Major flaws in IT hiring process in PreK-12, and how to fix them


The IT decision-maker referred to in the following post is the person within a school who makes purchasing decisions for IT-related capital expenditures and ongoing operating expenses. Some schools group IT spending within the Operations budget. The IT decision-maker is the person who makes those IT spending decisions wherever the budget lines may sit. Hiring and supervising tech support personnel, technology integration specialists, and other IT-related positions often fall within the scope of responsibility of this position. In all, the IT decision-maker is responsible for the vision, strategic steering and outcomes of all IT matters in the school.

Lets get to it

Whether you call her/him a “coach”, “leader”, a “director”, or the “21st Century something-or-other”, the IT decision-maker in an American/independent school is one of the key drivers of overall organizational strategic direction in more ways than one. Here are some examples of how IT decision-making profoundly impacts a school:

  • IT straddles both the academic and business side of a school, thus it bears important influence on how people work in all areas – not to mention the impact on student life
  • Inefficient systems create wasteful replication of processes across the organization if left unchecked
  • Depending on the geographical location of the school, a strong academic technology platform and program – or lack thereof – may play a role in the admissions process
  • Personally Identifiable Information (PII) security and reliability depend on how things are being executed in the IT realm. (In Europe, laws covering this aspect of data security are much more stringent than in the US)
  • A substantial portion of the school’s operating and capital budget is assigned to this area yearly

In addition to the mostly business-related reasons stated above, faculty morale along with teaching and learning is affected depending on the IT strategy. Lets not get into the impact on the school’s nervous system that is curriculum as it is too broad to cover in one post.

Hiring someone new provides the leadership of a school an opportunity to determine the role of IT going forward. It is a more serious matter than most current approaches would lead one to believe.

Speaking from experience

In the various job/candidate searches I’ve participated in over the years the process has been similar, both for American independent schools abroad and for independent schools in the Continental US. Here’s how it usually goes:

  • A headhunting agency is contracted
  • A candidate/position profile is created
  • A phone call with the headhunter is placed to best assess strengths, primary needs, and other preferences
  • Once a “file” is complete, it is shared with seekers with similar interests
  • A meeting at a job fair may be arranged

The initial process is the same for both the candidate and the school, and it is replicated globally. The candidate is made to pay a fee regardless of results, and the school pays an even higher fee if a match is made.

Candidates are identified during the initial headhunting phase. Setting up phone and/or personal interview is then handled within the school – and this is where things begin to go south.

Let me explain

Schools take a much-relaxed approach to vetting a potential IT decision-maker. Often, the same process for hiring faculty is applied to hiring an IT decision-maker. The two positions could not be more different from one another, yet this has been the case in most of the schools I have either worked in or consulted for in the past fifteen years.

A teacher is vetted according to credentials, certifications, experience, professional references, and perhaps a videoed lesson that is submitted. Once the basics are covered, the phone/in-person interviewing begins. It is a people-heavy process. There are no tangible indicators of past performance, just her/his word, and the word of three or four past employers or colleagues – and we know how biased these “professional” references often are. The process of hiring a teacher is in large part very subjective. Sometimes the teacher works out, and sometimes s/he turns out to be poisonous for students as well as for the school community.

How are other senior administrative positions filled?

The Head of School position goes through an often rigorous and lengthy search and vetting process. The Board is heavily involved, along with a faculty committee, a group of parents and students, and other members of the community. The interviewing process takes days, if not weeks. This is totally justifiable. After all, the Head of School will have all to do with the direction of school, growing enrollment, keeping the budget in check, and embedding longevity into the life of the institution.

Directors of Development and/or Admissions and Chief Financial Officers go through a somewhat similar process. I have participated in some of those processes myself. However, when it comes to an IT decision-maker, this is seldom the case.

Why is that?

My theory

PreK-12 schools are not IT industry-focused. Far from it! These are people-centric organizations whose mission revolves around embedding caring global citizenship characteristics into the being of young people. Most senior leadership members within a school have an education background – many being former teachers themselves. Some faculty are savvy in leveraging the latest technology to make learning more engaging for students and perhaps know of tools to ease the administrative load of teaching. However, teachers who happen to be tech-savvy are not much help when it comes to designing the platform to support all those cool apps and other resources. Profound knowledge of core systems that make up a campus network, how they interact, and how these can best serve the community is usually within one person in the organization; the IT decision-maker.

Because schools are academic in nature they do a great job of identifying and hiring good teachers. IT personnel in a school are very few relative to the number of faculty, thus making identifying the right techie-type-candidate a tough job indeed.

There’s a good reason Coca-Cola does not make cars and why Toyota does not make soda. It would put them out of their area of expertise. IT is not the strong suit of most PreK-12 schools. When it comes to vetting a potential IT decision-maker, schools are out of their area of expertise.

How to get better at it

In large part, the interviewing process in schools is academic-heavy – no surprise there. Educators have interviewed me most of the nearly 2 decades I have worked in education. Some administrators/staff have been part of the process, but usually in very small numbers in comparison to the educator group. Members from the following groups in the community have rarely made an appearance during the interviewing process:

  • Board members
  • Parents whose career may bring a different level of expertise in the area of IT
  • Students
  • Alumni
  • Other Heads of Schools in the area
  • IT decision-makers of other schools
  • IT industry HR specialists

Adding more (appropriate) people to the vetting committee would be a great place to start on improving the process of identifying and hiring the right IT decision-maker for your school.

Here are some core steps schools can take to improve their approach to hiring an IT decision-maker:

Step 1: Figure it out

A major factor in being able to identify the right IT decision-maker for a school is that the school must have an idea of what it actually needs. You would be surprised of the number of schools out there that are still figuring this out. The campus network for a 1:1 tablet school is very different from the more traditional workstation-at-every-desk type of network. BYOD network needs vary from the mobile-cart type. Regardless of the type of platform, the one constant is teaching and learning, and how to support it best given variables such budget, people, strategic direction, etc. Before determining what type of network to deploy, equipment needed, or what operating system to rely on, a school has to know what it wants to be in 5-10 years and what role IT plays to help it get there.

Strategic planning in a school is mostly academic and organizational in nature. Little detail is included about the IT platform during the strategic planning process. Most of the time, the job of creating the (oh-so-famous) Technology Plan in a school is left up to the IT decision-maker. Though some input is taken from faculty, most of the core technical stuff in the plan comes from the IT decision-maker and no one else.

Before starting the search and vetting process for a new IT decision-maker, be sure to get your ducks in order. Figure out what skills the person should posses to get your school to where you want to be in 5-10 years. This does not mean there has to be a 5-10yr Technology Plan – please do not make one of these…ever! It means the school knows it wants to embed blended or flipped learning in the classroom. Maybe the school would like to enrich their visual and performing arts program, or even create maker spaces and have them integrated throughout the curriculum. Whatever approaches the school is looking to undertake in the coming years, it will require a consistent faculty-training program, sufficient support systems, and a solid and scalable platform…and someone to lead it.

Step 2: Make the move

Before contacting a headhunter, bring the right people together and create a four-part IT decision-maker profile. Here are the four parts of that profile along with ideas on how to vet potential candidates:

  • Part one should include all the people-centric characteristics such as empathy, ability to listen, sense of humor, ability to simplify concepts when explaining them, supervisory aptitude, patience, propensity for risk-taking, high self-confidence level, public speaking ability, and others. If the school lacks this resource in-house, a corporate HR specialist can help put together a process to determine de presence or lack thereof of these qualities in a candidate. Many companies have all applicants take some form of the Myers Briggs test before moving into the position-specific parts of the process.
  • Part two is easy for a school. It’s all about academics and how well the candidate knows her/his way around the workings of a classroom, the overall school culture and pace of an academic year. Determine how student-centric her/his decisions have been in the past. The candidate should have left a legacy at whatever school s/he was before applying to work at your school. Make some calls.
  • Part three should be about technology knowhow. Bring in a fellow school’s IT person or personnel for this. And be sure to ask the right questions. It’s not only about what platform the school has at the moment, but also about where the school is going and what kind of recommendations a candidate would make given the goals. It is equally important to get a sense of how the person makes recommendations, who s/he reaches out to and partners with, and what communication strategies are taken before major shifts. Placing calls to previous schools may provide some insight into this.
  • Part four is the most difficult part. It is important to determine how well the candidate can join all of the previous parts together and leverage them to bring about positive change in the organization. Technology is constantly in motion, and it requires a certain inclination and friendliness to change if a person is to keep up. The IT decision-maker must be able to almost tell the future such that big-ticket purchases are solid and build a stronger foundation rather than add complexity to the mix. Tech know-how and sensitivity to school life are essential to moving the school to the next level. Check out my previous post about how and why things tend to get so complex within the IT side of a school.

Keep in mind the impact an IT decision-maker brings upon the academic and the business side of a school. This person guides the growth and evolution of the platform and it impacts the overall culture of a school. The platform can be made to be nimble and adaptable to the needs over time, or it can get in the way of growth and become an expensive burden to deal with.

Consider the Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) approach many schools are taking lately. In order for VDI to work as promised, it is prohibitively costly – this is true even in the corporate environment. VDI works okay in limited scenarios, but it does not serve a school well overall. Still, so much money is going in that direction it astounds me! Check out a previous post I shared that covers some of my troubles with VDI. VDI is a clear example of a purely techie approach to IT in a school. Be sure to have your IT decision-maker fit the bill not just in the server room, but also in the classroom, in faculty departmental and/or grade-level meetings, and with students.

What is s/he like?

Following are a few characteristics of a good IT decision-maker:

  • Vision – The IT decision-maker must be able to steer the platform alongside major developments and shifts in the IT industry
  • Patience – This person is a teacher at every level, and if they don’t see themselves as such it should raise a flag. S/he must be able to work well with adults and children
  • Caring – Technology will always provoke and catalyze change in a school, and the IT decision-maker must have earned the trust of end-users in order to make the ongoing changes part of the rhythm of the school. There’s no better way to earn trust than to show you care about how people are impacted by changes in IT
  • Resourcefulness – Anyone with interest in a technical subject can have access to the information needed to get a server up and going. However, resolving major problems on a network by knowing how systems are impacting each other takes much more than the ability to do a Google search.
  • Networked – A seasoned IT decision-maker’s true value is not in her/his network infrastructure knowledge. Her/his value is in the connections s/he brings along. Knowing other IT decision-makers and what they are up to in their respective schools is much more valuable than technical knowledge. S/he has a group of colleagues to bounce ideas off of. This is most important when major shifts in infrastructure are on the horizon. I can’t stress enough how important this is!

Once you have the RIGHT her/him, don’t let go!

Once you secure the right person for the job, be sure to continue to support this position with training, exposure to other schools via visits and sharing. Also, get the most out that person by leveraging the school calendar to maximize their impact via consistent teacher training time.