Fractional or Part-time CTO

July 15th, 2017

Another alternative for a startup might be a fractional or part-time CTO. I’ve previously talked about the spectrum of scenarios surrounding whether you need or don’t need a CTO. Running parallel to that spectrum is the scenario of utilizing the services of a Fractional or Part-time CTO. My previous posts have dealt with the need for a CTO from purely a technical and product perspective. However, another consideration is chemistry.

If you consider that bringing on co-founders is similar to a marriage then you should only want to bring on people that you’ve previously worked with. If you don’t have anyone that you know, then finding a true co-founder is a bit risky.

While not complete, here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of a fractional or part-time CTO:

Advantages:
• As I previously discussed, your startup may not need the full-time services of a CTO. Going the part-time route will save you money on paying full-time for part-time effort.
• If the person doesn’t fit with your organization the “break-up” cost will probably be less.
• You may be able to scale-up or scale-down how much time the fractional CTO spends with your organization based on need.

Disadvantages:
• Plenty of people believe that you need to have a CTO who is fully engaged, involved and has skin in the game.

In the end, the decision will come down to a combination of factors including need, funding available and your comfort level with the individual person and the role.

While a part-time or fractional CTO may not work for every organization, it is certainly a very viable option for many.

Over the past several posts I’ve talked about the technical roles you might need to fill in your startup along with some of the factors you need to take into consideration, but I’ve only briefly touched on answering the key question of whether you need a CTO.

Let me start by looking at the two easy cases.

You probably don’t need to hire a CTO if you have a very simple app for which you are not planning on adding new features and functionality. In this case you can hire a firm, on a project basis, to develop and roll-out the app.

At the other extreme, you do need to hire a CTO if your application is complex, has cutting edge technology, is an MVP with substantial plans for improvements and enhancements, requires a sophisticated hardware architecture to support it, will require a product evangelist and/or you have substantial investment capital.

That leaves us with the large, and more complex, middle ground. I’ll break this up too since the skill sets you need at the inception of product design and development are most likely going to be different than the skills you will need later on.

I think that when you are creating a product you need someone with an immense amount of technical experience, particularly in creating products and architecting for the future, a visionary, a great project manager and someone who has the credibility to scope and make the tough calls on features and functionality in the initial release – all wrapped up into one. This really means you’re looking for someone who has led product development at a startup before. And, you’re certainly looking for someone who has more experience than a developer. Technical decisions made at this stage of a startup can have tremendous cost and timeline implications, even years into the future. You want to give your concept the best chance of success at the same time you want to conserve what are most likely limited investment funds. You also want someone who can identify and bring on the right people, when they are needed, to fill the technical roles that I previously discussed. Therefore, I think that you need someone with previous experience at a startup to fill the CTO role during product conceptualization, development and rollout.

However, after an initial product has been developed, there are certainly scenarios where you may only need a developer and/or someone to monitor and administer your application and not need the services of a CTO. For example, you launched a great product with a solid infrastructure. Your organization is now into the sales and marketing phase and acquiring customers. Depending on the complexity of your product, you may not need a CTO for a period of time. Minor functionality additions or bug fixes can be handled by a developer. This can save you money, especially if the sales cycle turns out to be longer than expected. At some point you may need the services of a CTO again to handle growth and new functionality, but you may be able to save on this expense for a period of time. Several other options in this scenario are part-time or fractional CTOs that I will discuss in future posts.

To conclude this series of posts, there are multiple considerations to take into account on whether you need a CTO, and multiple technical roles that need to be filled in a tech startup. In some instances it is clear that you will need a CTO to start, others where you don’t need a CTO and then a big gray area where you may or may not, but also may for a time and then not. If you do need a CTO, make sure you look for one with the experience and expertise to get your product to market efficiently and effectively, especially in what is likely to be a resource constrained environment.

In follow-up posts I’ll talk about part-time and fractional CTOs.

In previous posts (here and here), I talked about some of the technical roles a startup might need as one of the aspects that need to be considered in the decision to hire a CTO.

However, there are other considerations that need to be looked at in addition to just roles:

• How complex is the application that will be built? How long will it take to build it?
• What will the going-forward support needs be?
• What are the concepts or plans for adding features and functionality to the application?
• What technical needs will your customers and/or partners need?
• Do you need someone experienced to fill the CTO role as part of your investment raising efforts?

Let’s talk about each of these first:

How complex is the application that will be built? How long will it take to build it?

If you are planning for just a simple app that won’t require a lot of on-going improvements or enhancements then you probably don’t need a CTO. However, if the application is complex, is based on cutting edge technology, will take a big team and a lot of time to build and knowledge gained during the development process will be needed for adding enhancements, then you will probably need a CTO. The more complex the application, the more you will need a CTO. Not only to help with the 80/20 rule, or defining the “MVP” box, but also as the person who will be deciding how all of the 10 previously discussed roles will be filled. As the complexity increases, so does the required specialization of the team members. Knowing what needs to be done, finding the right people for those roles and managing their work requires deep experience and an extensive skill set.

What will the going-forward support needs be?

How is your application going to be monitored? What is the complexity of the underlying infrastructure? How are issues going to be resolved when they arise? Who is going to answer questions when there are problems? The inevitable fact is that there will be problems. Maybe with your application in a way a user interacts with it in an unforeseen manner. Maybe there will be a problem with the hardware your server is hosted on (one of my AWS servers recently failed and I needed to migrate to a new server for example). Maybe your site gets hacked. Maybe even your hosting provider has an issue, similar to AWS’ issue in early March. The question then is, who are you going to for the answers to your questions and resolving the issues? Your application could be a simple WordPress site and you have a managed hosting provider such as WPEngine. From them you could get pretty much all the support you need. However, in most cases, your application is going to be more complex and a support plan needs to be well-conceived and staffed in some manner.

What are the concepts or plans for adding features and functionality to the application?

Did you release all of the functionality you ever plan for with the initial release? If you developed an MVP or used the 80/20 rule then you didn’t. When do you plan to start adding in what wasn’t initially released? How do you plan to fix issues that end-users have a way of finding that testing didn’t? Again, is your application complex? How will initial development knowledge be transferred if there is a gap in time between initial development and feature additions? In many cases, that knowledge transfer is performed by the CTO.
What technical needs will your customers and/or partners need?
Will someone need to discuss technical issues, such as integration, with your customers and/or partners? Does that person need to be at a senior level or can a developer do that? I’ve been on numerous ‘sales’ calls so I know the importance of this in certain organizations. Again, this is just another aspect to consider.

Do you need someone experienced to fill the CTO role as part of your investment raising efforts?

If you are looking for investment capital, you may need to show investors that you have a strong and experienced team, particularly if the concept is tech heavy. In this case, you will more than likely need a CTO.

Obviously, this is a complex topic.

In my next post I’ll try to wrap it all up.