What’s In A CTO Title?


If you’ve been following me for any length of time you may remember a rant a while back about the importance for school districts to embrace technology as a “real” department, going so far as to say a Cabinet level Chief Technology Officer or “CTO” was a key requirement to successfully infusing technology into a district at the level that is required to meet the education, teaching and learning challenges of the future (with the future being last week, of course).

Well, having been in a Cabinet level CTO position now for the past 12 months I have some additional thoughts on the subject. So here goes.

In discussing the ability to push change in a district with colleagues and peers, the most important single factor above all else remains having a seat on Cabinet. Having that seat at the table when district decisions are being made is critical. Exceptional individuals can support technology without being on cabinet to be sure, but it is exponentially more difficult to push initiatives or transformative change from outside Cabinet. I personally think reporting to the Superintendent is equally as critical, because pushing technology transformation can potentially be uncomfortable for both the Education and Business sides of the house. Reporting into either of those departments may seriously impede technology integration before it can even start.

The title of the technology leader on the other hand seems to be less important. I think we all know that title’s don’t make leaders. For many years, I myself was a lowly Director but fortunately, I reported directly to the Superintendent and sat on what was essentially Cabinet in a small school district which just goes to reaffirm my belief in the above. Report to the Sup and sit on Cabinet, even if your title is Manager of Things That Plug Into Power.

So let’s put all that aside for a moment and look specifically at the title of CTO. Interestingly, the title of CTO doesn’t universally mean a cabinet level position in a school district, at least not in California. I know of several Directors with a seat on cabinet and a few CTOs that report into Business or Education and aren’t fortunate enough to be on cabinet.

When it comes to salary, CTO’s may not be on the same salary schedule as the other assistant superintendents in a district. In my view, this has the detrimental effect of watering down the meaning and purpose of the CTO position, not only in function but more importantly in perception. As much as titles don’t make leaders, perception is powerful and any perceived difference in equivalency sends a message, even if it is only subliminal, that the CTO isn’t really as important as the other Cabinet level positions in the district.

Contrast the CTO title to the business side of the house where there are Chief Business Officers or “CBOs”. In common use, the CBO is readily understood to be interchangeable with the Assistant Superintendent of Business. In fact you may even see jobs listed as Assistant Superintendent of Business Services/CBO. Unfortunately this is not the case with the CTO position, at least in California. Essentially, the title CTO is not currently understood to be synonymous with Assistant Superintendent of Technology Services.

CETPA has been working for many years to raise the awareness of the need for Cabinet level CTOs in California school districts. Frankly I think most districts underestimated the importance of technology for the last decade and are only now starting to really understand the need for Cabinet level insight into the impact technology can have on a district. I think money also factored into the equation. Where private industry and even government recognized the importance of technology long ago and invested in leadership positions to fill that critical need, K12 education has been slow to react, again, at least here in California.

The CETPA CTO Mentor program, modeled off of the FCMAT CBO Mentor program, was designed to develop a pool of qualified CTO candidates for districts. I completed the program in 2011 (so I’m a CCTO CTO!). Since then, I have seen more and more districts moving to create CTO level positions (some “real” Asst. Sup level and some not) in response to the growing and obvious demands technology is making on learning in the classroom. Finally, K12 is waking up to the disruptive nature of technology to transform teaching and learning.

But what does the title CTO mean in California at the moment if not all CTO positions are created equal? To be perfectly honest, I’m not really sure. I find myself fortunate to be in an Assistant Superintendent level CTO position (reporting to the Superintendent, sitting on Cabinet, etc…) but just having to explain all of that seems odd. Thankfully my district and Board of Education value the role technology is playing in education today and created a “real” CTO position.  I’m hopeful that one day, the CTO title in California K12 school districts will be synonymous with Assistant Superintendent of Technology Services/CTO the way CBO is for Assistant Superintendents of Business Services today.

I suppose at some point I should talk about what I think a CTO position should do for a district, but I’ll save that for a future post.