Could an interim CIO be right for your business?

When Thomas MacKenzie hired the first CTO at his cybersecurity business, RankedRight, he knew that he’d be looking for a replacement in a matter of months

MacKenzie is one of a growing number of business leaders who choose to recruit interim CTOs, CISOs and CIOs. Rather than bringing a full-time, permanent technology leader on board, temporary executives are hired for periods of six months to two years. 

Demand for short-term technology executives has boomed in recent years. Between 2020 and 2021, demand for interim CIOs, CTOs and CISOs grew by 83%, according to Business Talent Group, a subsidiary of executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.

The key benefit of hiring CIOs for the short term is that businesses can bring on board an experienced professional with a specific skill set. For a start-up company such as RankedRight, an interim CTO means hiring someone with experience in building an SaaS infrastructure from scratch and who can support rapid growth. 

In younger businesses or a company newly spun out from a parent company as part of a merger or acquisition, an interim CIO can help to lay the right foundations. “Startups and companies acquired by private equity are unlikely to have any IT leadership,” says Jaco Vermeulen, portfolio CTO at consulting firm BML Digital. In those cases, he says, an interim CIO will recommend and establish IT requirements, and this requires different skills from those used in BAU work.

“Of course, a permanent CIO can do that. But their focus will typically be on long-term strategy and experienced, permanent CIOs want to step into stability,” says Vermeulen.

After a year of working with an interim CTO, RankedRight brought in a new CTO with experience in growing market share. The company has chosen to recruit another interim executive, explains MacKenzie. First, because the business is changing so rapidly, the skills demanded of its CTO will likely be different in a year. Second, working with interim CIOs reduces risk, says MacKenzie. “It means you’re not going to be in a situation where six months down the line, it’s not working out and you realise you should have hired the other guy,” he says. 

Most importantly, RankedRight is heading into a round of seed funding and the decades of experience that the new interim CTO has brought to the business is critical. “When we talk to investors, the idea of not having a technical co-founder is frowned upon massively. But we can say to investors, here’s how we got from A to B and now we have this CTO who can bring us to C. Our current CTO has years of experience and helps us to navigate this stage of our business and avoid mistakes he’s seen happen before.” 

An interim CIO will recommend and establish IT requirements, which requires its own set of skills

RankedRight is typical of the younger companies hiring interim CIOs and CTOs today, says Vermeulen. “Companies can always appoint a permanent CTO or CIO if needed,” he adds.

However, it isn’t just startups that are recruiting interim CIOs. Vermeulen recently completed an interim CIO assignment with a UK holiday park operator with 30 sites across the UK. As the company’s CIO, he helped drive a modernisation programme that included building a work from anywhere (WFA) programme for employees and migrating multiple on-premise systems to a cloud-based application suite. 

In established organisations, an interim CIO can offer a fresh perspective that combines experience and independence, says Vermeulen. “I have a degree of freedom as an interim CIO, and I can say things that permanent staff members might not feel comfortable saying,” he says. “For example, companies often approach transformation projects with a fixed idea of what they need – for example, that they need AI. As interim CIO I’m in a great position to challenge those preconceived ideas and say, okay, what do we want to deliver and is this the right technology to do that?” 

For larger organisations, interim CIOs can play a valuable role in driving forward digital transformation projects, often bringing years of experience with them. “During the pandemic, we saw lots of organisations that perhaps didn’t think IT was critical to their business realise that actually, it was completely critical, and they’d been left behind,” says Vermeulen. “We are now at a point where boards are happy to invest in IT and appointing an interim CIO could be the key to making the most of this opportunity.” 

It’s important to note that an interim CIO isn’t right for every business or every situation, says David Brandon, CTO at RotaCloud and the current interim CTO at RankedRight. Getting the right cultural fit and agreeing expectations is critical because an interim CTO doesn’t have the luxury of spending a few months finding their feet, he says. “Both sides need to do their due diligence to make sure it’s a good fit. You have to be able to get under the skin of an organisation quickly and hit the ground running,” he says. 

With RankedRight, Brandon spent lots of time with the company’s senior management before agreeing to join the team. This builds trust so that MacKenzie is comfortable giving his interim CTO the freedom and autonomy to make decisions for the company. “Although we have an interim CTO, I talk to him just as I’d talk to anyone we employ. We have had to build a culture where he feels completely part of the team,” MacKenzie says. 

Being fully involved as an interim has advantages for Brandon. “It’s always a challenge fitting into a new culture, and it can be tough. But I wasn’t an expert in the security industry before I took on this role. I’ve learned a lot about remediation and vulnerability management that I can take back to my other role,” he says.