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The Changing Role of the School District Technology Manager
The role of the school district IT Manager has changed. What used to be a position marked by installing and maintaining hardware has shifted to one of safeguarding — almost consulting for — the district on decisions and their effects across the entire organization.
The IT Director has grown from maintaining systems to managing them; from running software to recommending it.
Gary Lambert, the Educational Technology Manager for Beekmantown Central School District in New York, has embraced this evolving role. In the interview below, he shares his insights on this new role and how to maximize your value as a technology professional to your school district.
How do you view your role as an IT Manager at the district?
Part of the role that I play in the district is being just far enough out in front of the district’s needs to be able to investigate products and services and bring them back just when they’re needed, but before they’re asked for. That’s how I bring value back to my district.
“If we’re looking at one product or service versus another, I feel that it is important to be in that discussion – to talk about features and benefits, impact to the district, integration, and all of the other connected pieces. If you have one particular feature you like that affects you, let’s look at how it affects everyone as an organization.
“We went through that process when we decided that it was time to replace our Student Information System. There were several different products our department evaluated and found the one that worked best for us by bringing in all of our stakeholder groups so that everyone affected was able to give our department feedback. That process not only helped shape our decision-making but also increased buy-in from district staff.
“People need to see what their options are as well as the consequences of their choices. Typically, you don’t see districts making a choice of a system and then quickly changing their mind. Institutional change is an investment of time, of money, of training… and when you have to make a change, it’s a process.
“For example, we had a company that hosted our teacher websites and provided content management for our employees for a number of years, and it just wasn’t working well. Although we had invested a great deal of time on it, it still wasn’t meeting our needs. At some point I began to wonder, ‘Do I keep bailing the water from this sinking ship or am I going make the decision to jump ship?’ In the end, we decided that changing to something better was in our best interest.
Because employees don’t always see what’s happening behind the scenes, it is incumbent upon IT to help staff understand the reasons behind the changes — again, so that they are more supportive of the decision. You don’t just do it and have people wonder why there is one more change. The PR part is so critical.”
What are some challenges you face when bringing in a new software system?
“The landscape in education has changed more in the last five years than I think it has in the last fifty. The concerns I would have had years ago about implementing new systems are very different than they were in the past.
“I had the flu about five years ago and made a conscious decision to wean myself off of caffeinated drinks. At the time I said to myself, ‘Since I am already sick and have headaches anyway, I’m going to go through withdrawal from caffeine before I get well. If there’s ever a time to wean myself off caffeine, this would be the time to do it.’ So I did and the pain was manageable.
“So what does that have to do with the challenges of implementing a new system in an organization? When people are already enduring massive changes, the amount of push-back and “institutional pain” felt by them for adding yet another change on top of it is relatively minor, because it’s not their focus at that point. So if we’re seeing budget cuts, and people are worried about their jobs and whether they’re going to continue doing what they love doing, their irritation with you for putting in place a system that is going to save money, increase efficiency and help protect jobs is relatively minor.
“In fact, we implemented a centralized printing model and got rid of 190 classroom printers in one summer, and everyone prints to copiers now. At our opening day ceremonies, I remember looking around, and we had lost about 20 employees that year, and I said, ‘I want you to all look around and notice the empty seats. And look at the people who are still here.’ I said, ‘As painful a change as it was for most of you to get rid of your printers, you would’ve seen more empty seats and less people you know sitting around you had we not made that change.'”
What are the key criteria you look for in school district software?
“Cost usually ends up being a predictor of what is possible. But beyond that, how well does that system work and play with other systems that you have? Whether you use the integrations or not, they need to be there for you when you’re ready to use them.
“We went a long time with Aesop without ever using the ability to export Aesop information into our finance software. This summer was our first year and we’ve had it for six years. But it’s always been there.
“In fact, our business manager remarked at a meeting last year, ‘Why do we have all these systems and none of them talk to each other?’ I said, ‘Well, this system was picked by that administrator five years ago, and that one by another, etc. But, we are changing to a new student information system,’ and I said, ‘I pledge to you that, to the extent possible, I will use every possible avenue to integrate data from that new system and push it out to our transportation department, food service, library automation system, mass notification system, pecial education software… all from one place. And Aesop was another place that we ended up doing the same thing.
“When you have the opportunity to change something, it makes sense to say, ‘If we’re going to change, let’s not just change this piece — let’s step back and look at how changing this affects everything else and what else does it make possible and better.
“So… the short answer is integration!”
How do you justify the cost of new software for the schools or district?
“VeriTime, our time and attendance system, was an easy one for us, because there was an employee that used to do 90% of what VeriTime does for us without an employee. So even though that position was going to be cut anyway, when I mentioned it to the business executive, I said, ‘For less than the cost of the benefits of that employee, you’re getting the benefit of an employee.
“The decision to cut that employee was not made based on the decision to get VeriTime, but it did help justify the system to anyone who questioned it. If we were to continue doing what that employee did, we would now have five separate departments that would have to get involved, and is that an efficient use of their time? No.
“It’s also nice to be able to see comparisons between products. Comparisons matter because information matters. You can’t just go on your gut reaction — if it’s not formed by information, than what is it formed by — intuition?”
“To show ROI, you have to look at how much time is spent doing something. Are there things during that time that are not getting done? If there are, than there’s a cost to our district.
“In my position, the business manager relies on the IT department to help inform their decisions, and if we’re giving it our blessing, they’re going to ask questions, but we’re providing a good foundation for what they need to know to start with.”
Were you at all wary of Software as a Service in your district?
“It was a hesitation for us in the IT world in 2004-2005, because we could not guarantee the quality of service from our Telco vendor — if that pipeline was going to have reliable uptime or not. Now, we have 99.9% uptime and the pipeline is four times wider than it was before. Our users cannot choke that pipe without really, really trying to.
“In fact, I see no real incentive not to use Software-as-a-Service. Software-as-a-Service used to bristle the hair on the back of our necks in the IT world, because there was a distrust and a perception that, ‘We need to own that box and we need to manage it, and our worth is going to come from proving that we can do all of these things.
“Now, our worth is shown by managing the software that’s provided and being the resource for getting it done.
“Plus, the availability of the service is key — on a tablet, on an iPhone, on a computer.
“I was home with my youngest child a while back and we had an emergency situation on one of our buses. The superintendent called me and said, ‘Can you do an emergency broadcast to the families of this one particular bus?’ I replied, ‘Have the transportation supervisor send me a .csv file with all the ID numbers.’ Within twenty minutes, I had the file uploaded, a recording made, and 60 parents received phone calls. If such an application had been hosted locally on our site with proprietary client software my poor son and I would have had to get in the car and drive out to my office just to log in to the client for that system.
“We take software as a service for granted now, because it’s ubiquitous, but people need to remember that the access to the service is a key part of what you’re paying for with SaaS. Ignoring that fact is ignoring part of the product itself. How you get to the product is almost as important as the product itself.”
How do you think the role of technology director has changed?