CTOs Need to Know the Business of IT

While technology and schools have changed over the years, the skills a good CTO (Chief Technology Officer, i.e., district technology leader) really haven’t changed that much. I realize that some reading this will take issue quite strongly with my statement, but I won’t budge. The skills that helped me to be successful for more than two decades in the CTO role are the same skills necessary for today’s CTOs. That’s been validate for me recently as I have been spending quite a bit of time in a very large school district as a consulting, interim CTO.

A good K12 CTO is part technologist, part educator, part politician and a whole lot of businessperson.  It might surprise some that my emphasis is not on education, after all, that is the primary service of the school district. Right? Note that I did not say that education is the business of the school district. It’s not. The business of an organization includes all of the inputs it takes to offer and deliver a service (or product). It appear to be splitting-hairs, but it’s an important distinction.

This distinction between the business and the service offering of a school IT operations is an important one. It’s important, because it is all too common to see CTOs spend a majority of their time and energy one education or on the technology. The former is typical of CTOs who have risen from the ranks of the classroom. The latter is typical of those who have risen through the ranks of IT.  Neither is inherently a problem, unless the CTO is not spending sufficient time on the business of IT and service delivery.

Think of IT as a business. The purpose of the business is to provide a set of services to students, staff, and parents. Like any business, you need resources to accomplish this; money and people. I know, you acquire people with money, but you also need to have the organization structured properly and you need to manage the people appropriately. Without sufficient funding in the forms you need and when you need it, the CTO has a difficult time doing their job. Without the right people in the right roles, the CTO doesn’t stand a chance.

CoSN’s (Consortium for School Networking) Framework of Essential Skills (http://www.cosn.org/Framework) certainly recognizes the importance of business skills and knowledge for CTOs, yet so many CTOs would rather spend a day at the dentist than working with the budget or on staffing plans. It reminds me of the restaurant owner who either spends their time in the kitchen because they like to cook or in the front of the house because they are a people-person.  Yes, the food has to be good and the customers have to be happy, but if that owner doesn’t pay attention to the “books” and make sure that the staff is a “well-oiled machine” the restaurant will fail.

When a CTO fails to take care of the less glamourous sides of IT the quality of services will degrade, staff morale will erode and the CTO will lose the trust of those they depend on for resources, such as the CFO (Chief Financial Officer), superintendent and board members.

For those in the CTO role today, ask yourself if you pay sufficient attention to the business of IT. Do you have the financial and people resources you need? Are the people in the right roles? If not, maybe you need to focus on those issues.

For those aspiring to a CTO role, it’s not enough to be passionate about students and learning or to really know the technology. If you can’t embrace the business of IT, particularly budgeting and staffing, you’re not ready for the role.

By embracing the business of IT, you’ll better position your team to deliver the services your customers need and expect.


Bob Moore has enjoyed a career of 26 years in education technology. His work has included more than two decades as a CIO in K12 schools and several years as lead strategist for a multi-billion dollar global ed-tech business, as well many years of active leadership in organizations such as CoSN. In 2012 Bob founded RJM Strategies LLC and works with schools and ed-tech business clients as a strategist, advisor and subject matter expert. His life’s work is grounded in his tenacious commitment to vision, innovation, integrity and practicality. Follow Bob on Twitter @BobMEdTech. See Bob's Profile and Connect on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bob-moore-675ba4

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