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You may have been informed that you need a CTO for your company by someone (maybe an investor, another business owner, or a friend), but this isn’t necessarily the case. An Interim or Fractional CTO may be sufficient...

I’ve been a CTO in a number of roles for several years, as well as permanent roles before that, so this is based on personal experience rather than information obtained from a recruiter. You can contact me at raf@iqdev.uk for help on your current issue.

The role of the Chief Technology Officer

Let’s start with the essentials of the CTO position. The CTO (Chief Technology Officer) is one of the most perplexing positions in the executive suite. McKinsey has a nice description of why you might need a CTO here. In terms of what they will do, they will:

  • As a technology expert, consult with the executive team on strategy and the use of technology for competitive advantage and operational efficiency. This usually entails both extensive technical research and development.
  • Oversee product and engineering roadmaps to guarantee that a product can compete in the marketplace, is productive to work with, and is robust, secure, performant, and reliable in order to keep consumers happy:)
  • Establish critical product and engineering collaborations for the business, such as third-party integrations, non-core product elements, or outsourced team capabilities;
  • Build and scale product/engineering teams as well as development skills in development, testing, dev-ops, security, performance, and data science/engineering.

A CTO often has an engineering background. They frequently hold a bachelor’s degree in computer science or a related field. Above all, rather than technology for the sake of technology or a CV-driven development approach, there must be a commercial awareness and a business-minded attitude to technology. When choosing a technical lead or lead engineer for your project or scenario, this is frequently a risk.

People with a product or project management background will be present. They must comprehend the technology, how the product is assembled, and how the team works with it, regardless of their background. If you rely heavily on “science” or are a deep-tech, hard-tech company, this is becoming increasingly critical. If you hire someone who does not understand technology, they will only be able to manage a team and a product based on scope, time, and budget constraints.

If they keep proposing features or your development team is always putting out fires, taking a long time to produce a product, or being unhappy with what you’re asking them to do, you need to review the issue and your approach. In this case, consider a product and technical audit or review (which I perform for businesses – more on that later).

The CTO’s role varies

CTO varies in form and nature (full-time, part-time) depending on a number of factors:

  • Your company’s stage, from seed to Series D and beyond;
  • Domain of your startup (e-commerce, fin-tech, or prop-tech);
  • Your platform’s type (B2C, B2B etc).

The job of the CTO at the seed funding stage differs significantly from that of the CTO at the Series B level. The seed-funded CTO is more of a “pioneer” and technical leader of the startup, whereas the Series A/B CTO is more of a “town-planner,” assisting the product/engineering function in growing up in terms of procedure, structure, and how they interact with the rest of the company.
Read Simon Wardley’s excellent summary of the “settler” and “town-planner” here for a more in-depth understanding.

In terms of domain, unless there is a critical technical component or interface, a CTO is unlikely to be required if you’re developing an e-commerce solution to sell online. However, the e-commerce world is complicated, and you may require the help of a Fractional CTO to navigate the technology decision process.
If you’re creating an e-commerce “product,” such as a warehouse or product information management service, you’ll need a CTO. If your platform has a lot of technical components, such as predictive analytics or machine learning, you could need a part-time or interim/full-time CTO.

How does it actually work?

An Interim CTO will give your company with full-time or near-full-time coverage (3–5 days per week). Some people believe they require the services of a CTO when, in fact, they require the services of a tech lead.
On what issues do they focus their efforts? In the following conditions, a company will normally engage an interim CTO:

  • You have a senior technical member of the team who is struggling to meet the needs of the executive team or the business and needs coaching or to understand where they fit into the business; you have key members who are leaving or need to cover your departing CTO/VP of engineering and/or provide continuity while you look for a permanent replacement;
  • You have key members who are leaving or need to cover your departing CTO/VP of engineering and/or provide continuity while you look for a permanent replacement. Often, immediate cover is required to assist with the stabilisation of the ship (because people have left).
  • You’re having trouble growing and getting your next round of investment (whether that is seed, series A or B). In terms of processes and people, this may include technical innovation, assistance with scaling to meet traction, focusing on helping teams “grow-up” towards Series A, and so on.
  • You have special product concerns or issues that necessitate in-depth technical knowledge that they can’t find in-house or that would be tough to hire for.

Within each of them, there are frequently a set of objectives that must be established at the outset, including the engagement’s departure criteria. It’s critical to set expectations on both sides of the position at this point.
A Fractional CTO is a little different in that he or she will usually aid with a specific project or problem, coach someone, or provide general assistance on an ad hoc basis or for a few days a month. You could end yourself in one of the following scenarios:

  • You’re in the early stages and can’t afford a full-time CTO, but you need help with product and technology strategy (creating the pitch deck, defining the product in terms of discovery, and assisting them in finding the right agency);
  • You need an independent analysis of a product (created by an agency) or a team (due to disagreement/fallout). This is followed by a review and report on the problem, as well as recommendations for what to do next in terms of people, processes, or the product in question.

The Skillset of a Chief Technology Officer

An interim CTO must possess a set of competencies that include:

With a large amount of experience as an engineer in the past,

  • Have a deep understanding of technology. Cloud-based infrastructure, several architectural styles, web/mobile/desktop, and one or more programming languages are all included.
  • Knowledge of technology strategy and the ability to connect product and engineering utilising a variety of objectives and indicators to assess progress;
  • Understanding of product management as well as engineering is important, especially in the early stages of a company’s development.
  • Understanding people, having dealt with motivation, issue resolution, and assisting people in collaborating inside and across teams;
  • Understanding of product and engineering methods that are tailored to the context should never be used arbitrarily, and should always be used to support rather than “for the sake of it.”

It’s a little different for the VP of Engineering, who is more concerned with operations, engineering efficiency, and transformation than with technology strategy and deep-tech (generally). The CTO will often cover both jobs in early-stage startups (up to Series A, maybe a bit later).
At some point, a CTO must decide whether to prioritise technology, strategy, and innovation over procedure and people.
Domain experience is extremely valuable when it comes to assisting a startup or scaleup, especially if you’ve co-founded enterprises in those domains. Other firms’ success depends on their ability to figure out what worked and what didn’t with their goods, establish roadmaps, deal with consumer issues, and deal with internal corporate issues.

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