While conventional wisdom has suggested that small businesses cannot afford to hire a chief technology officer, such thinking may be on the way out, according to Chief Executive Officer Tom Cottingham. But how can you determine when your company needs to add a chief technology officer to its IT staff?

TechRepublic, with 250 employees, recently hired its first official CTO. We asked Cottingham how he knew it was time to create a CTO position and how he found the right person for the job. We also talked with Scott Fertig, who now heads technology at TechRepublic, about his new role as CTO of a dot com.

In this article, we take a look at what they have to say about:

  • When small companies need a chief technology executive.
  • How companies can find the right person, no matter how small they may be.
  • What companies can expect from a CTO.

CIO stands for chief information officer. CTO is the abbreviation for chief technology officer. A CKO is a chief knowledge officer, a position that’s peripherally related to IT.
How TechRepublic knew it was time
For TechRepublic, whose business is completely technology-based, the decision to hire a CTO was simple, said Cottingham: “Our people on the technology side told us that’s what they needed. They wanted leadership, someone who had a lot of technical authority, and that’s not me.”

Finding the right person, however, was difficult.

When TechRepublic was a small start-up, a former Microsoft employee who has since left the company led the technology side without the CTO title. After he left, the IT directors and staff got the job done, but they missed having an executive-level advocate.

“We’ve talked with members of the staff about this for months, literally since our old technology guy left,” Cottingham said. “What I heard from them was, ‘We want someone who can sit at the table who can represent us and is someone we respect.’”

Cottingham also wanted someone who could serve as a translator between the technology people and the business people.

“We needed someone at the highest level of management who was a technologist, who understood the issues, who could serve as the Rosetta stone between the business people and the technology people, help us allocate resources, make platform decisions, and then who could go out and hire a great staff,” he said.

Scott Fertig turned out to be that person.

Fertig had a varied technology and business background. Previously, he was a cofounder and CEO of Bluenet Ventures, a Connecticut-based Internet incubator. Before then he was CEO and cofounder of Mirror Worlds Technologies. He had also been a CTO and a Web architect. This background gave him both business and technical experience.

Fertig suggests technology-driven companies such as TechRepublic should hire a CTO almost immediately.

“If you’re a technology company, you need a CTO basically when you can no longer count on three fingers the number of technology projects you’re undertaking at once,” he said.

Cottingham advises that companies hire a CTO as soon as they hire a chief financial officer.

“Technology is the essence of business right now,” Cottingham said. “It drives everything. It’s like saying, ‘I’m going to have a car repair place but I’m not going to have anybody that fixes engines.’ You’ve got to have someone that understands technology. It’s strategic.”

Testing the waters
How do you find a CTO?

TechRepublic worked with a firm to conduct a national search. When Cottingham saw Fertig’s credentials, he was impressed by his experience, but he wanted to be sure Fertig was the right person for the job.

So Cottingham decided to hire him as a consultant during TechRepublic’s acquisition of ITRadar, a Minnesota-based Internet company. Cottingham felt this would be a way for both the company and the candidate to see if this was a good match.

“If that works, then great, we can all feel better about getting married,” Cottingham remembered thinking.

Fertig knew why he was hired as a consultant, and he appreciated the opportunity to learn more about TechRepublic before signing on.

“I’m coming into a company that’s moving very fast in a competitive space. I want to evaluate the people that I’ll be working with as much as they want to evaluate me,” he said. “It worked for both of us.”

What you can expect out of a CTO
Both Cottingham and Fertig said the CTO’s job is to bring business priorities and needs to technology decisions.

Cottingham said it’s also important for the CTO to act as the technology team’s advocate within the organization.

“Day to day interaction with people should be mostly about facilitating: helping people get the resources that they need or they’ve been promised, helping them eliminate barriers that might exist in other parts of the organization, making sure that they’ve communicated to other parts of the organization, including senior management, what’s going on so that there aren’t barriers.”
Even if you can’t afford a full-time CTO, you probably still need one, particularly if you’re outsourcing your IT functions, according to Fertig. He recommends that you search for a consultant or CTO-level person who would be willing to work with you part-time. For more on how small companies can borrow CTO talent, see “‘Rented’ CIOs offer short-term IT solutions.”What do you see as the role of the CTO? E-mail us or post a comment.