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From ASU to ADE (and back): Reflections from my secondment as interim CIO

Editor’s Note: Chris Richardson, Deputy Chief Information Office at ASU, recently returned to the University Technology Office after a 6-month secondment with the Arizona Department of Education as interim CIO. Richardson authored the following blog post to share his experience. Welcome back, Chris!

“He’ll be joining the Arizona Department of Education on secondment for the next six months.” This was how I heard ASU President Michael Crow describe my upcoming interim position as acting Chief Information Officer for the state department in a meeting back in June 2021. 

For those who aren't familiar with the term, a secondment is the assignment of a member of one organization to another organization for a temporary period. And for ASU, this meant putting into action the third part of our Charter in which we “assume fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities [we] serve..”

Welcome to Arizona’s Department of Education

The Arizona Department of Education (ADE) has oversight of public education in the state from kindergarten to secondary school. Leadership changes at ADE led to a unique opportunity for me to join as interim CIO.

Once I arrived, I found a combination of realistic expectations, set with high goals, and driven team members ready to get to work. As interim CIO, I was tasked with getting the IT organization stable and bringing more transparency to the IT budget, with a clear methodology for planning future spending needs. As part of this goal, I got to work to: improve business alignment through the development of an “IT Steering Committee,” ensure the state-funded School Finance Payment System project was on the right track, and respond to the Tech Task Force recommendations to establish an Office of Digital Teaching and Learning. 

I quickly realized that the IT department, in addition to being competent and technically sound, was open to deeper collaborations. Driven by the newly formed IT Steering Committee, we consciously started to share what was perceived as lacking transparency – bringing more clarity into our budgets, decisions, plans and even conversations. We did so both in formal settings but also in collaborative work space conversations so everyone could see what was being discussed and decided.

Building a foundation, seeing results 

The Office of Digital Teaching and Learning (ODTL) is probably the most unique outcome of my time at ADE. This new program is designed to help unify the IT and academic technology units of more than 700 local education agencies, who collectively serve more than 1.1 million students across Arizona.

Starting with an intentional focus on culture, we quickly built a team to engage and establish community. One of the first outputs came through a partnership with ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College faculty to create a baseline survey that would help us assess gaps in the K-12 technology landscape across Arizona schools. To do so, we assembled a survey board to ensure we had broad perspective into the process. With this core as a foundation, the ADE superintendent went on a roadshow across all counties and districts, including charter schools, to build awareness and excitement.

By the time the survey was closed, more than 20% of all local education agencies had contributed input. In 2022, the ODTL will publish the survey results, and more importantly, share the strategic direction for where it will begin to address gaps across the diverse landscape of Arizona’s K-12 technical challenges.

Beyond the ODTL and IT Executive Steering Committee already mentioned, there are many other notable accomplishments for ADE, including the launch of Learning Table’s ADE-wide training sessions, creation of the Technical Advisory Committee to distribute architecture decisions and awareness, communication management plans, and more.

Reflections on what I learned as a leader

Sometimes an entity or an organization needs a catalyst for change. In this situation, I took some calculated risks, but had a receptive leadership and team to help shape and execute a new direction. New ideas, while scary, are often welcome if peers and team members are brought along in the process.

Taking a long-term mindset was critical in this situation. I didn’t look at the appointment with a timer, only there for a six month stint. Rather, I continually asked myself, “If I were the CIO beyond six months, would I be making this decision?” This mindset helped to actionize long-term, sustainable strategies rather than short-term solutions. 

Culture is critical; much has been said about “culture eating strategy for breakfast.” Yet culture can’t be transplanted. ADE had its own culture when I joined, as did its IT department. I had to look to influence in ways that could be additive, sustainable, understood and reproducible.

One of the most influential cultural changes that took place during my time was driving solutions that offered more transparency across departments. Many believe that transparency is an exchange for control, power, decision-making ability or scope. I’ve found that if one is transparent while being collaborative, has an executable plan, and educates what they are doing and/or the problems they are facing, that more people around an organization actually want to help. In fact, the new IT leadership will likely have some improvements to their budget as visibility was understood and diverse stakeholders contributed to the options as to how to help. 

Returning to ASU with new perspective 

As I return to the university, I have a broader understanding of the CIO function that I can apply at ASU. In fact, my role at ASU has changed, and I will applying these new skills as a CIO-in-residence to help ASU’s Learning Enterprise build an integrated technology strategy that facilitates universal access to opportunity at every stage in a learner's life. 

I’m thankful to ASU President Michael Crow, ASU CIO Lev Gonick, UTO and ASU at large for allowing me the opportunity to serve in this capacity. If you want to ask a more specific question, please don’t hesitate to email me at