Two years ago, Charles T. Thompson, Sr. was bringing over $50 million worth of broadband services to Seoul, Korea, as a senior engineering manager for Cisco Systems. Today, he’s applying that technical and business expertise to his position as the chief technology officer for District of Columbia Public Schools. He talked with us about lessons learned from the corporate world, current projects underway, and trends he sees on the horizon.
Q: What was it like to make the transition from the business world to education?
A: There were some cultural challenges to overcome and new language to understand—for example, understanding terms like pacing charts and rubrics. I learned it’s not about the technology per se but the business of using technology that has a direct impact on instruction. I didn’t get that when I first came here, but I listened to a lot of educators the first 20 months, and they enlightened me as to why I was there.
Q: Do you think coming from the business side gives you a distinct advantage? How does it inform your work as CTO?
A: Some K–12 people who’ve grown up in the system may not have the business acumen for negotiating the best price. Having been in the commercial world, I understand what margins are, and what company end-ofquarter cycles look like. The key is to form strong partnerships where everyone profits. I have two sets of e-mail folders. One is called partners, the other is called vendors. If any of our partners do something that adversely affects our ability to be successful, I’ll move them from the partner folder to the vendor folder. When they have a meeting with me and I share this, they’ll say, “Well, how can we fix that?”
Q: The Council of the Great City Schools’ recent study on D.C. Public Schools indicated the district lacked reliable data for gauging instructional progress. What’s your department’s role in turning things around?
A: My definition of good information is that it must be accurate, concise, able to be manipulated, and timely to the user. But most districts—unless they got way out ahead—have their data residing in individual silos. This is a problem corporate America was dealing with four or five years ago. Right now we’re investing in applications that can easily “talk” to each other so data elements can feed from all the functional areas into a data warehouse that allows analysis to take place. Every application will be School Interoperability Framework certified—not just compliant, but actually certified—so if we decide we don’t like a partner, we can pull them out and put another SIF-certified module in without much disruption. My advice to other CIOs: Don’t build a data warehouse to meet NCLB, build it to capture the appropriate data for analysis.
Q: What else is on your agenda?
A: There are two areas I’m investing some time in right now. One is something called a dashboard system, where CIOs get performance metrics on their organization based on the IT Infrastructure Library framework. The other is the whole issue of privacy, information security, and identity management—for example, complying with acts like FERPA for protecting student records, knowing definitively if a parent or guardian is logging on from home and they are who they say they are. One IT governance model I’m looking at is CobiT. The model has 34 processes and 318 controls; the idea is if you meet all those processes and controls, you’re in full compliance as far as IT goes. I imagine some time in the next 36 months the government might ask districts for this information for accountability reasons. Being able to protect information and individual privacy is where CIOs are going because we are the owners of the information and all the related business processes.