Should you hire a fractional CTO?

A chief technology officer who works a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost can be impactful, especially for early-stage companies. But firms should carefully consider the benefits as well as the limitations of hiring a part-time tech chief

Illustration of a business leader represented as a pie chart

Hiring a full-time CTO in the early stages of an organisation’s growth can be an expensive overhead. But businesses still need a guiding hand to build the right technology at the right time and in the right way to ensure that their company can meet future growth objectives. This is where a fractional chief technology officer (CTO) can come in. 

A fractional CTO is a technology chief who works a fraction of the time, often on a fraction of the organisation’s projects as opposed to across a whole business, and for a fraction of the cost. 

The role is perfect for startups and growth companies that want to focus their capital on scaling the business. But it could also be attractive for companies that don’t need full-time technical support but do need help creating technical solutions, such as companies that are planning a digital transformation of legacy systems and need an external voice to guide their strategy.

But while hiring a fractional CTO can help to minimise risk and reduce technical debt, it won’t be the right strategic move for every company.

Be realistic about what a fractional CTO can offer

Generally when companies recruit for the CTO position, they’re looking for a candidate who can jump right in and won’t need a lot of time to get up to speed. A fractional CTO typically has a wealth of experience supporting companies in different industries and at various stages of their growth journey. In effect, they specialise in getting straight down to business, which is perfect for companies needing project-based support, or guidance in developing or implementing a digital strategy.

Fractional CTOs are effectively consultants, meaning they’re quick to onboard and get up to speed

“These experienced fractional CTOs are effectively consultants. They’re quick to onboard and can start to add value quickly,” says Jeff Watkins, chief product and technology officer at mobile and app development firm xDesign. 

Robin Beattie, managing director at Spinks, the startup and scaleup recruiting arm of digital services consultancy Nash Squared, adds: “Fractional CTOs themselves love it as they get variety and exposure to lots of different technology and projects.” 

The downside, though, is that companies won’t be getting someone who can stick around. A fractional CTO can come in and use their practical knowledge to turn the vision for a product into a reality within several months, but will often provide strategic support to several companies simultaneously. This means they’re unlikely to be able to devote to any one company the time necessary to shape the long-term technology roadmap

“You’re not getting a dedicated CTO. This can be a problem when you need more of their time than they can afford to give you,” says Watkins, adding that companies need to be realistic with their expectations. He continues: “The truth is, their attention is always going to be split between their engagements. That means they’ll probably be less invested and culturally integrated into your business.” 

Benefiting from an experienced digital business leader

Nevertheless, a key advantage of a highly experienced fractional CTO is that, more often than not, they will have a strong network that they can rely on for support and expertise. This can be particularly advantageous if a company needs to access certain resources and connect with potential partners and vendors further down the line. 

While strong communication and people skills are essential qualities for any business leader, they are especially important for a fractional leader, who will need to join a company and inspire teams from the outset to achieve what they’ve been brought in to do in the short amount of time they have. 

As a rule, the time will come when the business begins to scale and it’s too much for the founder to manage on their own

“A fractional CTO role isn’t about subject-matter expertise; it’s about digital-business leadership,” observes Jaco Vermeulen, CTO of BML Digital, who has held portfolio roles at Boots, Park Holidays and the Post Office. “They need to be able to demystify technology for the company. This means no tech speak, buzzwords or IT acronyms.”

Yet, while a fractional CTO may be able to use their soft skills to ensure everyone is aligned with the company’s vision and that goals are being met – while also addressing any teething issues with new technology teams – the nature of a fractional role could leave them feeling like a lone wolf. Employers would be wise to avoid letting that happen.

“There needs to be some intrinsic motivation for a fractional CTO to act in the same manner as a full-time equivalent,” says Evgeny Smirnov, CEO and co-founder of Denovo, a consultancy that, among other things, runs a fractional CTO matchmaking service for startups. 

The incentives don’t necessarily need to be the same as those offered to full-time hires, such as equity or stock options. But something as simple as the CEO granting the fractional CTO a comparable level of autonomy and acknowledging the work they’re putting in can do the trick.

When should a company hire a full-time CTO?

As motivated as a fractional CTO might be, a company will inevitably need to take the plunge and hire a full-time CTO. There is no right or wrong moment to do this – it will be different for every business and depend on the level of involvement required, says Watkins. For example, growing engineering teams may need a more hands-on management style that a fractional CTO can’t provide.

“As a rule, the time will come when the business begins to scale and it’s too much for the founder to manage on their own,” adds Beattie. 

On whether and when to seek a full-time tech chief, Watkins concludes: “It’s about your size, your tech complexity, what level of commitment and presence you expect – and for how long.”