What is an Interim CTO?

An interim CTO leads an engineering team when there is a senior engineering leadership gap (such as a departure of the prior CTO) that the company plans to fill with an employee in short order (as soon as a replacement can be found – typically several weeks or months).

Interim CTOs often fulfill the role of managing the entire revenue producing Technology team including the following scope:

  • People and talent management
  • Day-to-day development operations including implementing engineering best practices, operational improvements and executing new product delivery.
  • Day-to-day operations of the revenue producing product.
  • Fulfilling ‘mission-based objectives’ such as addressing specific scaling or architectural challenges that are impeding the teams’ overall progress (common examples: accelerating a public cloud move/strategy, decomposing a monolith to microservices etc.)
  • Long term architectural oversight of the solution to meet the objectives of the product management team.
  • Many CTOs participate in candidate interviewing for the full-time CTO position
  • Often the CTO will function as head of both engineering and product.

Because interim CTOs need not worry about the long-term ramification of corporate politics, they can also efficiently and transparently assess the team, architecture and process employed by the company.   

So, even though the open CTO role may leave a big gap and therefore present a major risk to the business, the upside is that leveraging an interim CTO is an opportunity to assess the overall state of the organization independently and quickly, in order to drive faster progress going forward.  An independent assessment will also help to optimize the considerations and personality dimensions that are most important in finding the right long-term candidate. 

Why is it important?

The leader of technology at any company is strategically critical to the business’s success. The importance of this role is only escalating as the pace of technology change is also ever accelerating.

Labor market dynamics ebb and flow and at present there is additional labor force pressure and scarcity of talent at all levels, attrition rates have increased, and as a result it is harder to fill roles. It often takes months to fill senior management positions with the right candidate and this gap slows the teams’ progress for several reasons:

Teams will often put off larger decisions until the “new person arrives.” Decision making will be slower and suboptimal as:

  • Mid-level leaders often do not know who can make key decisions when significant leadership gaps exist
  • The leaders that are assigned to “fill-in” while working to fill the full-time leadership gap sometimes do not understand the context and are often already wearing multiple hats at a senior level
  • Mid-level managers do not have the full picture of the organization and are likely to inadvertently optimize their area at the expense of the whole
  • Key initiatives that are cross cutting often stall or are significantly slowed as there is no accountable senior leader to successfully drive them, especially in the case of larger team.

With these and other potential business impacts in mind, it is important for CEOs to consider if an interim leader is a good option when their CTO position is vacant.

Key points for CEOs and Board members

There are several aspects to consider in making an interim CTO successful:

  1. Define the role, scope, and priorities at the outset
    • Is the interim assignment focused on narrow key priorities? Or
    • Will the interim leader cover all people and operational aspects of the CTO role in terms of people, process, and technology?
    • Are there additional “mission based specific objectives”?

    Based on the established scope, to the extent possible, define what successful outcomes will look like.

    We have created a useful checklist for interviewing and selecting a CTO. All of these qualifications may not be necessary in an interim leader but the checklist serves as a thorough inventory of skills to consider.

  2. Encourage the interim leader to come in and independently fully assess the state of the Product Engineering organization (people, process, technology/architecture) to get the most value out of the interim CTO, to confirm priorities and as an opportunity to understand the current state of the organization in more detail. 
  3. Determine based on the scope and objectives if the leader will be part- or full-time and approximate time commitment per week. A full 40 hours a week may or may not be necessary based on the scope and the current overall health of the organization.
  4. Try to set a rough timeframe, or a timeframe for checking in to extend interim leader. Normally specialists working in an interim role will align subsequent assignments so best to be clear on timeframe and process for extending up front.
  5. Determine lines of reporting for the interim leader and establish a cadence for regular verbal and/or written updates to their manager and/or key stakeholders.
  6. The CTO’s direct supervisor (e.g. CEO) must meet frequently with the interim leader to ensure alignment. Ongoing alignment on progress and priorities is critical to maximizing value.
  7. Plan to involve the interim leader in the interviewing process for full-time candidates.
  8. Plan for overlap with the new CTO or set that rough expectation (which can change once the new person is hired)
  9. Be clear and as concrete as possible (use examples) about the interim CTO’s decision-making power and if you want them to err on the side of caution or be ‘big and bold.’
  10. Think critically about what the organization needs most and look for aligned qualities for an interim leader, e.g. is day-to-day execution on a well-defined path the main objective and do you need an organized driver first and foremost? Are there trust, transparency, or other dynamics at play such that a strong people leader is needed? Are there complex architectural challenges?

Common CEO questions about the Interim CTO role

When should I bring on in interim CTO?
If your CTO has left the organization and you are concerned about progress on important strategic priorities, team engagement/attrition as well as day to day delivery of new product - then you should strongly consider an interim CTO role to drive progress while looking for your ideal full-time candidate.
In addition to the challenge of the existing CTO leaving the organization there are other situations where an interim CTO will be ideal including tackling more specific issues/challenges (smaller scope and/or more ‘surgical’ type of help is needed on a specific problem) or when a smaller start up is ramping to the size that a CTO level leader is contemplated but the company is still assessing the scope and timing of the need for this senior role.

How much should it cost?
Cost will vary based on the location and size of the organization but should be expected to be higher on a weekly/monthly basis than a full-time candidate given interim CTO’s normally have a great deal of experience at the senior level. In addition, of course the nature of contractor pay structure versus full-time always makes contractors more expensive on a cash basis. However, when weighed against the risks outlined above, it is normally a very good investment to manage overall risk to the organization in terms of delivery, attrition, and key strategic priorities.

Is it worth the cost if the new full-time CTO will just come in and ‘redo’ all the interims’ decisions and progress?
This is a risk but most of the principles of good development practices are common as are architectural patterns and best practices (although specific technology choices of how to implement these practices do vary widely).
In general, it is best to err on the side of allowing the interim leader to have a bias for action but also be clear on their scope of decision making and make time to stay in sync with them on a regular weekly or bi-weekly basis to help manage this risk.

Ok I need an interim CTO - how do I make them successful?
As previously described, setting scope, priorities, a target timeframe, and a regular cadence of open communication are the most important underpinnings of success in engaging an interim CTO.

What an Interim CTO is not

A Project manager - an interim CTO should be action oriented (especially given the time-boxed nature of their assignment) but should not be a generic project manager. They should have held ideally multiple senior level engineering leadership roles and be seasoned technology leaders.

An experiment in “try before you buy” – although it is not uncommon for an interim CTO to apply for the full-time CTO position, normally the ‘going in mindset’ is that the assignment is temporary, and should the interim CTO decide to apply for the open full time CTO role then obviously they would be excluded from the interview process for other candidates. Regarding the potential to move the interim CTO into the full-time position, it is best to keep an open dialogue and of course encourage them to apply if they are an optimal fit.

AKF regularly engages clients in need of an interim CTO at companies of all sizes and across industries. An outline of a recent assignment with a focus on cloud transformation is summarized here. If you need interim Engineering leadership, we would love to see if we can help! Please contact us for more info.