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Which Hat Am I Wearing Now? The Role of District CTO.


Technologies with the potential to improve the school experience are popping up left and right. Some of that technology is for students. Some of it is for educators. Some of it is for the athletic coaching staff. But no matter who is using the technology, its management and upkeep usually fall to the person with District Technology Director or CTO in their email signature.

And with so many different customers to serve — like a 4th grader with a broken laptop, or a facilities manager who needs to bring a new industrial boiler online — the role of technology director is evolving rapidly and can be somewhat fluid.

Many directors wear multiple hats within a district, yet some consistent challenges, goals and experiences related to the role are becoming clear. We surveyed over 120 district technology leaders to learn how they came into their roles, what keeps them up at night, what takes up their time and what motivates them. Here’s what we found out.

What is the professional background of a technology director?

So, how does one become a district technology director these days? What does that career path look like?

We asked the directors we surveyed where they worked prior to their current role.

Number of Mentions

Regardless of district size, most respondents came into their current role by way of another role in their district, while 40% worked outside of the education field before accepting their current position. Eighteen percent came from a similar, tech-focused role in another district.

What does a “typical” workday look like? Kidding.

For district technology directors, there is no “typical” workday — and many of the leaders we surveyed prefer it that way.

One director said,No two days are ever the same. I feel challenged every day to do my job better!”

Another shared, “There is a lot of diversity in my job. This keeps my fears down that I will one day become bored with what I do.”

Here is the breakdown of a typical day — or as close to typical as you’re going to get as a technology director.

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Close runners-up were:

  • Working with vendors
  • Running/preparing reports, project management for larger technology projects
  • Paperwork and device management

Of the top three tasks that consistently compete for a technology director’s attention, two are reactive in nature: tasks related to fixing or updating technology and training district staff on technology.

After technology firefighting and staff-training responsibilities, the tasks mentioned most often as taking up directors’ time were related to future planning: finding, vetting and experimenting with the next important piece of technology for their districts.

These findings beg the question, if most of a technology directors’ day is spent in reactive mode, how much time can be spent planning for the future?

Biggest concerns

So, what keeps technology directors up at night (or working until 1 a.m., as a couple of respondents reported)?

“Getting the most out of the technology we have, training staff and then having them actually use it. Finding products that do what we need at an affordable price.”

“Budgeting for future technology purchases. Knowing what technology best meets the needs of our students and teachers. Getting administrator and teacher ‘buy-in’ for technology purchases and programs.”

Here are the five things directors are most concerned about.

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Close runners-up were:

  • Security and data privacy
  • Rapid rate of change/staff resistance to change
  • Lack of professional development

District technology directors are being tasked with finding, vetting and implementing technology that is the right fit for their district. And they’re being asked to plan for the future — though often the future is uncertain, time is tight and budget is finite. More and more, they’re also asked to show a new kind of ROI for their district’s tech investments: return on instruction.

Lack of bandwidth, including not enough qualified technology staff, was another major concern.

What they’d like to know more about

As reported by a recent Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) survey, cybersecurity is still the top priority for technology directors ― and findings from our survey are consistent with that. Digital security is the number one thing directors want to know more about, followed by instructional technology, computer science, data management and analysis, and future trends in EdTech.

Number of Mentions

Close runners-up were:

  • Servers
  • Better ways to manage resources
  • Device management and hardware fixes
  • Infrastructure

A common theme of directors’ responses about what they wanted to know more about was around technology already being used in their districts.

“I still don’t know everything that we could be doing with the various systems we use.”

Another common theme was wishing they had more time to spend on professional development.

“Just wish I had time to dive into several topics in depth. Lack of staffing and time only allows me to know a little about a wide variety of subjects.”

At this point, it would be fair to say directors have a lot on their plates and on their minds. So, what keeps them motivated?

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What keeps them coming back for more?

When was the last time you reached out to your district’s technology office for help? A recent Zendesk report found that internal support teams receive an average of 492 tickets per month. That isn’t an education-specific metric, but given that technology firefighting takes up so much of directors’ time, it doesn’t seem like a stretch.

When asked to describe a “typical” workday, one survey respondent sent this breakdown:

  • 70% → Answering emails and trouble tickets
  • 15% → Long-term projects or development
  • 10% → WebEx meeting with vendors and or sales demonstrations
  • 5% → Weekly meeting with staff

So, what keeps district CTOs coming back for more?

Number of Mentions

Some individual responses:

“I love helping people learn. It is incredible to help people realize their potential and to learn and grow even as adults. It’s also nice to be able to use technology to facilitate learning in engaging and more efficient ways.”

“Finding new technologies to help my teachers and students.”

“The freedom to innovate and explore new technologies that could help improve the current tech environment.”

Common threads

The data from this survey comes from a small sample size of technology leaders from across the U.S. and obviously doesn’t speak to the challenges, goals and backgrounds of all district CTOs.

Yet, the data speaks loudly in a few ways about this unique, sometimes not-well-understood role.

  1. Technology leaders are concerned about things often outside of their control, like budget, time and amount of technology staff
  2. Much of their time is spent firefighting technology issues — but, in an ideal world, more time could be set aside for future planning
  3. They’re motivated to help the educational community as a whole succeed, even if it means working long hours and dealing with job ambiguity

A huge thank you to all of the district technology leaders who took the time to lend their input and expertise for this survey! Your knack for bringing order to the technology chaos is a huge part of what keeps your districts running smoothly.

Danielle Simbajon

Danielle is part of the global, award-winning content team at Frontline Education. She graduated from Emerson College with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Writing, Literature and Publishing, and has developed content to empower the education community for over 10 years.