At Your Service

As CTO of the Miami Dade County Public School District in Florida, Debbie Karcher heads up the Information Technology Services division, a centralized group that supports some 360,000 students and 50,000 full-time and part-time employees. School CIO caught up with Karcher recently and learned about her customer service best practices.

Q. “Customer Service” typically describes something that happens at a store or in a corporation. Can you describe what customer service means to you?

There are two types of support we provide. The first is the typical IT-type function: programming, reports, system-wide issues. The second is supporting users, and we’ve implemented some support models and best practices to effectively do that. Each school [in the district] has either a full-time technician or shares a technician. What used to happen is that the schools would hire these people themselves and they would report to the principal. But the principal’s core focus is on achievement, not necessarily technology. And we would often be saddled with technicians who didn’t really know how to do the job well, and we would have to support individual schools with resources from IT Services. So we came up with a shared model. These technicians still report to the principal, but now we bring them into a 90-day training program. They work with us to learn our rules, policies, and procedures, what we want the schools to do from a technology perspective, and so on. It’s been pretty effective.

We also augment individual schools with a central group of field technicians. They manage new construction projects, renovation, security, and so forth. This same group supports those schools that have big technology projects going on.

Q. What is the philosophy driving this?

We’re really focused on the school and the teacher. We wanted teachers to be able to get help when they needed it. Because if the technology isn’t working, learning is probably not taking place. The model we try to teach is that using information, and getting information, is easy. If teachers don’t think so, we haven’t done our job right.

Q. Are there specific systems in place to help you achieve this philosophy?

We recently released what we call a “portal lite.” [With the portal], teachers have access to all students by class; parents have access to student information and grades; and students have access to information that’s relevant to them. Before that, we gave teachers access to a gradebook system, to data warehouse and student performance indicator software; but they had to access this information from different places within our system. We also implemented password reset software. Resources didn’t let us increase our help desk, but when we took away [password reset requests], it allowed us to answer more pertinent calls.

Q. How do you know people are satisfied?

We do customer satisfaction surveys every six or seven [hardware /software request] tickets that we work on. Our user experience has been fairly good.

Q. How long has it taken you to get to where you are now, and how far do you have to go?

You need the infrastructure in place to be able to support this. Part of that we started building about four years ago, but most of it has taken place in the last two by implementing a data warehouse, service desk, patch management, antivirus, and password reset software. The other thing we did is run dark fiber—high volume cabling—to the schools, increasing bandwidth. We’ve also implemented caching servers so when people are accessing media-rich data they have it immediately. In the next five years, we really want to meet the anytime anywhere goal, so wherever I sit down and log on I’m seeing my desk top, my space.

Susie Meserve, former assistant editor of Technology & Learning, is a writer living in San Francisco.

Interested in learning more? E-mail Debbie Karcher at