What is a Fractional CTO and do you need one?
Not every company needs a full time CTO
There are a lot of flavors of Chief Technology Officer. There's the person who is the most awesome software developer in the building. There's the person who can architect anything but needs a team of engineers to deliver solutions. There's the evangelist CTO who stands shoulder to shoulder with the sales team to close business by speaking to non-techie customers because they understand the problem/solution their product addresses. But almost all of them have a weakness that requires the talent around them to make them better.
- Great coder who can't think in systems. The super-senior engineer CTO may be the person who codes fast or thinks in binary, but at the end of the day cannot write software that scales. Sometimes they will ignore the off the shelf solutions for commodity problems and quickly bang out a homegrown solution with no regard for whether or not the business can support that system a week, a month, or a year from now. This person is not a CTO, they are likely an engineering leader.
- Great architect who avoids details. There is a class of technology maestro that lives at a very high cruising altitude. They think in systems which gives them a super power of not needing to code and sometimes not even knowing how to code. Sometimes these elevated thinkers have been so disconnected from the production of new software that the business suffers from a gap in execution leadership, leaving a gap that needs to be filled. This person is also not a CTO, they are likely an enterprise architect.
- Product evangelist who hasn't worked with the product since its inception. A lot of founding CTOs in rapidly growing organizations can evolve into this super-technical salesperson. Because the product or technology has significant nuance and intricacies and may be highly unique in its market - this person is on the road. A lot. They are the most able to speak to the market about the benefits of the technology and how it can serve a certain use case. But they are no longer the CTO, they are the chief evangelist.
In all of these cases, the company has talented technology leadership that needs to be augmented by someone who can fill the void left by the areas that the CTO-by-title has needed to abscond. Instead of trying to get the existing person to expand beyond where they add the most value - a Fractional CTO may be the answer.
But my company doesn't have a CTO at all!
This is more common than you think! Not all startups are software companies, and not all businesses are in the software business. An e-commerce company selling specialty neckties on Shopify may not need a CTO. When the number of systems are limited and the integrations fairly turnkey - the use of spreadsheets and email to drive the business can work for a long time. If you are in a company with up to even a million dollars in revenue - it's possible that you can run that business without someone leading technology for a long time. But when scale becomes a factor - the non-technical team, which may even have one of the above CTO types available to them, will need to start thinking about the barriers they have to growing north of the million dollar threshold.
What happens when the specialty necktie company wants to start building a database of their customers, integrating external data, and automating retargeting efforts for ad campaigns? What happens if they need to integrate a fulfillment system into their operations? While a lot of people think about CTOs when they think about developing software, it's often critical to have a CTO to help make decisions about integrating off-the-shelf systems, or integrate small custom solutions with off-the-shelf solutions. This is another time when the organization might not need a full time CTO - but where a Fractional CTO can provide immense value in a short period of time.
What is the best way to use a Fractional CTO?
Fractional CTOs by nature operate on multiple clients at a time. It is their job to juggle the priorities of their clients and their time - but most are willing to be flexible to client needs and be responsive to changes. Some Fractional CTOs will work on a retainer basis, while others may work on a time and materials basis (e.g. hourly). Basically how you engage with a Fractional CTO will depend on how their time will be managed:
- If you think you want to manage the Fractional CTO's time - create a time and materials arrangement where you direct the Fractional CTO on how to use the budgeted hours each billing period
- If you want the Fractional CTO to manage their own time - create a retainer arrangement where there is a fixed fee each month determined by the scope of the services requested. The CTO will still use an hours calculation to determine the fee, but they are paid provided you are satisfied that the contracted work has been completed - regardless of the hours required.
The types of work Fractional CTOs can do is typically flexible, but I tend to bucket into a few categories:
- Projects - Work with defined objectives and deliverables that are finite. The Fractional CTO can often be part manager, part contributor on any array of technology projects whether it be solution architecture, software development, package selection and integration, you name it. Many Fractional CTOs prefer project work as it allows them to dedicate tranches of time to specific objectives, whereas other types of work (described later) are more elastic in their time demands.
- Products - When a Fractional CTO is contracted to to product work, oftentimes they may be engaged for extended periods of time focused on incremental improvements that move key metrics for your business. A Fractional CTO may step in to help direct improving system latency, or they may work to implement more rapid cycle times for a development team. A Fractional CTO in this mode will often work at multiple levels, sometimes providing direction and allowing teams in your organization to execute while other times getting hands on. What level of execution the Fractional CTO focuses on often depends on budget and time.
- Coaching - Sometimes an organization just needs an experienced person to come in and help guide existing teams and leadership based on their past experience. A Fractional CTO can be an invaluable asset in helping growing organizations avoid learning risk by providing the guardrails for the organization, helping manage the team away from negative outcomes.
How can I find a Fractional CTO for my business?
Well - you're in luck! I provide Fractional CTO services to a number of clients today, both independently and through Pod - a team of other technology leaders I work with in Boston.
Ryan is the former Chief Product Officer at Medullan, CTO at Be the Partner, and CTO and General Manager at Vitals. He currently works as a fractional CTO offering strategy as a service to growth-stage companies in health care and education.