Fractional or part-time CTOs have become far more commonplace than when Tony Karrer first began working as one back in 1997. Back then he was a fractional CTO at dating site eHarmony for its first four years leading up to its $110 million financing round. Today he is the part-time CTO of Aggregage. Karrer said he started down this path after realizing that his strategic work only took up a small fraction of his time. “Most startups don’t need a full-time CTO to handle strategy,” he said. “A fractional CTO works extremely well in those situations.”
While fractional CTOs are usually associated with startups, there has been a change in thinking in recent years about the value that a part-time CTO can add and now even larger companies are embracing their use. It has become clear to many in the industry that a fractional CTO can fulfill the same responsibilities as a full-time one.
A Fractional CTO’s To-Do List
Karrer said the fractional CTO will:
- Define a technology strategy that makes sense for the business.
- Ensure the company is using the right third-party technologies and building a product that is secure and scalable.
- Define the in-house / outsourced team and process to get the product built and make sure it’s being built right.
- Act as turnaround agent. Fractional CTOs are often used when there are challenges with an existing development team, Karrer said. “Maybe they are missing deadlines or shipping product with unacceptable levels of bugs. A fractional CTO can come in to help figure out what’s needed and how to adjust in order to turnaround troubled situations.”
Facing Down Challenges
Indeed, the fractional CTO is well suited to taking on challenges, said Jonathan Stone, CTO of Kelser Corp — he also serves as virtual CIO (vCIO) to clients such as a large car dealership group. He explained that since vCTOs or vCIOs are doing similar work in other client organizations, they can draw on a breadth of very current experience. “The IT landscape changes so rapidly that a vCIO or vCTO may have faced a given challenge a few months earlier with another client, whereas a full time tech executive is limited to the one point of view of their company,” Stone said.
That same theory can also be applied to innovation, said Ashutosh Mishra, a full stack developer with Obsidian Security. “A fractional CTO can provide an outside perspective to your current technological strategy,” he said. Also, hiring a fractional CTO allows the team to gain experience from a different perspective. “Consider hiring two different CTOs within a span of two years on the basis of one-year contracts. Your team gets exposure and experience working with two different professionals.”
Another point in fractional CTOs’ favor, Stone said: vCTOs and vCIOs are less likely to get bogged down in the politics of the company's executive team. “Since their role in the client organization isn't their sole source of employment, they can be in a better position to recommend courses of action in a straightforward, matter of fact way.”
The Case Against
Not everyone will agree that a fractional CTO is the right choice for a company, especially a more established one with complex tech needs. Rod De Vos, CEO of Resolute Technology Solutions, said much depends on the complexity of any initiatives in flight, the size of the organization, and types of skills the company’s possess in-house. It would be a mistake, though, to underestimate what they can do, he added. “On a part-time basis, a CTO can still lead a company's implementations from a strategic standpoint and ensure technology roadmaps are kept up to date and are executing correctly.”
Where fractional CTOs are not useful is in strategic roadmap discussions with windows of two to five years — which is a typical timeframe in which most CTOs operate, said Brad Westveld, co-founder and partner with executive search firm ON Partners.
CTOs also identify trends, work closely with customers on future feature sets, changes in product and other strategic initiatives, he added. “I find it hard to believe that a ‘rent-a-CTO’ can be effective if he or she is only there two to six months, or part-time. The whole nature of a CTO is ‘long-term vision,’ and part-time or not fully integrated in the business would cause more problems than intended,” Westveld said.
There are workarounds to some of the issues that Westveld raised. Asim Rais Siddiqui, CTO for Tekrevol, said a fractional CTO can add more value strategically when you show him or her as part of the team when approaching investors and venture capitalist to secure funding. “These are experienced members of the community who align themselves with product ideas as well as the company vision in terms of growth and leadership very quickly.”
Experience can also be a competitive differentiator for fractional CTOs, with their skills making up for the missing hours at the company. Fractional CTOs deliver immediate value through experience at a lower cost, said Vaclav Vincalek, CEO of PCIS. “That doesn’t mean it comes cheaply — but you’re typically getting extraordinary value for what you’re paying with a part-time CTO.”
“The part-time CTO also provides guidance to the person who is next in line to become the CTO, in time,” Vincalek continued. In many situations this next-in-line person may have received his or her senior developer title just by virtue of being a co-founder or first employee of the company. “They might be great at coding, but may not have the executive or managerial experience to help the company do what it needs to do. That’s where the part-time CTO can help these people.”