DA op-ed: The CIO’s evolving role

Superintendent? Maybe. Chief innovation officer may be the step in the district technology leader’s career.
By: | June 18, 2019
Kevin Schwartz is the technology officer for learning and systems at Austin ISD, a district with more than 80,000 students. Schwartz is a featured speaker for DA’s Future of Education Technology Conference®, which will be held January 14-17, 2020, at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

Some say that CIO stands for “Career Is Over.” Without intervention, it could be true. The CIO could serve next in an operations position encompassing technology and other functions, such as facilities and communications, or in the superintendent position. In school districts across the country, fewCIOs have been promoted to superintendents, but a few more have moved into operations roles.

As is often the case, career opportunities for CIOs are limited to taking on similar roles in larger districts. I’m not the first to write about this, and I’ve been fighting against this mindset for more than a decade. I want to explain why this occurs, why school districts are missing important opportunities, and why it’s imperative for CIOs and superintendents to make a change.

CIOs don’t just appear on the scene fully formed and ready to tackle major challenges. They have evolved. Many of their résumés include network administration, server management and even computer repair roles. Their work didn’t happen in a vacuum either.

Today’s superintendents served previously as classroom teachers, principals and administrators. Their perceptions of technology come from their prior job experiences.

It’s regrettable, but too often, we are judging technology with the blinders we had decades ago, and we try to make sense of technology by relating it to more familiar district functions.

We still have CIOs reporting to departments where there is a partial fit. Some report to the chief financial officer because the utility function is comparable to other services, and others report to the chief academic officer so that technology can be driven by instruction. It is a testament to the versatility of CIOs that they are able to make almost any org chart alignment work, and they will often use technology to make significant useful additions wherever they land.

Some CIOs believe that their function is utility-based. That’s not a mindset for professional growth, and it ignores the most valuable contribution that technology can bring. The CIO who lives in fear of a network outage is not going to take reasonable risks or propose “disruptive” ideas very often.

Failure to change

When CIOs gather, they often share stories about solving problems that people didn’t know they had and using methods that people don’t understand. Technologists live and breathe change. They must be creative and solution-oriented to survive. If you think about it, stable, passive and rigid take you straight to efficient and effective, but that’s just code for “please don’t change.”

An existential threat to school districts is failure to change, adapt and grow. School districts need to reinvent themselves. Technologists, especially CIOs who have mastered the art of change, are uniquely positioned to champion innovation. By virtue of the systems they have deployed, they are already connected to every stakeholder in the district.

An enlightened superintendent, who nurtures their relationship with and listens to advice from the district CIO and who sees technology as an engine of innovation, is positioned to have their district ride the technology wave, instead of being swamped by it.

The clarion call is not for CIOs to become superintendents. It is for technology leaders and superintendents to press for CIOs to evolve and become chief innovation officers. It’s not about the title. It’s about leveraging the skills and talents of inside experts.

I’ll be hosting a session at FETC 2020 that will take a closer look at innovation and sparking strategic change. I hope to see you there!

 


Interested in edtech? Keep up with DA's Future of Education Technology Conference®.