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Becoming a Fractional CTO

Posted on 25 October 2023

Becoming a Fractional CTO

​5-minute read

I received a message urging me to stop using the term "Fractional CTO" (fCTO) when seeking to engage with individuals in this role for an article. The truth is, new job titles emerge constantly; just two years ago, we hadn't even heard of the "Prompt Engineer" position. However, the growth of the fCTO role is undeniable, with over 1,200 professionals on LinkedIn claiming this title and the number continuing to rise.

Perhaps you've come across this job title yourself and are seeking more information, or maybe you stumbled upon this article out of sheer curiosity. Regardless of your motivation, our goal today is to illuminate the responsibilities associated with this role, the essential skills required for success, and several key tips to help you along this journey.

This article would not be possible without the contributions of our five guests: Marcelo Emmerich (Conventic GmbH), Haseeb Ashfaq (AU-Schein), Elvio Vicosa, Brian Graham, and Marcel Dumont. Each of them shared their insights and expertise to provide you with valuable information.

One noteworthy discovery during our research for this article is that the fCTO community is, for the most part, remarkably open to knowledge-sharing and networking. While this article serves as an excellent starting point, we strongly recommend that those seriously considering a career in this role reach out to our guests or others within their professional networks to gain deeper insights and determine whether this career path is the right fit for them.

 

What is the true purpose of a fractional CTO?

Before delving into the requisite skills for an fCTO, it's crucial to gain a profound understanding of the role's purpose. During our discussions, a consensus emerged that the fCTO role primarily assumes a strategic stance. Marcel underscored that in this capacity, one's value is not primarily determined by coding contributions but rather by the ability to leverage business acumen to extricate the team from challenging situations.

Elvio echoed this sentiment, emphasising that while possessing a foundational technical awareness is essential, we'll delve into this aspect later. The real driving force for effecting change lies in one's grasp of business dynamics and the capacity to engineer solutions for complex issues.

Haseeb and Brian shed light on the temporal nature of these roles, pointing out that they typically exist outside the core team and tend to be short-lived. Often, fCTOs step into projects without a comprehensive understanding of the team's prior journey. Moreover, the scope of work can vary significantly from project to project. In some cases, you may need to focus on upskilling the team, while in others, your expertise may be needed to revamp team structures. In yet other scenarios, the challenge may involve cost reduction and a deep dive into the team's financial aspects.

It's crucial to distinguish the fCTO role from that of a startup CTO. Rather than assuming tasks directly from the team, the fCTO provides guidance and support behind the scenes. Think of this role as a specialised subset of full CTO responsibilities that demands intense focus and attention, as Brian aptly conveyed. In many instances, this might entail working alongside a full-time CTO, offering support in areas where they may be less experienced—a common scenario among our guest experts in recent times.

 

What core skills should you possess in order to be successful in this role?

Once you've grasped the fundamental purpose of an fCTO, it becomes evident that specific skills are essential. While it's not necessary to possess all of them from the outset and keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive, the following abilities should be your target for development if you intend to pursue this career path.

Strategic Thinking

After digesting the preceding section, you should firmly grasp the importance of strategic thinking for success in this role. Marcelo emphasised that being an outstanding developer alone won't suffice. It's not a prerequisite to have a CTO background (as demonstrated by Brian, who ascended from a Senior Engineering Manager position), but it's essential to feel at ease examining a roadmap from a business standpoint, not just a technical one.

Brian elaborated that your role should revolve around enabling and collaborating, a task achievable only by disengaging from day-to-day tasks. As you ascend the professional ladder, you'll naturally find that the value you bring to your role diminishes in terms of coding contributions and increasingly centers on your capacity to solve intricate problems—something that constitutes a significant portion of the fCTO role.

 

Budgeting

Expanding on your business acumen, it's imperative to have a solid foundation in budgeting, reporting, and comprehensive cost analysis. Marcelo explained the significance of these skills, as they enable you to effectively plan for a team and department.

In the course of embarking on new projects, even if cost analysis isn't explicitly stated in the initial scope, you may eventually find yourself delving into financial matters, as Elvio frequently does. This involvement can be pivotal in uncovering the root causes of the challenges a company may be grappling with.

Additionally, during your tenure with a team, you might be entrusted with the responsibility of onboarding new vendors and engaging in active negotiations on behalf of the company, whether pertaining to new or existing contracts. Hence, Haseeb pointed out that possessing negotiation skills is advantageous for achieving success in this role. Notably, negotiation extends beyond contractual matters; it also encompasses interactions with various stakeholders, a topic we'll delve into more deeply in the context of communication.

 

Communication

As previously discussed, the concept of negotiation extends far beyond contracts and encompasses various facets within the broader context of communication. The skill of adeptly managing different stakeholders is something our guests consistently agreed upon during our discussions. Elvio delved deeper into this subject, sharing the importance of expectation management.

When an fCTO is brought on board, it's often in response to an existing issue. Management typically seeks swift resolution to allow progress to resume, highlighting the vital role of expectation management, as well as robust communication and negotiation skills.

Marcel elaborated that even with expectation management, you may encounter resistance from management. It's essential to recognise that you are often tasked with pointing out weaknesses in something to which individuals have devoted their passion and effort. Egos can come into play, so your role extends beyond effective communication to approaching each unique situation and individual with humility, as Brian noted.

Moreover, Elvio explained that in an increasingly remote work environment, the effectiveness of your written communication must match that of your verbal communication.

 

Analytical Thinking

The nature of the fCTO role places you in an environment where management is aware of existing issues, continually testing your ability to approach each situation analytically and determine the optimal course of action.

Each time you address a problem, you'll do so with limited background knowledge. Every team will have its own dynamics, financial constraints, technological considerations, and more. As Marcel emphasised, your responsibility is to grasp this intricate landscape and adeptly navigate it, reshaping it as needed to drive meaningful change.

This analytical prowess typically develops through leadership challenges, especially when circumstances evolve rapidly, requiring you to make pivotal decisions that can impact your team or the entire company. It's a skill that truly defines the capabilities of fCTOs, as it forms the foundation for crafting effective solutions to the problems they encounter. An inaccurate analysis could exacerbate the situation, while a correct one might just salvage an entire company.

 

Technology

It's worth nothing that while a solid foundation in technical expertise is needed for the fCTO position, the primary focus of this role, as previously discussed, lies in addressing business challenges. Marcelo highlighted the importance of maintaining objectivity towards technologies and processes; you may have personal preferences, but you must adapt to the tools and methods your supported team uses.

In the role of an fCTO, possessing sufficient technical knowledge is essential to see through any potential smokescreens within the team, as Marcel pointed out. However, it's important to recognise that being an expert in every domain is neither realistic nor necessary.

There's no specific right or wrong timing for transitioning into this role. Still, as our guests have suggested, accumulating diverse experiences before making the leap can significantly ease your transition, especially since teams often turn to you for quick solutions.

 

Networking

As Marcel rightfully shared, it's impractical to expect mastery in every facet of technology. Consequently, cultivating a robust network that you can rely on for specific aspects of team setups becomes imperative. This network will enable you to tackle challenges that may fall outside your immediate expertise, ensuring you don't miss out on opportunities. To illustrate, consider a scenario where your knowledge of security is limited, but the problem at hand requires security expertise. Having a trusted contact who specialises in security can empower you to address the broader issue while receiving support in the specific security domain.

Networking also presents the potential for job opportunities within this role, which we'll delve into further in the upcoming section.

 

Tips to remember along this journey

Each of our guests embarked on different paths to reach the fCTO role. For some, it's their sole focus, while others take it on part-time. There are those who founded and sold companies before transitioning, and others ascended from middle management positions. Despite their shared title today, these varying beginnings offer valuable insights to guide you along your own journey.

- Remember software development is still very complex, you will need to be ready to make unpopular decisions from time to time – and be comfortable in doing so – Marcelo

- This career path can be very lucrative in terms of finances but also knowledge growth and by giving you access to varied industries’ - Haseeb

- No two days will be the same, as a result, don’t be too structured in your approach. Each company's individual setup will guide you. Don’t be too greedy either, take only on the work you can handle. – Elvio

- Use articles like this and other material you can find to start learning about the fCTO role but also find mentors or others already doing this job to really understand the in’s and out’s of what could be expected, the industry is generous with their time, on the most part – Brian

- In the first roles you find, target companies that are close to your experience, this will help when convincing them (if you’re background is within the gaming industry, target the gaming industry for example). Also, be prepared to only hear the symptoms of the problem in most of the projects you are going to work on, you’re tasked to find the problem. - Marcel

 

Whether it's sparked a renewed sense of curiosity after reading this article or has piqued your interest in a potential new career path, we trust that this account, along with the insights from Marcelo, Haseeb, Elvio, Brian, and Marcel, has provided you with a clearer view of the fCTO role, the essential skills for success, and some factors you might not have previously considered.

Should you desire to delve deeper into this subject or seek further information, please don't hesitate to reach out to us or our featured guests. We are more than willing to offer support and share additional knowledge where possible.

Let's collectively bring simplicity to the chaos of recruitment.

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