FETC Voices in Technology: The Qualities of Modern CIO

Serena Sacks CIO, Fulton County Schools, Georgia


The responsibilities of the modern K12 CIO are growing. On top of maintaining infrastructure, technology leaders often roll out districtwide technology initiatives aimed at transforming teaching and learning. As the responsibilities of the position change, so too will the skills and qualities that superintendents look for in qualified candidates.

“There are all these disciplines that aren’t programming or setting up servers that are critical to technology leadership,” says Serena Sacks, CIO of Fulton County Schools in Georgia.

A technology leader needs to be able to communicate effectively, listen, empathize and understand the needs of the organization, Sacks says. The leader also needs a strong project management mindset.

Sacks is a featured presenter for the Future of Education Technology Conference, January 27-30, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. She will be presenting the session “Help Wanted: Qualities Transformational Superintendents Look For in IT Leaders.”



What qualities do superintendents look for in a technology leader?

It used to be that if you had a very deep knowledge of the technology itself, you were promoted up through different levels. But the best technologist doesn’t always make the best technology leader.

To be a technology leader, it’s really about having empathy. Every technology project is a change-management project. You’re asking people to think differently, to use different tools, and to do things differently. If you roll out all these devices and teachers are just making PDFs of worksheets, you’ve failed. That’s not going to get students the “knowledge worker” jobs of the future.

How do districts recruit individuals with those skills?

A big part of my leadership is strength-based. I look at people’s strengths and try to develop them. There are two parts to leadership: skills and behaviors. The first includes competencies. You need to know what you’re doing. But I can always send someone for more training on a tool.

Behaviors are equally important and can be harder to shape. You need people who can collaborate, communicate and empathize. Those are the three things that make a CIO effective, and those are the things I look for.

What do tech leaders from outside the education world bring to school districts?

By nature, schools are focused on student learning and teaching—and correctly so. But there must be people in the district considering, “How do we think about everything that needs to be done to make a project successful?” It’s very much a project management mindset. When I came to my district, I was living through the results of projects that hadn’t really been thought through in terms of all the implications. I implemented a robust project management office that includes project management, change management, quality assurance and business analysis.

How can districts recruit and retain more women in leadership positions?

In every industry, leaders need to think differently about hiring women. I know a CIO who requires his leaders to include at least one woman in the hiring process for every position. Even if that person is not great for that position, she might be a good fit for a different one. It’s about exposure and development.


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