5 School IT Lessons Learned The Hard Way

Back when I started in IT with Exodus Communications twelve years ago, it seemed like there was a priest like aura surrounding the tech departments in private industry.  They were the gate keepers and the first words out of their mouths when asked to do anything new was always NO.  Back then, in what I like to think of as the Dark Ages, IT departments were isolated from the business much as they are depicted in the excellent show The IT Crowed.  They lived in the basement and only came into the light of day to fix a problem.  That old school philosophy underwent a major change after the tech bubble burst in 2001/2 and outsourcing become the buzz word.  Suddenly IT was a commodity, a fixed cost to be cut.  IT shops in the private sector started to talk about adding value to the business and integrating themselves into core functions.  I believe this was mostly a self preservation tactic but it was a good one, because the IT shops that took on the customer centric approach became more responsive and valuable to their companies and in so doing they became more than just a commodity service or a cost center.

Having started my IT career right out of college working for a group called System Administration Services in the Customer Service and Support division I came out of the gate with a customer focus and never looked back.  It was really a great learning environment to be in as I worked with a wide range of experts covering diverse skill sets.  There were Windows admins and Solaris admins and CCIEs all working together with a common purpose. From them I learned that the platform (ideology) is not as important as the solution (results).  It was during this time I also learned that the customer is more important than the technology.

Lesson number one: Focus on the needs of the customer and on finding the right solution to meet those needs.

But a funny thing happened when I came over to the education sector.  I felt like I had stepped back in time.  Literally, from the equipment to the organization.  As far as IT went, 2003 might as well have been 1998.  I guess the threat of outsourcing had never materialized in local government agencies and so the shift from old school isolated command and control IT to customer centric, integrated into core business IT never happened.  My first thought was to seek guidance from our County Office of Education. Unfortunately they were not much help, being well entrenched in the old school IT thinking I was trying to avoid. The challenge for me then became how to transition my district into the 21st Century based on the principles I had learned at Exodus while working under this cloud of old school IT.  I set to work stabilizing the infrastructure for my district and ignored the cloud around me as much as possible.

Lesson number two: Don’t worry about that which you have no control over, focus on what you can control.

As soon as I was done stabilizing the infrastructure, I turned to my customers. I talked to as many people as possible as I started to develop short term goals for the District, a plan for technology and a budget to meet the goals.  I focused on building out the core infrastructure to support services for the next 10 years.  I learned that School Districts have tech plans.  I also learned that not everyone at a school district reads the tech plans.  And most importantly, I learned that technology was not seen as integral to the District’s mission but rather as something to spend large chunks of money on as it became available without planning or direction.

Lesson number three: IT is invisible to many but it is absolutely critical to any organization, make the district see the critical nature of IT as soon as possible.

The focus after getting to know my district became putting computers in the classroom (and building out the network to support them).  This is what the state wanted to know on its surveys, it was what E-Rate was designed for (Internet Access in classrooms), it was what Administration wanted and it was what everyone else was doing.  Had I not been overwhelmed by the magnitude of trying to move technology five years into the future in only one year’s time I might have noticed that while everyone said they wanted computers in the classrooms what they were really saying was they wanted what everyone else was getting.  And so when we did get four computers and an overhead projector in every classroom, they were not fully utilized.  In fact it took several years to get a significant number of Teachers using projectors and email and we never did see meaningful utilization of the four classroom computers.  I had made a fundamental mistake and lost track of who my customer was and what their needs really were.  Had I focused on teachers as customers, I would have identified training as a much bigger part of the project and I would have asked how those four computers would be used for instruction. Instead I focused mainly on the infrastructure and technology and we got a state of the art network with hit or miss classroom utilization. (although in my defense, the infrastructure needed the attention)

Lesson number four: Know who your customers are and what they need. (and nobody’s perfect)

After the big push to upgrade the District’s core technology, the next challenge was how to maintain it.  We had upgraded most of the infrastructure using one time grant money and E-Rate. While it was desperately needed, moving forward there was no real strategy or budget for maintaining the level of technology in place.  Over several years I was able to develop a budget and refresh cycle to maintain the core infrastructure. We leveraged strategies like thin client and refurbished machines to replace equipment and maintain the four to six computers per classroom and the computer labs. Fast forward to present day and the original plan for computers in the classroom has completely changed. We’re now focused on getting a device for every student.  It turns out that our high school teachers didn’t really know what to do with only four computers at the back of their classroom. What they needed was more labs and what is a lab really but a 1:1 learning environment? So we pivoted seemingly overnight and made the decision to change direction. Our solid infrastructure allowed us to do this relatively easily. But of course, the decision to deploy iPads has made it a bit more challenging.

Lesson number five: Be flexible.

In my eight years in education technology I have come to realize that school IT is not like business IT. Some practices are similar and can transfer over, but classrooms are living spaces that have unique needs. Business IT is about standards and control and not generally well suited to dynamic environments. It’s ok if we borrow from the business IT world, but only if it works and makes sense for education. Often times, it does not. So go visit some classrooms and see what your customers really need, chances are it’s not what you think.

(Note: This post was sitting as a draft for over a year. I finally got around to finishing it)