Virtual CIO Fractional CIO an Explainer


What is Virtual IT Leadership?

The rise of Cloud services has created a democratization of IT services. Now, anyone with a credit card can deploy business software in a matter of minutes, without having to know anything about IT infrastructure, security or data.

This has led a lot of companies to dispense with having large internal IT teams, and rely instead on a small number of helpdesk technicians doing desktop support, reporting into a non-technical leader like a CFO or COO.

This creates a gap in IT leadership, which many organizations now fill with virtual IT leadership, a growing area of IT management consulting. Virtual IT leadership addresses the needs of organizations that do not have comprehensive internal IT leadership capabilities, by providing them with part-time or on-demand expertise to supplement their management team.

Most services to this point have been marketed as Virtual CIO (more commonly referred to as a vCIO), but some service providers are offering Fractional CIO or Virtual IT Director programs.


What is the difference between vCIO and a Fractional CIO?

Both Virtual CIO and Fractional CIO are part time IT leadership roles. The difference appears to be simply a question of marketing.. some service providers felt that the vCIO role was being misused by consulting firms as a business development tactic, to give biased advice that would generate new business for their firm, so they invented Fractional CIO to differentiate themselves.

We haven’t heard of people complaining of biased vCIOs but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. As a consulting firm ourselves, we believe very strongly in giving unbiased advice, and that serving in your clients’ best interests is always the best way to build long-term partnerships that benefit both parties. So simply put, we wouldn’t do it, and if others did, that would simply be a poor strategy.

That said,  there are bad consultants all over the place, and not just in the vCIO market. We believe there are simple precautions you can take to protect yourself against biased advice, whatever the nature of the consulting engagement:

  1. Ask for options: Always ask consultants to lay out various options, explain why they choose those options, which they recommend, and why. Sounds simple but most people don’t do it.
  2. Flag potential conflict of interest: Ask consultants to send you an email itemizing all the services they provide, and tell them that this is because you want to protect against conflicts of interest. This should make them think twice before giving you any biased advice.


What is the difference between vCIO and a

Virtual IT Director?

While there is a lot of overlap between these two roles, a virtual IT Director is generally more focused on hands-on technical and operational leadership, whereas a vCIO is usually someone who has been away from the technical side for a while and is therefore focused entirely on strategy.

We believe that while there is sometime a case for bringing in a virtual IT leader who is focused entirely on strategy, most of the organizations we work with are actually looking for someone who can also act as an operational or tactical IT leader. This requires someone who is just as comfortable rolling up their sleeves and mixing it with the techs, as they are talking with senior leadership and developing strategy and governance.

That’s why at Mindfield, our vCIO program covers the entire gamut of IT leadership, from the operational to the strategic. Unless you’re sure you only need coverage at a senior executive level, we recommend finding a program like Mindfield’s that covers the whole range of IT leadership capabilities.


Virtual Leadership Roles



What is the difference between a VP of IT and an IT Director or CIO

A VP of IT is sometimes used in larger organizations, either when an additional level of management is needed between a CIO and an IT Director, or if the CEO prefers not to have IT reporting into them and so installs a VP of IT reporting into another C-level position, often the CFO or the COO. This often happens when the CEO doesn’t recognize the strategic importance of IT or feels uncomfortable having a technical resource as a direct report.

Since the VP of IT doesn’t have a clearly defined role, because it can fulfill aspects of either the CIO role or the Director IT role, you are unlikely to find anyone marketing a ‘Virtual VP of IT’ service.


When should an Organization Consider Virtual IT Leadership?

Lady looking outside window , when to consider a Virtual CIO

Any organization wanting to go through a digital transformation would benefit from virtual IT leadership. As would organizations that want to pivot or grow. And many organizations may already be feeling the pain of an effective IT leadership gap.

A virtual CIO or virtual IT Director will help you identify the root cause of these pain points and put a plan in place to deal with them. They will work with you to ensure that these changes are sustainable and maintained over the long-term.

Paint points indicating a lack / failing IT leadership
Hidden or rogue IT spending
Frustration with failed initiatives, rising IT costs and a perception of low value
Significant incidents such as data loss or project failure
IT limiting enterprise innovation and required agility
Poor IT performance or reported quality of service problems
Service delivery problems, e.g. SLAs not being met
Failure to meet regulatory or contractual compliance


Common Responsibilities of Virtual IT Leaders

Virtual IT leadership can fit whatever gaps you may have. A good service provider will work with you to ensure the best value for your budget.

For a virtual CIO focused on filling a gap within the C-Suite, key responsibilities might include governance development and oversight, strategic planning, and engaging with senior leadership and the board.

For a virtual IT Director focused on operational leadership, they will be more comfortable with technology and managing technical resources directly.

For a vCIO offering like Mindfield’s, you can expect them to be well able to fulfill full range of IT leadership capabilities.

Common ResponsibilitiesRole typically associated withDescription
Management of IT staff and vendorsIT DirectorDirectly managing IT resources and 3rd parties
Technical OversightIT DirectorProviding technical guidance, coaching and oversight for both internal IT resources and 3rd parties
Information Security ManagementIT DirectorDeveloping and operationalising the information security program
IT Program | Project Management IT DirectorDelivering IT projects, or a portfolio of projects
Change ManagementIT DirectorManaging rollout and adoption of IT initiatives
Solution AdvisoryIT DirectorProviding technical direction and recommendations aligned with business requirements
IT Risk Management IntegrationCIOWhile identification and mitigation of risks may happen at the Director level, CIOs are responsible for ensuring IT risks are integrated into the Enterprise Risk Management process
Governance Development and OversightCIODeveloping and monitoring governance controls and processes aligned with business objectives and compliance requirements
Strategic PlanningCIODeveloping long-term IT strategic plans that align with business objectives and key stakeholder requirements
Engaging with c-suite and BoardsCIOAttending executive management meetings and / or Board meetings. Providing strategic input and presentations


What isn’t part of the Virtual IT Leadership Scope?

If you need hands-on technical expertise or a deep specialization in a specific technology, then a virtual CIO or virtual IT Director may not be the right fit for you. A good virtual IT leadership service provider should give you an honest assessment of where your gaps are and how best to fill them. In this case, virtual IT specialists might be the service for you.

However, as when dealing with anyone looking to drive sales, there is a potential conflict of interest here so be wary. For example, there’s always a chance they will forgo the honest assessment and try to sell you on whatever is their top target that week. So as discussed above, make sure you ask for options and be sure to flag potential conflicts of interest.


What are the Qualifications of a Virtual IT Leader?

Case of medals for Virtual CIO Qualifications sections

It may sound obvious, but you will want someone with demonstrable experience doing the kinds of tasks you need doing. And ideally, that experience should include a variety of organizations and industries, to provide a fully rounded perspective.

However, don’t focus too heavily on them having a technical bachelor’s degree, because that really starts to lose relevance as you go up the IT leader chain. And in any case, having a technical and curious mind is far more important than a computer science degree, for anyone who has been involved in IT for more than a few years.

In terms of paper qualifications, some good ones to look out for include:

Paper QualificationsWhy?
MBASo you know you’re getting an IT leader who can relate to the business
CGEIT or CRISCTough ISACA certifications that demonstrate expertise in governance and risk management
ITILFor expertise in structuring IT service delivery
PMP or AgileProject management certifications, depending on the kind of projects you do


What is the Cost of Virtual IT Leadership Services?

This will depend on the service provider. For example, if you go to one of the big consulting firms, you’ll pay top dollar for a more junior resource who can fall back on solid processes and a deep bench. Whereas if you go to a smaller specialty IT firm, you will forgo the comfort of having a big organization to fall back on, but you’ll get someone with real depth of experience. And, it will be much more cost-effective.

The cost will also vary depending on the monthly hour commitment. For example, Mindfield offers a vCIO program that covers the whole range of IT leadership capabilities, from the operational to the strategic. The program starts at 20 hours and goes all the way up to 100 hours. Beyond this, you might be better off hiring a permanent IT leader.

Hours per month204060100
Monthly price (no commitment)$3,600

Monthly price (annual commitment)$3,400$6,500$9,000$13,500


Ready to Take IT Off Your Plate?

This article helped to clarify the confusion surrounding virtual IT leadership services like vCIO and virtual IT Director. For business leaders who have to manage many strategic portfolios offloading IT is a great start to sharpening executive focus and working with an experienced team that can manage the strategy and execution will help free up significant mind share for any leader. Mindfield has had the pleasure of working with organizations small, public, and impact groups with its focus on delivering technology and approaches that work quickly to alleviate issues and position your team for effectiveness. Mindfield provides a blend of Virtual IT capabilities including Virtual CIO ServicesIT Audit, and Virtual IT Specialists.

If you have more questions, or are interested in a virtual IT leadership engagement, please submit a request below and someone will be in touch.


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