Finding and hiring top-quality technology staff for a school system isn’t easy. Here are some things I’ve learned about the process from my own experience in trying to hire a new technology director at St. Benedict’s. Hopefully, my editor won’t notice this month’s column is actually a shameless grab at some free ad space in a desperate attempt to fill the position I’m vacating in September. I’m leaving Benedict’s for a position as the Director of Academic Technology at the Dwight Englewood School in Englewood, N.J.
After several thousands of dollars in advertising, exhaustive posting on electronic forums and bulletin boards, and various other types of personal networking, the position is still available, and I’m running out of ideas. While I certainly have no illusions about being irreplaceable, the job is proving tough to fill for a number of reasons. I’m convinced it’s a combination of two things–the unique nature of a school information technology (IT) environment and the money that schools can afford to pay their IT staff.
At the beginning of our search, we defined three positions we wanted to fill: a director of IT, a network manager, and a lab manager/computer science teacher. The idea was that the director would fulfill a leadership and visionary role, would be in charge of curriculum integration, staff development, and would manage the other two employees. The network manager would be responsible solely for making the system run, and the lab manager/computer science teacher would monitor students in the lab, answer basic questions, and teach two computer science electives. Our network is relatively small, so we felt that dividing the roles in this way would allow us to make the most out of three people and still keep our technology plans on track.
Based on what we’ve done so far with computer science courses, we were comfortable making the lab manager position an entry-level hire. This made the position much easier to fill. Someone just out of college with a computer science major, or perhaps just some experience in programming, who had a strong enough personality to control 20 to 30 students in a computer lab would fit the bill nicely.
The other two positions were a completely different story. The network manager would have sole responsibility for the reliability of the network, and since we have grown completely dependent on our computer systems, we couldn’t risk hiring someone without experience and a proven track record. While there are plenty of IT professionals who would be more than qualified to step in and run our network on a moment’s notice, the school’s salary structure made the profile of this hire considerably more complex. We were either looking for someone who had grown up in a similar educational environment and was looking for a change, or we were looking for someone who was at the end of his or her career and was interested in leaving the corporate world for a less-stressful academic environment.
Finding a school network manager who can keep your system up and running without doing any work with staff or the curriculum may be a difficult task because of salary, but not an impossible one. It certainly won’t be difficult to generate a large pool of qualified candidates. The skill set required for running a Microsoft or a Novell network is pretty straightforward and consistent from one organization to the next. Filling a director of technology position is considerably more difficult, because the job often requires completely different skills from one school to the next.
For us, the director position definitely has been the most difficult match. I’m convinced this is because it’s a job that means different things to different schools, and there really isn’t a consistent candidate pool out there. When a school posts an ad for a principal or a guidance counselor, it’s going to get résumés from people who have a certain level of training, certification, and experience. Tech directors are different. In my own job search, I interviewed for several tech director positions that varied widely. In one position, I would have been the only person in the district responsible for everything having to do with computers and their support and maintenance. In another, I would have been the manager of a tech support staff of 22. In yet another, I would have been removed completely from all technical maintenance and support.
We posted our director position in the New York Times and got a pool of résumés that reflected this inconsistency in the job title. One respondent recently had left a corporate position managing a technical staff of more than 200. He had no experience in education, and his salary requirements were in the low six figures. Other résumés came in from people who were in the classroom full time, had used computers in innovative ways, but had no formal curriculum development, staff training, or management experience.
While support of the network was not a part of the director’s job description, technical ability also was a concern for us. IT professionals tend to get restless in their jobs, especially when they feel their skills aren’t being developed or they aren’t being kept abreast of changes in the industry. We needed to plan on the fact that our network manager job probably would turn over more rapidly than our director job, and we wanted a director who could keep the system running during the gaps between network managers.
While I don’t see this situation changing in the near future, schools in search of a technology director can do themselves a favor by drafting a job description that is as specific as possible before they place any ads or begin their search. Newspaper ads should detail some of the responsibilities of the position, such as staff development, long-range planning, or curriculum integration.
When résumés come in, decide what technical skills this person is going to need to begin winnowing the pool. Should he or she have industry certification or an advanced degree in instructional technology? Some states and schools of higher education now offer a special certification in instructional technology. Schools should be cautioned, however, that these certifications would suffer from the same difficulties the entire industry suffers from: These jobs, unlike those of classroom teachers, mean different things to different schools.
Finally, identify the personal skills this person is going to need to do the job well and craft interview questions to identify these skills. Some people are outstanding technicians but have a hard time dealing with people. Others might have good experience in curriculum development but might never have managed anyone beneath them. Certainly, the better a school can clarify its vision about the role this person will play in its organization, the easier the process will be. Like anything else, you need to know what you’re looking for if you’re to have any hope of finding it.