Leaving the Private Sector for K-12

When Warren Apel's wife got a teaching job in Egypt, he thought it was the perfect opportunity to take a break from the National Institutes of Health, where as a molecular biologist he worked on finding a cure for diabetes.

"I was thinking about travel writing, photography, maybe a novel or something," he says. But Apel quickly got involved in his wife's school, first working as a science assistant, then helping to plan lessons, and eventually teaching.

When the Apels' passion for foreign travel took them to India, Apel continued to work in education, this time as technology coordinator for the American Embassy School in New Delhi. Starting this January, he plans to reorganize his school's data warehouse, train staff to use the new information management systems, and show teachers how data can be used to improve students' learning.

Working at the NIH, where Apel decoded the DNA sequences of genes, and dealing with school data is not as dissimilar as it sounds. Apel gives the example of moving health records. “One of the biggest challenges in any big data move is data cleanliness,” he says. “Can you trust that the new information is correct?” If one student’s health record got confused with another’s, any error could cause a serious problem. Since he has dealt with similar data transfer issues in the past, Apel can now avoid them before they occur.

Apel's experience is exotic, but certainly not unique. Professionals from other fields often bring diverse skills to their K−12 jobs.

Often these professionals, particular those from the private sector, build the goals of education into a business model in which the clients are students, parents, and teachers, and the product is learning. They restructure systems to be more efficient. They use business practices to maximize technology’s impact. And perhaps most important, they convince others to see technology as businesses do—as a prerequisite for success.

New Perspectives

Judy Hnat worked as a technology support analyst for several companies before becoming technology coordinator at Far Brook School in New Jersey. She says that she has found it difficult to persuade administrators to provide adequate staffing and funding for technology initiatives that businesses would see as necessary investments.

Hnat says that since schools are not driven by profit, they have less incentive and more resistance to change. To combat this tendency, she has learned to make proposals in terms of “educational ROI,” or return on investment.

“Educational metrics can be applied in the same ways that companies use ROI calculations to evaluate and adjust their investments in technology,” she says. By focusing on how technology can enhance learning in quantifiable ways, she has raised more support for her ideas.

Like Hnat, Ron Milliner has also found that funding is handled differently in education. Before he became the district CIO in Owensboro, Kentucky, he had already learned all about money management from running his own printing business. Yet public sector budgets posed new problems.

Milliner gives the example of grants as a point where financial mistakes are all too easy. "[School administrators] rely too heavily on grants for technology purchases,” he says. “Grant money may allow the startup of some new technology initiative, but usually that money only lasts one or two years. Then what?"

According to Milliner, technology should be treated just like any other essential resource and planned for appropriately. No superintendent would ever use a one-time grant to buy new buses or kitchen equipment without also putting an adequate replacement plan in the base budget, he says. He argues that technology is important enough to be considered as seriously as departments like transportation and maintenance.

Milliner advises CIOs to take a long-term perspective on important equipment. Recently, his state asked each district to prepare for online student assessments in 2008 or 2009.

Since Milliner has worked in printing and business consulting, he realized that avoiding expensive memory upgrades down the road was more cost efficient than buying the minimum requirements now. According to his analysis, a computer could perform an online assessment four years ago with a 750 MHz processor and 64 MB of RAM. Today, it needs 800 MHz and 512 MB of RAM. Because requirements increase so rapidly, Milliner expects that a computer will need a 1 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM in order to do the online assessments in a few years.

Paying a technician to install new memory on a single machine would cost $18 to $20 an hour. Since Milliner needs 200 computers, he says, “it doesn’t take a genius to figure out it would be less expensive to purchase the machines with the added memory already in them.” By planning ahead, Milliner is able to make decisions that maximize his $75,000 budget and best serve his district’s 4,000 students.

New Customers

Laura Palmer, assistant superintendent of technology for the Houston Independent School District in Texas, initially made the switch from the business world to education so that she could spend more time with her children. But she discovered that her deep concern for improving students' lives is what keeps her passionately involved in K−12.

From 1987 to 1993, Palmer was vice president of operations for a national asset management company, handing $65 million worth of real estate. "I did a lot of traveling for work, and it's difficult to be on the road when you have teenagers,” she says.

In 1994, Palmer joined the Houston Independent School District as a special education resource specialist. Since then, she has worked her way up to her current position.

With 208,000 students in 300 schools depending on her, Palmer is driven to make a difference in her district. She says that all of her projects start with the question, “How does what we do improve student learning?"

That focus comes from her years in business, when customer service was the key to success. In Palmer’s view, part of her job is to “sell” public schools. "The product is different, but customer satisfaction is really what brings people back to use your service,” she says. “In the day of charter schools, public schools are not the only option. So we have to earn people's respect by making sure that we give children a good education."

One way in which Palmer achieves this goal is by taking care of the people who make learning happen. Over the past two years, she has reorganized technical support services for teachers and staff.

“Constantly evaluating your organization for gained efficiencies and optimizations are long held business strategies used to improve the bottom line,” she says. “We asked ourselves, ‘How do we make sure we are the help desk versus the no help desk?’”

By talking directly to her customers—teachers and staff—Palmer identified areas where technical support needed improvement. She re-balanced the staff to provide both field support and telephone or e-mail support, raised experience requirements for all positions, and created convenient automated functions such as a password reset tool.

“These few but high-impact changes resulted in dramatic statistical improvements in every area from service response times to first-call resolution rates,” she says. The reorganization has also saved her district more than $500,000 a year.

Familiar Challenges

The power of technology to have a positive impact in schools is what convinced another CIO to make the switch. Lenny Schad spent 17 years in the oil and gas sector before becoming the deputy superintendent of information and technology services for the Katy Independent School District in Texas.

Coming to K−12 did not mean a pay cut for Schad, since his base salary has not significantly changed. However, he says that a CIO could receive at least 15 to 20 percent more at a private company through stocks options and bonuses.

"Could I make more money out in the private sector? Absolutely," he says. "For me, it's not about the money; it's about how I love technology. If you really have a passion for technology and education, [being a CIO] is just a match made in heaven.”

With 50,000 students in 44 schools and 30,000 new students expected over the next 10 years, Katy ISD is a growing district with big needs. For Schad, that pressure fuels ambitious projects. Since 2002, he has implemented an automated curriculum system, installed a new fiber optic network, developed district Web sites, and built a communication tool that can send automated phone messages in English and Spanish to all parents in the district.

Schad’s prior work helps him handle the potential problems associated with making such major changes. For example, in his previous career he implemented SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. Schad compares the SAP rollout to that of his new student management system. “It is very similar to an ERP—when you replace something like that, it’s very intrusive,” he says. “Whatever you put in causes lots of people to have to be retrained.”

At his previous company, Schad dealt with the high costs of training by creating a “power user” group in each department. “When we did SAP, we didn’t have to rely on one training department,” he says. “We had pockets of super users in each department, and we did the same thing here [at Katy ISD].” Now, Schad has skilled people available to provide immediate support at each of his district’s schools.


According to Schad, one of the most important things to learn in K−12 is that you are accountable to more people than just your manager or shareholders. A CIO’s decisions affect students, parents, and the community at large. "The public sector is a whole new world," he says. "Taxpayer dollars are at stake, and you must always keep that in the back of your mind."

Still, Schad has not left his old world behind. He maintains a network of contacts in the private sector who can give him expert advice. Alliances with CIOs outside of the school system provide access to the private sector’s wealth of technical solutions for business problems, he says.

For example, CIOs in Schad’s peer group share their RFPs for technology purchases with each other. Despite the differences between schools and businesses, Schad says that their RFPs are useful because they highlight “must-haves” for any similar proposal.

“Fifty percent of what they’re talking about is applicable to what I’ll put on my RFP,” he says.

Palmer agrees with Schad that combining private sector know-how with K−12 goals has great potential. "As more people with successful leadership experience in private business enter the public sector, the best practices from both sectors start to complement each other," she says.

Lindsay Oishi is a graduate student in Learning Sciences and Technology Design at Stanford University.