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Why Is a Fractional CTO Critical for Non-Technical Startup Founders

 Ronen Magid
March 22, 2023 7:07pm ET

TL;DR: For startup founders who don’t possess technical expertise, navigating the complex domain of technology can appear to be a daunting endeavor. Creating and maintaining software and IT systems necessitates considerable time and resources, which may be challenging to secure, particularly if the startup is without a dedicated Chief Technology Officer (CTO) or technical co-founder. It’s often the case that non-technical founders opt for outsourced software development as a means to materialize their concepts. This strategy is frequently seen as an economical approach for startups to establish their technology infrastructure. Nonetheless, it also introduces a range of risks that can encompass anything from minor nuisances to potentially endangering the success of the entire business venture. If you’re a non-technical startup founder who’s about to embark on a quest to bring your vision to life and considers using outsourced engineering help, do yourself a huge favor and retain a CTO. If you cannot afford a full-time CTO, consider Fractional CTO services. It many can mean the difference between letting your vision soar, or crash and burn.

What non-technical founders don’t know about software development

Software development is not a regulated industry

Software development may seem like a structured discipline to those outside the industry, but it is actually entirely unregulated. In contrast, electricians are subject to strict licensing requirements, ensuring they adhere to established protocols, procedures, and laws. Non-compliance in this field can lead to fines, sanctions, license revocation, or even criminal charges if negligence results in harm.

Unlike electricians, for instance, there is no licensing requirement to become a software developer, nor is formal training or a related degree necessary. As a result, the profession attracts a diverse range of individuals, some with exceptional skills and aptitude, while others may lack the necessary expertise. The potential for high income in software development further broadens the pool of candidates, including those with varying levels of competence.

The performance gap between individuals who identify as software developers is not commonly seen in other professional fields to such a significant degree. Some highly skilled software developers can create applications at the scale of Netflix, while others may have difficulty building even a basic static landing page. A fractional CTO with comprehensive understanding of software development, can play a vital role in evaluating and selecting the right software outsourcing companies. This expertise ensures that the appropriate choices are made to align with your project’s specific needs and goals.

There’s depth to software development you’re probably unaware of

Non-technical founders often focus on the user experience, emphasizing product features, UI, and UX. While these aspects are crucial, they represent only the tip of the iceberg. Even the simplest SaaS application has numerous hidden considerations and implementation details vital to long-term growth, maintainability, and scalability.

Neglecting infrastructure decisions can lead to costly consequences, typically surfacing during crucial growth phases, such as an MVP gaining traction and experiencing increased user activity. The worst time to pause operations for system overhauls is when users are disappointed and seeking better alternatives. In software engineering, the saying “the devil’s in the details” holds particular significance.

A fractional CTO can help ensure that your software project’s requirements and dependencies are thoroughly understood and evaluated. This is crucial because even if a project seems well-executed and functional, it may be built on unstable foundations, making it susceptible to failure under increased user activity. This vulnerability may become apparent to non-technical founders just when their business begins to gain traction.

Accept this truth: you cannot effectively vet software development firms

As a non-technical founder with a seed investment, you’re ready to bring your vision to life. Upon seeking software development help on platforms like LinkedIn, expect numerous offers from local, offshore, and nearshore companies worldwide. Their sales pitches are often strikingly similar.

  • Each claims to be exceptional, with numerous vetted engineers and satisfied clients. However, not all meet their own standards. Do you know how to discern the optimal choice?
  • Each promises a dedicated project manager to liaise with you, sparing you from managing engineers directly. This crucial role translates your needs into engineering tasks. How can you ensure the assigned project manager is the right fit to realize your vision?
  • Each boasts a large team of software engineers ready to handle projects at 50-80% lower costs than local hires. However, can they deliver scalable, lasting solutions? The market is full of amateurs; do you know how to identify them?
  • Offshore companies often highlight their US presence through local reps. But is that a real benefit for you? Those reps mainly focus on sales and business development. After becoming a client, you may receive less attention unless it’s time for an upsell.
  • Each boasts expertise in various technologies, including the latest programming languages and frameworks. However, it’s crucial to ensure their knowledge is current, their practices are best-in-class, and they genuinely understand the latest technology suited for your needs, rather than simply relying on familiar methods or using your project as a learning opportunity for their staff.

A fractional CTO can help non-technical founders navigate software development decisions by providing expertise beyond marketing claims and superficial information. By interacting with the developers responsible for your project, they can assess their capabilities to create a scalable and growth-oriented solution. Additionally, their technical proficiency enables them to ask the right questions and spot potential issues, ensuring the best technologies are employed to bring your vision to life.

Gaps in your requirements will often be filled by a stranger’s opinion, often without involving you.

Imagine being on a requirements call with an outsourced software firm’s sales manager. You discuss ideas, features, and timelines, and they send you a proposal based on your input. But have you specified everything you need, or just outlined your vision from a user experience perspective? Detailed specs rarely cover all requirements.

Consider car manufacturing: focusing on driver ergonomics isn’t enough; someone must address the engine, transmission, electrical wiring, and other subsystems. Similarly, in software, user experience is only the tip of the iceberg. Many decisions shape the infrastructure and scalability of your project. If you don’t know what to ask for, decisions will be made on your behalf, potentially favoring the interests of the software development company.

I’ve seen cases of “deliberate shortsightedness,” where outsourced companies chose “quick and dirty” solutions for fast results and payment, resulting in products that failed at scale. As a non-technical founder, you might miss crucial elements in the development team’s approach. Since essential decisions must be made, will the person making them on your behalf understand your vision and prioritize your interests? The answer is uncertain.

A fractional CTO can provide vital guidance on critical aspects such as infrastructure, scalability, tooling, language, and framework selection, which you may not be aware of but are crucial for your software development. By involving a fractional CTO, you ensure that these decisions are made with your best interests in mind, preventing potential compromises that could hinder your progress at critical moments.

Under-managed outsourced developers will go astray and it will cost you

Managing outsourced software companies is critical to ensure project success and align with your vision. Active involvement maintains communication, aligns goals, and fosters ownership among developers. Monitoring progress helps identify risks and make informed decisions, ultimately benefiting your startup.

Leaving outsourced developers unmanaged can be risky. Miscommunication, misalignment, and lack of understanding may arise, leading to suboptimal solutions and issues. Absence of client oversight may reduce motivation and accountability, jeopardizing project success and your business objectives.

A fractional CTO can significantly improve the management of outsourced engineers and avoid the potential harmful effects of under-management. When communicating your product requirements through a remote project manager to developers across the globe, crucial information can be lost or misunderstood. Silence or lack of questions, particularly in countries where your language isn’t widely spoken, can be a red flag, indicating potential miscommunication. By involving a fractional CTO, you can ensure better alignment, communication, and understanding, minimizing risks and misunderstandings.

“Quick and Dirty”: The red flag you should avoid at all cost

Adopting a “quick and dirty” approach in software development may provide immediate results, but it often results in technical debt, increased costs, and issues in the long run. This approach involves cutting corners, ignoring best practices, and prioritizing speed over quality, which can make the codebase harder to maintain, extend, and debug. This can impede progress and increase costs, as developers may need to spend more time fixing issues or refactoring code instead of focusing on new features or improvements.

Furthermore, the “quick and dirty” approach can negatively impact the system’s scalability, reliability, and security. The focus on delivering a fast solution may overlook critical aspects like performance optimization, robust error handling, and rigorous security measures. As the system’s user base grows, inadequately designed infrastructure may struggle to handle increased loads, resulting in performance bottlenecks, system crashes, or security vulnerabilities. Addressing these issues later in the development process can be time-consuming and costly, requiring extensive rework or redesign.

Avoid opting for a quick and dirty solution. Genuinely skilled software developers can deliver enduring quality without compromising on speed. A hastily assembled solution will incur higher costs when scaling and expanding, and it could even reach a point where it becomes necessary to discard it entirely and start from scratch. This scenario occurs more frequently than one might imagine.

The 80/20 law is very, very real

The 80/20 rule, or Pareto Principle, suggests 80% of work is done in 20% of the time, with the remaining 20% taking 80% of the time. Inexperienced startup founders may struggle to effectively communicate their software vision, leading to iterative processes and wasted resources, ultimately hindering growth and success. To prevent this, founders must ensure their vision is detailed and clearly conveyed to software teams.

Non-technical founders may unintentionally omit essential elements from their requirements, assuming they’re self-explanatory or universally understood. This stems from inexperience in articulating their vision in technical terms. Lacking knowledge in software development, they might not provide adequate guidance, resulting in misunderstandings, misaligned priorities, or a final product that doesn’t meet expectations.

A fractional CTO can be instrumental in assisting non-technical founders to identify and address the 20/80 pitfall in software development by fostering in-depth communication and documentation with their software teams, ensuring all crucial requirements are comprehensively examined and recorded.

Scenarios of conflict of interests are more common than you think

In the first scenario, non-technical startup founders enter a fixed-price contract based on partial requirements with an outsourcing company. This encourages the outsourcer to finish the project quickly, possibly cutting corners and compromising quality, jeopardizing the startup’s success.

In the second scenario, non-technical founders agree to a per-hour pricing model. This may incentivize the outsourcing company to inflate hours spent, exploiting the founders’ lack of technical expertise. The founders may struggle to evaluate the legitimacy of increased costs, bearing the financial burden of an inefficient development process.

Though rare, some outsourcing companies may artificially inflate project times in hourly pricing models, bordering on fraud, to improve their bottom line.

Conflicting interests between non-technical founders and outsourcing firms can result in suboptimal startup outcomes, financial loss, and delayed time-to-market. Ideally, founders should learn the development process and communicate effectively with the team. However, due to other responsibilities, they often lack time for technical aspects, relying on luck and trust in their development partners.

The importance of Fractional CTO from day one

Extensive “been there, done that” experience at a fractional cost

A Fractional CTO offers invaluable insights to non-technical startup founders, empowering them with extensive knowledge and experience from the tech industry. By partnering with a seasoned Fractional CTO, founders can smoothly navigate the complex landscape of software development, avoid common pitfalls, and make informed decisions.

These experts provide guidance on technology strategy, architecture, and best practices, ensuring that the startup’s vision is effectively translated into a scalable, secure, and efficient product. Furthermore, their proficiency in project management, team building, and vendor selection helps optimize resources and accelerate the development process. Ultimately, the presence of a Fractional CTO minimizes risks and maximizes the chances of success for non-technical software startup founders.

Bridging the gap between technical and non-technical worlds

A fractional CTO bridges gaps between developers, engineers, and non-technical stakeholders, providing strategic leadership, technical understanding, and communication facilitation. They guide decision-making, risk management, and operational efficiency, helping organizations leverage technology to achieve business objectives.

Avoiding the costly mistake of managing engineering as a non technical founder

Lacking technical expertise, startup founders may make costly mistakes, such as miscommunication of requirements, unrealistic expectations, and undervaluing technical debt. Fractional CTOs help avoid these issues by offering technical leadership, guiding engineering teams, translating requirements, establishing realistic roadmaps, managing expectations, and addressing technical risks and debt.

Vetting software developers and outsourcing vendors for alignment with your vision

Fractional CTO assists non-technical startup founders in vetting software engineers and outsourcing firms, understanding their vision and requirements. They create a detailed project specification document, guide the selection process, and provide ongoing technical leadership. This expertise enables founders to make informed decisions and achieve goals.

Uncovering the requirements you never knew you had

A fractional CTO benefits non-technical founders by enhancing their technical understanding, guiding software development, vetting engineers, and identifying necessary infrastructure, platforms, languages, frameworks, and tools. They collaborate with founders to determine technical components, assess the current environment, and recommend upgrades to achieve objectives. By offering expertise, a fractional CTO helps address challenges, improve software quality, and ensure scalable, secure infrastructure aligned with business goals.

Aligning software engineering with your business goals

A fractional CTO offers significant benefits to non-technical founders by enhancing their understanding of the technical requirements necessary to realize their vision. Providing guidance on software development practices, vetting software engineers or outsourcing firms, and identifying critical technical components like infrastructure, platforms, languages, and frameworks, a fractional CTO ensures founders can achieve their objectives.

Managing the daily operations of software development teams

A fractional CTO benefits startups by managing operations and engineer interactions, enabling non-technical founders to focus on sales, marketing, and fundraising. They oversee development, provide technical leadership, ensure best practices, and deliver quality, scalable software. Acting as a bridge between founders and engineers, they facilitate communication, provide updates, answer questions, and promote cohesive teamwork for a smooth development process, timely delivery, and budget adherence.

Constructing stable infrastructure for predictable launch cycles and growth

A fractional CTO converts a startup’s vision into scalable infrastructure by determining technical components, evaluating scalability, and selecting the right cloud platform and technology stack. They collaborate with founders to understand objectives, ensure best practices in software development, and identify technical risks and opportunities. A skilled fractional CTO promotes high standards, benefiting the organization and fostering growth and success.

Mentoring in-house engineers and keeping outsourced engineering on target

A fractional CTO mentors in-house engineers and manages outsourced teams, reducing churn and increasing satisfaction. They provide technical leadership, foster skill development, and establish effective communication for both groups. This results in enhanced employee engagement, high-quality software, and alignment with company objectives.

Eliminating waste and inefficiency with automation

A seasoned fractional CTO targets inefficiencies and automates processes using tools like scripting, CI/CD pipelines, and machine learning. This frees the engineering team to tackle strategic tasks and enables other departments to focus on business growth. Automation thus improves efficiency, product delivery, and overall satisfaction.

Mitigating security risks with best practices and “what-if” contingency plans

A fractional CTO ensures robust cybersecurity, protects sensitive data, and prevents breaches by performing security audits, identifying vulnerabilities, and implementing security measures. They also create contingency plans, train employees on threat response, and allocate resources for prompt incident resolution, thus safeguarding organizational assets and reputation.

A fractional CTO ensures company compliance with laws across jurisdictions by collaborating with legal teams and understanding complex regulations. They guide the engineering team in building law-abiding software, implement data protection measures, and adhere to industry-specific regulations. By staying informed and working with engineers, they minimize legal and financial risks, maintaining the company’s reputation.


Sheba Consulting is here for you. Boost your startup’s success with a cost-effective fractional CTO. Gain deep technical expertise, avoid costly mistakes, and develop high-quality software. Let our dedicated leader manage your engineering team, mentor staff, and keep outsourced teams on target. Access top talent without overspending. Partner with us for invaluable support for non-technical founders.