Celebrating the Two-Year Anniversary of ATLIS

I still remember the day — October 7, 2014 — when I had coffee with an independent school colleague. Our conversation that day altered my career trajectory — and those of so many other people.

At the time, I was entering my fourth year as a director of technology and seventh overall in school technology administration. I was growing more interested in learning about and contributing to the broader network of educational technology professionals than in tracking down dongles and power cables — and hungering to tackle bigger problems.

Inspiration, ideation, and a bit of urgency

I drove to San Francisco that afternoon to meet a fellow independent school technology director, Kelsey Vrooman. The two of us began by discussing issues that are typical during an off-campus meeting of technology directors: blended learning pilots, faculty trainings, learning management systems. But then the conversation grew intriguing.

Over coffee we went into ideation mode, putting on our “What if” hats — as if we were right in the middle of a design thinking workshop. We talked about a resource that was missing from our community of independent school technology professionals, grounding our conversation in a few common observations:

  • Many educational technology companies circle over schools like seagulls flying above a sports stadium at the end of a game, ready to swoop down to grab whatever they can.
  • Many educational technology conferences and associations cater first and foremost to teachers or public school administrators, leaving a population of independent school technology administrators underserved.
  • Many regional gatherings, informal listservs, and for-profit organizations host events and maintain support networks, but are unable to advocate for our community at a national or international level.

We needed an organization that could empower our community of independent school technology professionals by drawing on our collective wisdom and talents. What had begun as a casual brainstorming chat suddenly took on a sense of urgency for me: If we didn’t take matters into our own hands, some other external group with less expertise and ulterior motives might beat us to it.

ATLIS: a new organization

That conversation led directly to the creation of a new nonprofit organization: ATLIS, the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent Schools. Together with fellow director of technology Stuart Posin, the three of us co-founded and launched ATLIS. Before long, we had created a website, planned our first conference for the following spring, sold sponsorships, and laid the groundwork for a new professional development association.

Along the way, we met many friendly supporters and galvanized an enthusiastic community of technology professionals. We also encountered pockets of resistance, which in some cases surprised us. But in hindsight, we should have anticipated this. Some people worried that their well-established regional technology networks might erode. Others thought our focus was too narrow to be self-sustaining and should instead be part of a broader agenda or organization.

Undeterred, we shrugged off the naysayers and barreled ahead to launch our new association. We were driven in part by a collective sense of frustration that our technology community seemed to be an afterthought for so many other associations. It was time to create an association with its bullseye centered squarely on supporting the professional development of independent school technology administrators.

In the end, our vision was vindicated: The conference sold out — both in attendance and sponsorships. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Soon, executive directors of well-established associations came knocking on our door to talk about partnerships and even mergers. At this point, it was clear that our ideation had become a reality, and it was time to figure out how to make ATLIS a self-sustaining organization.

Employee #1: Sarah Hanawald

I often compare ATLIS to NBOA, the National Business Officers Association, which was formed 20-some years ago by a small group of business officers with similar motivations to ours. Above all else, NBOA professionalized the work of an independent school business officer. My co-founders and I each had slightly different takes on the elevator-pitch response to “Why ATLIS?” but for me, this notion of professionalization was paramount.

I had become tired of the deficiencies in my professional community: being called the “Tech Guy” because no one knew what I did each day; not having a vast peer support network like my administrator colleagues in other disciplines have; and seeing the entire independent school world fumble its way through critical, massive decisions about educational technology. When people questioned why I had to work during the summer when students and teachers were away, my worst fears of widespread misunderstanding had been confirmed.

As soon as we hired Sarah Hanawald as the first employee of ATLIS, I knew we were on the right track toward achieving professionalization for the field. Sarah brings years of education technology experience, a calm and patient mindset, and a willingness to literally grow something from nothing. With Sarah at the helm, ATLIS is in excellent hands.

Sarah is ready to help our technology community inform, connect, and reflect — the three basic tenets for ATLIS. She is also able to help non-technology administrators understand why we need to do this. Her stewardship has been successful in both areas. And the evidence of this success abounds: school memberships, an expanded board, regional gatherings, industry partnerships, publications, guiding principles, leadership institutes—the list goes on.

I am confident that Sarah can lead ATLIS in its third year by expanding the already impressive list of services and program offerings. To any school that is unsure of why it should join ATLIS, I would respond, “Why not? With all the other associations that serve schools, how can you afford not to join the association that provides professional development to the one department that is both a critical engine of educational innovation and the biggest consumer of your discretionary budget?”

Empowering educational technology leadership

My co-founders and I have since spread out to different corners of the educational technology universe. I found my niche by launching Ed Tech Recruiting, a company that provides strategic consulting to schools in educational technology. Our focus is improving the human capital of technology with three major services: assess, recruit, and transition.

In a word, Ed Tech Recruiting helps schools pivot, but does so in a way that empowers each school to take ownership for its revamped technology program. Our clients are schools that often feel like stranded vessels in shallow waters. Ed Tech Recruiting is the tugboat able to reposition the ship in more sailable channels with the correct bearing.

With this metaphor in mind, I would argue that ATLIS is like the coast guard that keeps an eye on the vast seas of educational technology. Any school, stranded or not, benefits from the knowledge and expertise of an organization that maintains this macro view of the technology ecosystem. And anyone who thinks they can sail alone is likely a maverick or pirate. I wouldn’t want to be on those ships.

I’ve heard that your career trajectory only makes sense when you turn around and look back at the path you took. In my case, that’s true. I couldn’t imagine a better job: working in tugboat-like fashion to rescue schools stranded by their technology challenges. Then, after facilitating some tough strategic decisions, and just when the currents subside, we cut the rope and watch each school sail off on its own. Sometimes it’s human nature to discourage cutting the cord, whether as a school consultant or association co-founder. Fortunately, with Sarah Hanawald as the executive director of ATLIS, letting go in both cases has been easy.

Here’s to a great third year for ATLIS!