A fractional CTO can be a great solution to help limit risk, manage teams, and develop cost-effective strategies to help meet the technology demands of an evolving business.

Mark Runyon, Director of Consulting, Improving

August 1, 2023

4 Min Read
Jigsaw pieces being put together. Business solution concept
Ink Drop via Alamy Stock

The chief technology officer has always been a critical component in the executive suite, but not all companies have prioritized filling it. There are valid reasons why this role may have been overlooked. For startups and small businesses, shouldering the hefty salary may have been a strong deterrent. Also, the workload may have been lacking to justify the position for companies that aren't heavily utilizing tech. Regardless of the reason, not having a strategic resource in this role can present challenges as businesses face an ever-changing technology landscape.

Fractional CTOs have stepped in to fill the void. As the name implies, this is a part-time, freelance resource coming in to address a strategic need. These are technical executives bringing their wealth of experience to help a company chart and guide its technology roadmap. Traditionally, fractional CTOs have mainly been utilized in the startup space. There is a lot of value in having a seasoned pro assist in navigating venture funding rounds while not draining the companies’ limited funds. In recent years, smaller companies outside the startup space are also starting to embrace this model. Remote work has also played a part in helping make this role viable for many companies. Let’s explore the possibilities around the fractional CTO and the value they can bring.

Defining a Fractional CTO

The word fractional may imply that some part is getting left behind. That isn’t the case. A fractional CTO brings an equal level of expertise as a traditional CTO while serving in the same roles. These include:

  • Developing and executing a roadmap around technology and infrastructure

  • Turning around troubled projects and teams

  • Managing vendor and partner relationships

  • Building and managing teams

  • Leading transformational technology projects

  • Performing due diligence IT audits

While the skillsets are the same, the need is traditionally more focused. Companies I’ve worked with typically have one or more pain points they are seeking a fractional CTO to help them address. 

Flexibility

If your budget and workload are variable, it makes sense to seek a CTO to scale with those changing needs. Most fractional CTO engagements allow flexibility to tap into that resource for 20 hours a week this month and then dial it back to 10 hours weekly the next month. That flexibility can be a double-edged sword at times. Depending on other client commitments, you may be unable to lock your fractional CTO into a full-time schedule if needed. 

Breadth of Experience

Fractional CTOs come equipped with a wealth of expertise. They’ve served as technology executives for several years. They’ve fought the battles. They’ve earned their scars. Now they are taking on new challenges by helping multiple companies across industries in a part-time capacity. That varied exposure can be of enormous value to the teams they work with. It’s great to hire a CTO that knows your industry inside and out, but there is a lot of value in tapping into experience drawn from beyond those boundary lines. Coming armed with technology solutions that transcend industries is one of the most valuable aspects of hiring a fractional CTO. Those ideas can help spark innovation by layering a fresh perspective on your world.

Trusted Advisor

Devising technical strategy and executing that vision isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes serious planning and expertise to do well. Having a trusted advisor in your corner can be worth its weight in gold when facing key technology challenges. An outsider can offer needed objectivity to not fall prey to simply repeating the patterns that have spelled success for the organization in the past. They aren’t weighed down by that history. A trusted advisor can ask tough questions to help prepare the organization for the future. They can also be a great advocate to champion budget needs, technical change, and making key investments.

While a fractional CTO can be a great solution, it can quickly become a failed experiment if the proper expectations aren’t established. It can be helpful to ask yourself the following questions: 

  • What are the pain points that we are trying to solve?

  • What do we think the lifecycle of this fractional CTO engagement looks like from a time and effort perspective?

  • Are there must-have areas of experience we’ll need in this role?

  • What would a successful outcome look like?

Seek to understand why you are exploring this role, and what you are hoping to get from it. Communicate those needs with potential candidates to explore how they might approach these needs. Also, be aware that fractional CTO engagements tend to have end dates. I’ve seen them run anywhere from six months to two years. Longer or deeper strategic engagements can be better suited for a more traditional chief technology officer. For cost-conscious companies, a fractional CTO can be a great solution to help limit risk, manage teams, and develop cost-effective strategies to help meet the technology demands of an evolving business.

About the Author(s)

Mark Runyon

Director of Consulting, Improving

Mark Runyon works as a director of consulting for Improving. For the past 20 years, he has designed and implemented innovative technology solutions for companies in the finance, logistics, and pharmaceutical space. He is a frequent speaker at technology conferences and is a contributing writer at The Enterprisers Project. He focuses on IT management, DevOps, cloud, and artificial intelligence. Mark holds a Master of Science in Information Systems from Georgia State University.

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