avenues for meeting good candidates. Edtech “meetups” and conferences are abundant. Think also about your school’s vendors and their IT professionals. In any case, you just might meet someone who is ready to change industries.

Public schools can be perhaps the most underrated potential hiring source. Many public school technology professionals would love to work at an organization with fewer rules and restrictions. The less they are invested in the public school retirement system, the more willing they might be to jump ship.

10: Consider Temporary Solutions

Seasoned technology professionals are worth every penny, but there are advantages to hiring temporary or part-time talent as you build out your department. This is the equivalent of introducing design thinking and iteration to your technology plan.

One idea worth considering is a hybrid solution: Find one “star” and surround him or her with raw, unseasoned talent. The ROI for this model can be quite high because the overall investment can be kept to a minimum, yet the department may likely coalesce quickly around a single leader.

Let’s say your school identifies that it needs three technology positions: a director, an academic technology coordinator, and a systems administrator/helpdesk specialist. After hiring the director, part-time and/or temporary help may be able to perform the other functions. Chances are the new director will be so busy learning the school’s culture and dealing with management issues that he or she won’t have the time or political capital to make deep institutional fixes. Meanwhile, end users will need support. If temp workers can provide that support, the director may free up an entire school year to assess the landscape before carefully designing both infrastructure and technology strategy.

Moreover, during that interim period your young technology department will begin to cultivate a farm system. Perhaps no other department in a school can benefit as much from a steady flow of people, as new faces bring new ideas and understanding of new technologies.

It’s the People, Of Course

In the end, successfully building or reorganizing a technology team can be daunting. But when it comes to technology, we are all entrepreneurs. We will not get it perfectly right, but we will likely have some big, unexpected wins if we plan well.

However, as many a technology venture capitalist has said, success is 90 percent about the people and 10 percent about the idea. The same ratio probably holds true for educational technology. The most successful school programs are a function of the people, not the widgets. 

Gabriel Lucas is principal of EdTech Recruiting, which helps schools before, during and after the technology hiring process, and a co-founder and board member of ATLIS (Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools). He has worked in the field of educational technology for many years, most recently as director of technology at Castilleja School, in Palo Alto, California. He has an undergraduate degree in mathematical and computational science from Stanford University, a master’s degree in information management and systems from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s in mathematics from San Francisco State University.



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