Charles Kanavel founded The Kanavel Group one year ago; his consulting company implements IT systems and virtualization for government and educational organizations. Kanavel speaks with such passion about his work—and how technology is changing education—that you can’t help wishing you were a student in one of his client districts. “You’re seeing good for communities, good for the organizations,” he says. “To make something work for kids and change the way they learn, that’s fun. It’s got to be fun. If it’s not fun, why do it?”

The Kanavel Group

What challenges do you face, implementing cloud-based solutions for the government/ education sectors?
Education is its own culture. I came originally from finance; I worked on Wall Street for 12 years before starting several software companies. My wife worked in education, and after we had a daughter, I went into education for about three years as Director of Technology at Campbell Union High School District. That was an interesting, eye-opening experience: While you can look on the outside of education and say “Well, they should do this” and “They should do this,” it doesn’t work that way.

School districts, as opposed to businesses, are largely consensus-driven organizations, so you have to navigate political and technical challenges. The smallest school districts in the Bay Area is as large or larger in total system users than those in Silicon Valley. At Campbell, we had 10,000 students and 700 staff. We calculated that 35,000 people each day touched the system we operated. Every kid a has two parents, and they’re emailing teachers, getting on School Loop, looking at our website, applying online—there’s a ton of things going on on any given day, and we had 500 programs that we maintained with a staff of six IT people.

From there, I started this company with the mindset of helping state and local government organizations, and large-scale private organizations, implement this technology. If you’re trying to do this, it’s difficult if you don’t know how. You can see the need there.

What concerns do you frequently address with your clients?
Most of their concerns revolve around the proper use of technology. That’s the big one.

If I were to sit down and tell you “This is how the world’s going to work 65 years from now,” you’d laugh at me. You’d say, “You’re making that up. You’re purely guessing.” But if you think of the professional life of an educator, that’s exactly what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to predict what’ll happen 5, 10 years down the line and educate our kids based on that. They’re trying to find out the best way to give kids the best educational experience possible. They know they have to integrate all this technology into their teaching, yet they don’t know the best way to do it. They’re educators. Consider the average lifestyle of a teacher or a public official—everybody in an organization has multiple degrees. They went to K-12, then college, then teaching college; then out of college, they went to work at a school district. When did they stop to learn how IT works?

Getting them to understand “I see your problem and what you need,” and then letting us address that need, you have to understand their language before you can recommend anything that they should do. That’s how my time working with school districts has been invaluable.

What kind of security concerns do many of your education clients have?
A lot of school districts are moving to Google Docs. But there’ve been articles saying that Google’s security has been penetrated multiple times. Do you really want your kids’ stuff—or your students’ stuff—out there on the Internet for all the world to see? What if it’s a personal essay? What if they’re a special needs student? Now all their information is on the web because your IT guy wanted to use Google Docs. You have to think through the ramifications—what if that IT guy’s laptop gets lost at Starbucks?—and then build the appropriate technological barriers around that.

Part of your Philosophy statement says “With the rate at which the world is changing daily, it is often difficult to know where the boundaries lie.” What boundaries do you mean?
If you go back seven years ago, and I showed you an iPad, you’d freak out. Nobody predicted it. If you go back five years ago, who could’ve predicted the iPhone would change the entire world? Now it’s a commodity, not a luxury.

Think of technology as a process. You can watch it and look at it, and you can predict long-terms patterns. Moving from smartphone to iPad to laptop, it’s easy to see that the laptop won’t be around much longer. Everyone over 25 likes the laptop. Everyone under 25 likes smartphones and tablets. The laptop trend will end.

Whatever will displace that divide, that displacement will create more need. …With the cloud, you can work anywhere in the world you want. Physical boundaries don’t matter anymore. What needs will be driven out of that? Does that mean, eventually, that schools will start changing their [educational] model? Is there a reason to be at school at 7:00 in the morning if a teacher can teach at 8:00 at night? If the expectation is to “get students to prepare for college,” you can’t ignore that you have to get beyond teaching. You have to immerse students and get them functionally ready to operate in a college environment.

I do a lot of that; 50% of my job is getting people’s minds around that. We do technical consulting. We offer solutions, but before offering a solution, you’ve got to articulate how their vision matches your solution. We have three- to five-year contracts. It’s like building a car. You can’t say “We’ve got the parts. We’re going to build it in a day.” You have to build structural waypoints into the plan. To help our customers execute that vision, we have to break it down backwards. Some of that is a funding challenge; maybe they don’t have all the money. Some is a political challenge, getting people’s minds around it.

In 2009, we were the first district in the U.S. to offer our students e-readers in place of textbooks. Some teachers fought me. Others said “This makes sense.” People inherently resist change, especially when they have to change their behavior. You have to say “I can show you how this affects you.” When I’m putting in a piece of technology that changes how you operate on a daily basis, I’d better explain to you.

And that’s where it gets hard. That’s what we excel at.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?
It would be really easy to say “I love money” or “I love helping people,” but that’s glib answer.

Part of it is, if you’re an entrepreneur, is building. It’s the challenge of building something. You can’t ignore that as an answer. That’s almost a separate desire than whatever it is your business is a whole. True entrepreneurs are serial entrepreneurs. The challenge of building is palpable. But that’s one part of the answer.

The other part of why I like what I do is because it’s challenging. I like seeing my clients succeed, because I know what we do, they don’t do inherently. Every organization struggles with technology. Is that a fair expectation, especially with schools? The point of schools is to educate kids, and they do that exceedingly well. All these kids graduate knowing how to read and work with numbers and become functioning members of society. But now they’re saddled with the expectations that they have to do that while preparing students with the best technology, the best classes, and “My kid better go off and become the President.” How do you do that? Educators can get sucked into technology like it’s quicksand, and they’ll never really succeed because they’re not of the IT world.

That’s what I love. We say “We’ll handle that for you.” That’s fun. That’s challenging. You’re seeing good for communities, good for the organizations. To make something work for kids and change the way they learn, that’s fun.

It’s got to be fun. If it’s not fun, why do it?