The Musically Technical Mind of Rich Contartesi

The first thing that strikes you about Dr. Rich Contartesi’s résumé is that he graduated from Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music.


Loudoun County Public Schools’ retiring assistant superintendent of technology services said there’s nothing odd about his musical inclinations and technology career.


“I started my career as a software developer and there are some real similarities between software development and music. For example, if you were going to write a big-band chart there’s a format to it, where you would play something and repeat it. There’s a format called a-a-b-a. Basically, that means you would play something for eight bars, then you would play almost the same thing for eight bars and then you change for eight bars and then come back to the same thing you played in the beginning… Then there’s all the nuances in music where it tells you to repeat something or it tells you to go from one part of the chart to another part of the chart. Software development is very similar to that. It was very easy to assimilate from music to technology…


“Music, to me, was just a great base. The music I like, jazz, requires a lot of listening and collaboration to make that music. It was really good training…


“Technology was fascinating to me – besides music – and I never really thought it would take over and become something I would do for over 30 years. It’s been very interesting. I’ve enjoyed all of it.


“I’ve still kept up with playing music; kind of like the best of all worlds.”


Contartesi, an accomplished saxophonist, became Loudoun’s first assistant superintendent for technology services in 2012. He faced the daunting task of taking elements of technology strung over three departments – Instruction, Pupil Services and Business and Finance – and turning them into a cohesive unit.


“It was a challenge bringing three different cultures together. It did take some time. There was a lot of anxiety and angst; people weren’t sure what was going to happen.


“We did a good job in giving the message and being open; creating an environment where people could feel safe and express their feelings. That went a long way over the last five years to get us where we are today.”


Besides merging technology cultures, Contartesi saw a philosophical change in the way LCPS deploys its technology; going from 90 percent desktop computers and 10 percent laptops to 10 percent desktops and 90 percent laptops. Removing desktops meant that traditional computer labs could be replaced by carts of laptops. “Removing some of the desktop labs gives us another classroom… Instead of having a lab or a certain number of computers in the classroom, what we’ve done now…is provided additional equipment. That gives the school flexibility to distribute technology as they see fit…as opposed to a cookie-cutter approach where some of the devices may not be used to their full capacity.”


Contartesi also saw to it that computer refresh cycles were standardized. “Schools know five years in advance when they are getting their refresh. We don’t have any schools that have computers that are over five years old.”


LCPS also started a bring your own device (BYOD) program during Contartesi’s tenure, meaning the school division’s Internet bandwidth had to be expanded many times over. “We had to ensure bandwidth, so we’ve upgraded the bandwidth at all of our schools. We have over 5,000 access points. We have a very robust wireless system. With the wireless system, we’re upgrading from access points where the maximum number of users were 30 to 150. We know that students and teachers bring (multiple) devices into schools.”


Acquiring technology for technology’s sake isn’t something Contartesi is a proponent of. “You don’t want to buy devices for devices’ sake. You want to buy devices that really make a difference in education.”


Contartesi’s last project for LCPS was the instillation of a fiber-optic network, which should save LCPS more than $700,000 per year. The 3.1 miles of cabling is being installed with $500,000 in PEG funds. (Public, educational and governmental funds are generated by fees charged by local cable providers.)


He wasn’t looking for a job when a friend phoned him saying LCPS would be a good place to work, Contartesi said. “There would be some good challenges here. He was right.” 


Contartesi added he never regretted coming to Loudoun from Erie, Pennsylvania.


“First of all, it’s one of the best school systems I’ve ever worked in. The graduation rate is off the charts. It’s a really good area if you want to bring up kids. If you’re concerned about schools, I don’t think there’s one school in the district that you could go wrong attending.”


Growth is always a challenge in Loudoun, he said. “We’ve really had to be flexible, dynamic in the things that we’ve wanted to move forward. You’ve got to anticipate a lot because, as the population continues to grow, we’ve got to be prepared. We have to have enough bandwidth. We have to work with our providers so that they can provide services to specific schools, even in some our rural areas… I think we’re making strides as we move forward to solve that problem.”