What is a fractional CTO?

What is a fractional CTO?

What is a fractional CTO?

I appreciate that on the surface this might just look like ‘filler content’ for my website, designed to get a few hits from Google. However, before you click away, this seemingly simple question leads to several related questions, the answers to which clients tell me have been very helpful in clarifying their thinking. So, without further ado, let’s dive in.

Firstly, What is a CTO?

Before we discuss fractional CTOs, it’s probably worth defining the role of a CTO. The slight issue is that the role of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) varies widely depending upon the nature of the business, the market it operates in and the size of the business. There’s no one-size-fits-all and it’s pretty nuanced.

Broadly speaking, in a ‘non-technology’ company (where technology isn’t the product sold), the CTO will ultimately be responsible for providing technology that facilitates the execution of a company’s business strategy and effectively supports its operations. The CTO bridges the gap between business and technology, devising an appropriate technology strategy, overseeing the implementation of systems, managing vendors and budgets, and working closely with other senior colleagues.

In a ‘technology business’ (where technology is the product, for example, Uber) the CTO will have all the responsibilities above but will also be tasked with delivering a leading product, ensuring optimal output from the development team, and working with the product team to ensure product-market fit. In smaller companies and start-ups, the CTO is also often a senior developer. The descriptions above aren’t comprehensive, but hopefully they give you an idea of what a CTO does. They also help to make the key distinction between a ‘technology company’ and a company ‘that uses technology’.

Great, So What’s a Fractional CTO?

Firstly, I think it’s a terrible name! If you’re not in the technology space, or another space that has adopted the ‘fractional’ model (e.g., marketing, finance, and others), then you probably have no idea what it means. Or worse for me, you think that ‘fractional’ means those with only a fraction of the skills or experience. That’s not the case, and I can assure you that ‘fractionals’ have all the skills and expertise you’d come to expect from a C-Suite executive.

The difference is in the engagement model.

A fractional CTO isn’t on the payroll, and you’re not their only client. Some consider it simply ‘part time’, but the hours are not always fixed, and like I said, they are not on the payroll. Others may compare it to a consulting model, but a fractional is typically more integrated into your team than a consultant. There are lots of little differences with potentially big ramifications, so I’ll try and summarise the key models, how they differ, and where ‘fractional’ fits in below:

Full Time CTO:

Let’s start with the easiest one, a ‘normal’ employee who’s on the payroll. They are not cheap and probably earn in the region of £120k to £250k (depending on your industry and their experience). They will typically be involved in a combination of short-term and long-term activities and projects.

Part Time CTO:

Essentially the same as a full time CTO. They are a permanent fixture and on the payroll. However, they work a reduced, yet consistent number of hours.

Interim CTO:

These folks ‘hold the fort’ for a set period until they are replaced by a full time CTO. On the surface this arrangement appears to be the same as a full-time CTO, but on a fixed-term contract. However, an interim CTO will typically have limited scope, for example they wouldn’t get involved in long-term strategic projects, or anything that would have big lasting ramifications (which would be a sure-fire way to upset the new inbound CTO).

Fractional CTO:

As I mentioned, a fractional CTO won’t be on your payroll. Their engagement may be flexible, but they will embed themselves within your team, get their hands dirty, and often be heavily involved in execution (or implementation work). They are essentially a flexible alternative to a full-time CTO and may be engaged over a longer period, than say an interim CTO.

Consultant (or consulting CTO)

On the flipside, a consultant will typically have one or more pre-defined projects or deliverables. They won’t be embedded within your team, and will often take a more hands-off approach, focusing purely on strategic outcomes. Their engagements will typically be shorter.


It’s sometimes hard to differentiate between a consultant and an advisor. But the key difference is that an advisor doesn’t have any major deliverables or outputs expected of them. They are there to listen, and to give you the benefit of their experience in the form of advice. They may produce some smaller deliverables, but any major deliverable is firmly in the realms of consultants and fractionals. Moving to a technology advisory role is a natural next step for many fractionals and consultants in their relationship with a client.

Virtual CTO

I’ve added this for completeness, and in many cases these folks are indistinguishable from a fractional CTO, but with a title that’s easier to understand! From my experience, virtual CTOs don’t tend to work on-site and prefer purely remote engagements.

So Why Would I Want a Fractional CTO?

Excellent question! And as you may have guessed there is no simple answer. On a very high level the answer is nearly always to fill a skills gap. No matter what type of company you are, where you operate, or your size, you will need some form of technology leadership. Even the most traditional companies in the most traditional industries are being forced to further embrace technology, either due to the risk of disruptors in the market, changing customer expectations, or in order to support future ambitions.

For many the cost of a full time CTO is prohibitive. In addition, finding the right CTO can take on average between six and nine months, which is a long time to wait in the fast-paced world we live in. And should they not work out, then that’s an expensive failure. Conversely, a fractional CTO can often be found in a much shorter space of time, have fewer on costs, and can be replaced easily if the fit isn’t quite right.

The fractional model also allows you to work with the right type of person at the right time. This is particularly true if you’re an earlier stage start-up or scale-up. Your company evolves quickly and requires different types of people and skills as it evolves. Most C Suite executives at start-ups are replaced at some point as the company matures and its needs change. The inherent flexibility in the fractional model mitigates against these issues as you can engage exactly the type of person you need at any given point in your journey.

Even if you are a more established company, you are not immune to change. Markets, customers, and competitors always ensure we are in a continual state of flux. Engaging a fractional CTO helps you adapt easier to the changing environment.

Where Do I Start?

I always advise companies to begin by considering what they are trying to achieve, i.e. what success looks like, and then considering whether they might need a consultant, a fractional CTO, an advisor – or perhaps all three.

Let’s say you are looking to digitally overhaul your company. You’d start with a new technology strategy, which is essentially a consultancy piece. But you may need someone to get more heavily involved in order to execute the strategy, which is the realm of a fractional CTO. Later on, you might just require some advice and oversight, which is advisor territory.

It’s not an easy task, and it can be very nuanced. If you are in need of some friendly advice, I offer a complementary 45-minute session where I can help you dissect your requirements and advise on the type of professional you might need. No hard sell, just a friendly chat.

Or if you know what you want and it involves technology strategy, new product launches, data, integration, or automation – then I can probably help, either in a consulting, fractional or advisory capacity. Lastly, if you liked this article consider following me on LinkedIn.