Veteran K-12 CTO shares tips for designing the school system of your dreams

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EDTECH: We know that for schools, summer is when teams typically perform these network upgrades. But it seems that, for you, this upgrade started in the fall when the children were in school.

SHEPHERD: You often see traditional network refresh getting stuck in this summer time. In the past, that’s how we’ve always done it. Sometimes the bet with this, however, is that our loads and network usage really aren’t there.

We started last summer. We really segmented and broke the project down and spread it out throughout the school year.

The most critical part at the end for us was the core. It really worked to focus the team on doing a lot of things on the weekends and after hours, so there was no downtime during the day.

DISCOVER: Check out these updates to minimize disruption during the school year.

EDTECH: What are some of your biggest takeaways from this process?

SHEPHERD: During my 22 years, I have done several network updates. This one was a little different because of what has changed for all of us around the world: the supply chain. Some network equipment has delivery times of 150 to 300 days. So you’re not starting to think today that I’m going to change networks in three or six months. You need to step back even further and start these conversations earlier.

I think it’s very important to work directly with manufacturers to understand their supply chains and how things look so that we can plan.

EDTECH: What else should K-12 IT teams think about as they begin the planning process?

SHEPHERD: The other thing to consider is the impact on your technology staff. Everyone is tired, everyone has been so exhausted for the past two years.

You really need to assess what you are willing to take on with your staff and if it is easier for the supplier to do it for you.

So I work with vendors who can help with that. You have to be very strategic with a lot more partnership conversations. And that’s the key — it’s a partnership. You can buy a Switch SKU from anyone. It takes a partnership to make it work.

EDTECH: What things have you outsourced to your external service providers instead of letting your very exhausted team handle it?

SHEPHERD: I initially relied on the manufacturers to help me with our design plan. My team sat down with Cisco and worked on designing this network.

And then I started looking for my partners to help with the implementation. We partner with CDW on some of those projects, so now it’s almost like a second look at the design.

I can pay my partners to bring in people to unscrew things from my rack, screw the new ones in, put in the patch cables and be done with it.

They have the capacity of infrastructure, storage and other facilities to do it much more easily than we do. Let them take those steps for you.

Then it’s more in-depth reviews of how to rock our core, and that aspect is important with the overall project management, working with the project managers at this company to help keep everything on the right way – not just you and your own staff, but them too. And that really helps.

EDTECH: How have these improvements impacted the class and your team?

SHEPHERD: The benefit we’ve seen from this, of course, is the ability to reduce congestion on our network through expanded bandwidth. We were able to segment with a little more granularity, and that gave us that flexibility to do it a lot more.

We are able to notice these problems before they become problems. It’s really important to us and it’s almost given the team a sense of pride that they can be less reactive with it and more proactive, instead of the firefighting aspect.

And then there’s our responsibility for 24/7 availability, and we’re able to deliver that. And it allows my team to deliver that without the heavy burden or stress that was there overall.

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