DAILY INSIGHT: 7 tips for doing first things first

By Miguel Guhlin

Over the years, I've had the chance to chat with many CTOs and tech directors Directors about starting out in a new place of employment. This list of 7 tips for "new" CTOs on what to do first is based on those conversations. If you're one of the CTOs I chatted with, you'll be sure to recognize your tip(s) in the list below. If you read the list and don't see something that you believe is critical, please share in the comments!

"What will you do first?"Our first temptation is to come into a new place and start changing everything, practicing slash-'n'-burn leadership. I know when I've started new jobs, all I see is what's missing. That can be dangerous because your vision is obscuring your sight. What you really need to see and focus on is people's needs, wants, and their vision.

Tip #1 - Connect with departments
One of the challenges of being new is that you meet people but seldom get to ask deeper questions. In the first few weeks/months of being new, it's important to contact all Central Office directors one by one and ask them to share what they have in place, what they are responsible for. Then, hone in on what their needs are for better technology support, what their vision is, and what they would like to see technology do in the future.

Tip #2 - Connect with campus principals
Just as you have connected with department directors, you'll also want to do the same with campus principals. Do a walk through of their building so you can get a sense of the technology that's out there, what their needs are, and what they would like to see happen in the future. Your goal isn't so much to share your vision of what could be but to get insight into what they perceive as critical and what you can do to help them achieve that.

Tip #3 - Prepare a writeup for each visit and aggregate results
I encourage you to setup a wiki (read Stephanie Sandifer's book, Wikis for School Leaders and this article) to house your ideas, questions, observations—tastefully articulated, of course—so that you build a public record of what you're learning. A written report of what's happening at each campus, as well as a combined list of needs and wants, can help you see commonalities among all campuses and departments. The benefits of this include a first step toward building a cohesive vision that captures the hopes and dreams of the people a CTO serves.

Tip #4 - Connect with your technology team and log their work

Although these tips could be separate, one of the challenges that tech department team members face is that no one listens to them, no one takes the time to share what the big picture is and their place in it. This can be frustrating for any staff member, more so for those who "labor in darkness." Ask each of them what's going on, what their responsibilities are, ask them to develop documentation for their work. Again, I'm reminded of the tyranny of competence where only one person—that technician—knows what they are doing. Finally, it's very important to consider their needs, write down what they are actually responsible for (as opposed to what's in their job descriptions), and what we can do to make what we do "down the road" better.

Tip #5 - Setup weekly meetings

Set up weekly meetings between the tech and instructional departments. The agenda for these meetings will flow from questions that arise from the meetings the CTO has had with department directors, principals, emails, and other contacts with customers. The focus of these meetings has to be to identify what we're doing—together as a team—and how we can help each other.

Tip #6 - Establish benchmarks for the organization
It's hard to show progress when there hasn't been a standard set or a benchmark assessment done. Some of those benchmarks must include a technology hardware assessment, a network connectivity and security assessment from a third-party evaluator that has not done the work for the district before, as well as curriculum- & instruction-type feedback (e.g., levels of teaching innovation). These benchmark assessments can get schools rolling in the right direction and this is the perfect time to conduct the assessments.

Tip #7 - Connect with community members
In the spirit of making connections, one group that is often overlooked is the community. To that end, its important to connect with local groups like the Veterans for Foreign Wars, Kiwanis Club, Knights of Columbus, and more. What a wonderful opportunity it can be to build relationships with these individuals before you actually try to do that district-wide iPad initiative. It's also important to connect with CTOs from other organizations such as hospitals, utility companies, and police departments.

If you're a CTO, undoubtedly you've noticed that a significant part of your job is about connecting, collaborating, and communicating. For a long time, I thought being a CTO was about the technical side of the house, but after chatting with colleagues in these positions, the light went off. It's about working with people, bringing people together, giving voice to their needs, wants and their vision for the future. What a powerful role of service to play in schools and community!

Miguel Guhlin is director of technology for a 5A school district in Texas and past president of the statewide TCEA Technology Education Coordinators group. This blog is cross posted at Around the Corner.