The Rise of the Interim CTO

4 minute read

Have you ever heard of an Interim CTO? While many have heard of interim executives for the CEO or CMO role, the Interim CTO role is quickly becoming a popular option for early stage and growing startups. Whether the Interim CTO helps for a few months or for a longer term of 18-24 months, they can often accelerate a startup in ways that business-focused CTOs and technical co-founders are unable.

How Can Interim CTOs Accelerate Startup Success?

Interim CTOs can accelerate early or mid-stage startup success in a number of ways:

  • Fill gaps of knowledge and expertise often unavailable during the early-stage of a company
  • Save startups $20k-100k or more by avoiding costly mistakes (e.g. building the wrong thing, using the wrong technologies, selecting the wrong team members)
  • Understand the differences and properly deploy strategies for companies that are still seeking product/market fit or those seeking to accelerate growth
  • Help transition an early-stage startup from undisciplined development practices (“cowboy coding”) to a consistent, repeatable, scalable process and team
  • Balance the need for 30,000-foot level view of technology with the need to get hands-on to make things happen

Are Interim CTOs and Technical Co-Founders the Same Thing?

Technical co-founders are often thought of as CTOs and often given the title since they join the startup early. The problem is that many technical co-founders often focus the majority of their time on the immediate development needs, rather than the long-term vision for the business. This means that solving today’s problems become more important than looking at the long-term goals of the business.

If a technical co-founder is a developer that is given the title of CTO, it can cause numerous problems later on, including: lack of experience, lack of leadership, and limited growth of the company. In addition, it is often difficult to remove them from the role when the company begins to accelerate and requires strong leadership through a growth period. Finding a technical co-founder may be beneficial, but be cautious about providing a title, particularly CTO, during the early stages of the company. Rather, consider the technical co-founder as a development lead and defer to an Interim CTO for overall team leadership and direction.

An Interim CTO with hands-on development experience can provide the necessary skills to help accelerate software development in the early stages of the company. As the company begins to find a product/market fit, the Interim CTO can help to recruit, interview, and transition to a full-time CTO role. Some startups find that an Interim CTO may need to remain for some period of time, backfilling their day-to-day role to a Director or VP of Engineering while still offering their expertise in a part-time capacity to fill in the gaps.

How are Interim CTOs Different Than Full-Time CTOs?

Interim CTOs and Full-Time CTOs have similar characteristics. However, there are a few differences that can impact your startup or business:

  • Interim CTOs are primarily technology-focused rather than business-focused
  • As a result, Interim CTOs often have more experience with newer technologies that offer faster, more agile ways of launching products
  • Interim CTOs are usually more connected with other developers in the community, extending the reach of recruiting efforts through direct connections
  • Full-Time CTOs often bring a heavier focus on leadership and management, a skill often required during startup growth and stabilization
  • Full-Time CTOs generally have deep connections with industry leaders and local companies that Interim CTOs may not have

What Are the Responsibilities of an Interim CTO?

An Interim CTO is often responsible for most or all of the following:

  • Defining software architecture and database design
  • Establishing software development processes
  • Selection and oversight of day-to-day development team (early-stage companies)
  • Selection and oversight of engineering management team (mid-stage and growing companies)
  • Evaluating emerging technologies
  • Assisting with day-to-day development and/ or prototype development (early-stage companies)
  • Managing staff and hardware/cloud infrastructure budgets
  • Procuring software and services
  • Influencing product, market, and overall company strategy

What are the qualifications for the Interim CTO of a Startup?

Interim CTOs often have a variety of backgrounds, but should have most of the following qualifications:

  • Started at least one company as a founding member, preferably with a small founding team rather than a solo engagement (early-stage companies) or held a CTO or high-level executive role in a previous company (growth companies)
  • Passionate about building and launching new companies from the ground-up (early-stage companies)
  • A background in the particular type of business: Enterprise/B2B software, SaaS, consumer/B2C applications, mobile/social applications, devices, manufacturing, etc.
  • Deep knowledge of a variety of technologies, particularly of those being utilized by companies with an existing product
  • Experience with cloud infrastructure selection and management or data center management
  • Comfortable leading and mentoring development staff
  • Experience with the same or similar business domain (optional)

Interested in Learning More?

Want to learn more about how an Interim CTO might help your company? Schedule a time to chat further and see if it may be a fit for your company.