Improving Your Chances as a School CTO Candidate (Part 1)

The 2018-2019 school CTO hiring season is upon us. Until recently, next year’s jobs often didn’t post until spring. Now, greater expectations of the CTO role and competition for candidates have triggered earlier and longer hiring processes. This is good news for selective and experienced candidates.
But the flip side is that applicants are under greater scrutiny. Traditional hardware and software administration experience, though still relevant, are sometimes secondary to broader leadership skills.
This article begins a two-part series to help CTO candidates prepare for an increasingly grueling hiring process. Below are two important leadership qualities that schools often emphasize even when not explicitly stated. Next time I’ll share specific tips for the application process.
Note: the use of the term ‘CTO’ is not meant to be limiting. My advice applies to any technology leadership candidate.
Capacity to manage change
Change management is one reason “soft skills” exist in a job posting: communication, attention to detail, patience, and more. The classic change scenario is a multiyear project that affects a broad set of end-users and requires ongoing negotiation and finesse. Thus, managing an SIS transition is far more relevant experience than managing a wireless upgrade. Yes, the latter is high stakes and affects everyone, but these scenarios are not equivalent.
You need to present yourself as an effective change manager. Can you steer a meeting but not take it over? Are your presentations inspiring with just the right amount of detail? Is your writing persuasive and compelling? Can you appeal to people who are both decisive and consensus-oriented, especially when they’re in the same room? Do you have political savvy? Managing change is an art, not a science. One aside: your references are critical to corroborate first impressions from an interview.
Capacity to lead in your weak area
A CTO’s areas of responsibility can be vast: IT, data, systems, and instructional. Plus, these categories are expanding. For example, IT is bleeding more into theatre AV, classroom furniture, and shared campus spaces. Instructional technology is playing a bigger role to support assessment analytics, instructional design, and innovation.
One mistake CTO candidates often make is trying to prove their tactical chops in all these areas. Classic examples are an IT manager who hasn’t taught or an instructional technology coordinator who lacks network experience. If you’re applying for a CTO job, you need to demonstrate a capacity to manage your weak area, not to operate in that area.
If you’ve never taught before, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t design inspirational professional development. Offer to lead a design thinking exercise, or turn a traditional presentation performance task into a stellar interactive and collaborative session.
Meanwhile, if you’ve never managed a network before, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t oversee the implementation a solid IT plan. Know your key terms, but try to stay high level. When facing questions about VMs and VLANs, for example, try to steer the conversation up to data redundancy and network segmentation.
This last point is key: as a CTO candidate, you need to show an aptitude for discussing technology issues at the meta level. Don’t have a set of disconnected talking points that come out like buzz words. You will inspire confidence if you present a set of frameworks and talking points that resonate with both technical and non-technical administrators.
Final thoughts
Some questions every candidate should ponder before the first interview:
  • How would you manage the relationship between technology and curricular innovation?
  • How would you align or separate a school’s instructional technology and instructional design programs?
  • How would you design and evaluate faculty professional development experiences?
  • How would you manage an IT audit and its aftermath?
  • How and when would you decide to outsource?
  • How would you reduce a technology budget by 20% in two years?
The more you can angle yourself as an effective change agent with a broad capacity to lead, the better your chances. Next time, we’ll explore the critical parts of the CTO application process itself.
Gabriel Lucas is principal of Ed Tech Recruiting, an international firm helping educational organizations hire for senior technology administrators. He is a former educator and director of technology.