Minds Wide Open

For Fairfax County Public Schools' Cathy Sells, diversity creates opportunity.

Cathy Sells, 47, was in the Mexican fast-food business when she started her IT career as a parent volunteer in her sons kindergarten classroom.

The schools were just starting to get technology, and my sons school was one of the first, she recalls. They got computers but no funding for ongoing support or even to set up the computers. So Sells, who has a degree in business management and owns two Tippys Taco House franchises with her husband, offered to figure out how to hook up the equipment and get things rolling.

Ten years later, she is director of IT operations for Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). In the years in between, she has helped to implement and support everything from audiovisual equipment, security alarms and public-address systems to the wired and wireless voice and data infrastructure and enterprise systems that serve 240 education and administrative sites.

Cathy Sells

Cathy SellsIn the mid-1990s, lots of technology came in very quickly, and there was always an opportunity to come up with innovative ways to solve problems, Sells says. One of her earliest assignments as an instructors aide was to set up a computer lab at an elementary school with 400 students who, collectively, spoke 26 different languages.

It was one of Sells first experiences with the great diversity of colleagues, students, and career and training opportunities that place Fairfax County in a class all its own among this years Best Places to Work. For instance, of a total IT staff of 449, 144 are women, and 130 are minorities. Ten of the school systems 21 IT managers are women, and 11 are minorities.

Best Places for Diversity
1. University of Miami
2. The Capital Group Cos.
3. Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.
4. Miami Dade College
5. Fairfax County Public Schools
6. PricewaterhouseCoopers
7. Memorial Health Services
8. Harrah's Entertainment Inc.
9. Temple University
10. Southern California Edison Co.
To determine this top 10 list, we considered the following factors: Percentage of women and minorities in staff and managerial positions.

In working with the more than 160,000 students in the school system, we can often come up against a language barrier, and theres always someone to help you through that, says Sells.

But its the wide range of opportunities to learn new skills and work with different technologies and on multiple teams that Sells says is one of the best parts of working for the school system.

Were diverse in our personnel, but were also diverse in what we support, she says. If they want to, IT employees can transition from working on computers to networking, or from development to field services. You can start in one area and move to work in another until you find your passion. And the passions are supported by training, Sells adds.

After her first paying IT job as an instructors aide, Sells moved to FCPSs technology support group for two years. She also enrolled in night school, earning an MCSE certification. Sells moved again to fill an opening in FCPSs engineering group, learning the technology involved in the back end of the voice and data infrastructure. Next, she moved to field services, eventually working her way up to field services coordinator. From there, Sells went to network and systems services, where she was responsible for all wired and wireless networks. After two years, Sells was named to her current role as director of IT operations, which includes field services, network services, the data center and the network operations center.

Cathy is an exemplary employee who has worked her way up through our organization, says FCPS CIO Maribeth Luftglass. She is hard-working, a quick learner, and has strong communication skills. She has taken advantage of professional development and advancement opportunities and has consistently proven herself as an IT leader.

One of the best things about working at FCPS is that your work speaks for itself, Sells says. Ive seen it over and over again. People come in and have ideas and want to move forward in a particular area, and then the opportunity to take a job in that area comes.

More about Best Places to Work in IT:

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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