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The 2013 IT Leadership Awards: Honoring effective leadership styles

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Amid school budget cuts, CIO combines cost savings with innovation

Amid budget cuts, a Florida school district CIO earns high marks for innovations that shore up and improve IT while saving money.

Our SearchCIO 2013 IT Leadership Awards recognize the contributions and innovations of IT professionals at enterprise companies. We put out a call for nominations of individuals who have excelled in six categories: cultural innovation, technological advancement, business value, green IT, IT engagement and customer experience.

Deepak Agarwal
Deepak Agarwal

Finalist Deepak Agarwal, CIO for the Palm Beach County School District in Florida, hits the mark in more than one of these categories. Despite five years of regular school budget cuts, Agarwal has introduced many types of innovation while shoring up and consolidating the IT infrastructure. His consolidation of technology pockets throughout the organization, for example, reduced costs by approximately $6 million, or 30% of the IT budget. His early adoption of Google's cloud computing platform for email and apps saved another 16% of the budget. Through all this, IT has earned near-perfect customer satisfaction ratings from the district's 22,000 employees.

Of course, the benefits of cost-saving innovations and the glow from satisfied customers are easily wiped out if systems go down. Not about to let that happen in hurricane-prone Palm Beach, Agarwal also replaced an outdated backup technology with an IBM Tivoli backup solution -- an investment that paid dividends during the last hurricane season when storms dumped record amounts of water. An overachiever much? If so, the Palm Beach County School District is better off because of it.

Get to know IT Leadership finalist Agarwal in this SearchCIO Q&A.

Number of years in IT: 25

Company: Palm Beach County School District

Revenue: $2.5 billion

Judge's comment

 "Excellent technology manager who has clearly mastered the art of self-funding initiatives to improve service quality and user satisfaction."

Number of employees in the company: 22,000

Number of employees in IT: 426

Educational background: Master of Science in computer science from Nova South Eastern University; Executive Master of Business Administration from Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University

First job: Programmer analyst on contract at Motorola.

LinkedIn: Deepak Agarwal

Twitter handle: @agarwald

What's the best advice you've ever received? The best advice I ever received was from my mom. When things would get really rough she would say, 'This test too shall pass, like many others in life.' I often remember this during trying times and it works.

In the movie of your life, who would play your character? Liam Neeson, due to his extraordinary talent and intensity to fit in any role.

If you could have just one superpower, what would it be and why? To have the power of healing for all to make this world a better place to live, with no suffering.

What's your favorite app on your smartphone or tablet device? Pandora on both.

Where do you fall in the iPhone versus Android debate? I am for the innovative and user-friendly device -- iPhone, of course.

From the nomination

"Despite regular budget cuts for the last five years due to both declining state revenues and property values that fund our district revenues, IT services and support have been rated highly by the district's internal customers (95% satisfaction rating for the past three years). Under Deepak's leadership, IT continues to evaluate the existing IT services and systems to ensure that innovative and cost-effective solutions are provided to the users. The district continues to incorporate newer technologies to reduce technology maintenance costs by keeping a strong focus on ROI and total cost of ownership. "  

Describe the best technology decision you ever made. There are many technology decisions I am proud of, but one in particular affected the entire organization. In the early '90s, I moved the entire organization to a formal version of email (Exchange) from the mainframe's green-screen, terminal-based communication. The change was a big challenge at that time, but the entire organization benefited from the usage of email for communication. The proof is that email is still being used as one of the key modes of communication.

Was there ever a technology that you thought was a gimmick but now couldn't live without? Yes: In the early '90s, it was the hype about the usage of the Internet and Netscape browser in our daily lives. It turned out to be a game changer.

What's the biggest challenge you face in IT today? To keep current with the constant change and select the right course.

Which role or internal partner do you rely upon the most? The role/internal partner I rely upon the most is my trusted executive assistant.

What's your prediction for the next big technology? Smart Systems that will enable the usage of a biometric profile and thus eliminate the need for a person to remember multiple passwords.

What's your favorite nonmonetary benefit or perk of your job? Making a difference in the lives of children by supporting their ever-increasing technology needs in the field of K-12 education.

What is the biggest problem you see with corporate cultures today? More emphasis on the bottom line than strategic alignment with corporate vision and mission. Employees don't know where the organization is going and what it is trying to achieve in the future. Most of the focus is on the short-term gains to keep the stock afloat.

What are 'rookie mistakes' that you see in up-and-coming IT leaders? I believe the common issue I see in up-and-coming IT leaders is that they tend to focus more on technology and not the business. Additionally, since they report mostly to operations and finance personnel, they don't create a partnership with business management, which is essential in today's world, where businesses are very dependent on technology for efficiency and overall success of the organization.

Describe your leadership style. I have a mixed leadership style, which is situational, and I would also describe my style as that of 'delegator.' I like to delegate work, which gives my direct reports a sense of trust and helps improve the workflow. In all, I like a democratic work environment, but there are times when I need to be authoritative on some of the key decisions that I have to make as their leader.

This was first published in May 2013

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Essential Guide

The 2013 IT Leadership Awards: Honoring effective leadership styles
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