How To Hire An Interim CTO For Your Startup

Author: Błażej Kosmowski
9 min read
How To Hire An Interim CTO For Your Startup

At any point in your business life cycle, the CTO’s major objective is to make sure your business needs are reflected in your product through the best possible use of technology. So let’s start with breaking down what an interim CTO is and why a startup would need one in place of a business-focused CTO. While this role is still not a common one, it is fast becoming popular in the startup world. They can help accelerate your business success in ways a business-focused CTO might not be able to.

If you are considering a CTO, you have to bear in mind that these people are both thin on the ground and heavy on the pocket. Do you already have someone in mind and have you already secured funding for them? Or are you going to have to convince your investors to provide funding and start your search from scratch? It could take a long while to get the right candidate with the right fit for your business and investors do not look kindly to such delays.

The search and decision process can be daunting and with investors on your tail to move things along this can be very stressful for you. Another thing is that a CTO salary may look disproportionately lumpy in the context of your current turnover, but weighed against the cost of the business being disrupted and left behind, it may well be a price worth paying. As long as you get the right fit for your business at the right time you should be well on your way to success.

So What’s the difference between the Interim CTO and the business-focused CTO?

While both roles have similar characteristics, they do have a few key differences that can either make or break your startup.

The full-time CTO is focused on management, structure, and networking with industry leaders. This is great for a startup because it helps create a long term focus and structure for the business. However, when it comes to understanding technologies to help ensure fast and effective product launch, recruiting developers and engineers for startups and dealing with the immediate technological needs of a startup, an interim CTO is the way to go.

By definition, the interim CTO is there to address a very specific need and then leave. Whether they are addressing a problem or capitalizing on an opportunity, they're unlikely to be around to see it fully embedded in the business.

The Argument for a remote option

If you need someone to help your business make technical decisions that would normally be done by an interim CTO, but you don’t have the budget then you might also want to consider a remote interim CTO.

The issue with hiring an interim CTO is that unless you happen to be based somewhere with a ready supply of excellent contractors who could fulfill this need then you are going to have to try and coax someone to travel into work with you.

Asking people to travel in is perfectly reasonable, but it is also completely reasonable that they would ask for more money as a result. Obviously, travel time isn’t a factor in a remote position, so this is unlikely to happen.

Having the flexibility for your team to be remote has several benefits, here are a few:

  • You can hire top people around the world

  • Communication and documentation are improved

  • If in different timezones, you get longer development coverage

  • Access to more communities and cultures

Why would your startup need an interim CTO and when is the right time to hire one?

Given that an interim CTO is different to a business-focused CTO, you have to ask yourself the following questions;

  • Do you need help with company growth in terms of the product/engineering function?

  • Do you need somebody to advise and input on product and technology strategy but can’t afford a full-time CTO?

  • Do you need help with achieving your next funding round? Either seed funding, series A or B.

  • Do you need a gap analysis of your existing team?

  • Do you need an independent analysis of your product?

  • Do you need a hiring strategy?

  • Do you need to develop a growth framework to guide internal team members in their careers?

  • Do you require help with internal product/engineering teams in terms of problems with the process, product or people?

  • Do you need to improve visibility and communication between strategy and software delivery teams?

For each startup, the point at which an interim CTO will be hired should be determined by your unique needs. Every startup is different but once technological decisions that affect the progress, expansion or scalability of the startup comes into play it might be time to look for someone who is well versed in the various technologies needed and understand the end goal of the startup. You will at this point be looking for someone who is willing and able to make the right technological decisions that are needed while creating strategies that are needed for their implementation.

What Exactly Will The Interim CTO Be Doing?

To hire the right interim CTO for the job, you have to define the needs of your company. The interim CTO is responsible for ensuring your product is effective and ready to launch. This means his responsibilities would be varied and he/she might need to wear a few extra hats. * But generally, he/she will be for such activities like:

  • Establishing software development processes

  • Defining software architecture and database design

  • Working out the product roadmap

  • Deciding who the first technical hires should be

  • Selection and oversight of day-to-day development team in your startup

  • Evaluating emerging technologies

  • Helping with the hiring process (including for a full-time CTO)

  • Putting good development practices into the business from the get-go

  • Analyzing the technical landscape and the current toolsets being used

  • Turning tech talk into English when speaking to investors

  • Assisting with day-to-day development and/ or prototype development in your startup

  • Managing staff and hardware/cloud infrastructure budgets

  • Procuring software and services

  • Influencing product, market, and overall company strategy

2 key points to note when hiring an interim CTO:

  1. Don’t allow costs to dictate

    Hiring an interim CTO is an expensive process. You have to factor in the resources required to hire the right person, budget for their salary plus any costs they will need to build their team, and prepare the resources they’ll need to implement their roadmap. To board members and investors, these costs may seem excessive at first – but it is important to remember that this appointment is an important investment and if done right, will deliver immense value to the business.

  2. Be absolutely clear about the job description

    You should have no doubt as to who would make the perfect candidate, what skills and experience they should bring to the company, their personality, and attributes. You should also have an understanding of what their day-to-day job will entail and what they should be expected to deliver in their first month, three months after and by the end of their time with your company, how you will measure their success and what resources you envision they will need to fulfill these objectives. Only when you have a fully fleshed-out idea of the right person for the job should you begin the interview process.

    So set a definitive role requirement and craft the job description for the role before you start hiring. Make sure you have gone over all areas where the candidate will be working and have it all in clear specific terms. There are often a set of objectives that need to be set out at the beginning of the discussions including the exit criteria for the engagement. This is important to establish expectations on both sides of the role.

What Are The Skillsets Needed?

Before hiring, you have to make sure your candidate comes with all the right skills and can handle the job effectively. The ideal candidate will have a variety of backgrounds and skills to help your company achieve success. These skillsets would include but not be limited to:

  • Should have started at least one company as a founding member, preferably with a small founding team rather than a solo engagement

  • Should have held a CTO or high-level executive role in a previous company

  • Should be passionate about building and launching new companies from the ground-up

  • Should have a background in the particular type of business: Enterprise/B2B software, SaaS, consumer/B2C applications, mobile/social applications, devices, manufacturing, etc.

  • Should have deep knowledge of a variety of technologies, particularly of those being utilized by companies with an existing product

  • Should have experience with cloud infrastructure selection and management or data center management

  • Should be comfortable leading and mentoring development staff

  • Should have some experience with the same or similar business domain (optional)

  • Should be willing to wear multiple hats

Other important considerations:

To hire the right person for the interim CTO position, you should know what actually makes a candidate perfect for this job beyond their technical skillsets. These are the most important non-technical qualities you should be looking for:

  • Being technical should go along with having business acumen. The interim CTO should know the business inside out and identify how software can best address business needs.

  • Your candidate should be an avid learner and should be able to keep up with the trends. They should constantly check out the latest technologies, languages, hardware, operating systems, software development methodologies, quality assurance procedures, and platform architectures.

  • CTOs don’t work alone but with a team. Therefore, they should have people skills to interact well not only with their technical team but also with other executives and the outside world.

Conclusion

While hiring an interim CTO is not a trivial task, it is not overly complicated either. The key factor is getting an individual that has a strong grasp of the various technologies and services needed to grow the startup while having a detailed understanding of the companies ideals and goals. There should also be a strong synergy between them and the rest of the team. Lets not also forget the possibility of an interim CTO that can be converted into a full-time role.