In old Westerns, when a town ran into trouble the sheriff brought in a hired gun to help smooth things over.

Today, when a small business runs into IT trouble, the owner can bring in his own version of a hired gun -- a virtual CIO.

Virtual CIOs are experienced IT professionals who work as independent contractors or through a staffing or temp agency, either for a finite period of time or on an ongoing basis. Depending on the kind of help a company needs, some virtual CIOs work full time, while others put in a few hours a week and work with several clients simultaneously.

According to IT experts, using a virtual or contract CIO makes sense for a small business that:

  • Could use the expertise but can’t afford to pay someone full time
  • Has outgrown its current IT setup, needs to upgrade, and wants input from someone who knows the marketplace well enough to suggest solutions that would be a good fit
  • Has a technology project that calls for more expertise than the company’s in-house IT manager can offer
  • Is involved in a merger or acquisition and could use an outsider’s advice on how to blend different IT systems

Make sure the job description is clear

The first step in hiring a virtual CIO is determining exactly why the position is needed. If your business is a start up that is devising its IT strategy or a growing company about to move to a new IT platform, the virtual CIO should have strategic skills or project management background respectively, plus excellent communication skills in order to collaborate with the company’s senior management and investors, says Tom Hart, operations and technology group executive vice president at Veritude, a Boston staffing firm that places virtual CIOs. On the other hand, if a CIO is being hired to oversee the IT department on an ongoing basis -- keeping everything up and running, making sure files are backed up every night -- then day-to-day operations skills may be more important. “Once you get your arms around that you can hone your search criteria,” Hart says.

Next comes finding qualified candidates. There’s no shortage of potential candidates, especially now that the bad economy is causing some IT companies to lay off workers. But finding people whose skills, experience and industry background match a particular company’s needs is still tricky. Larger small businesses -- those closer to 500 employees or more -- may opt to use an executive search firm, especially if a company’s senior executives don’t have the time, contacts, or inclination to conduct a search themselves. But they pay for the convenience. Rates for virtual CIOs range from $125 to $200 an hour and using a search firm or recruiter can add an additional 50 to 60 percent of that to the total bill, according to industry experts.

Networking and the Internet are other avenues. CEOs can tap into their industry connections for recommendations, offer referral bonuses to employees who bring in candidates, post help wanted ads on their website or on job boards or rely on good old word of mouth. They can also use Web-based recruiting software such as Jobvite or iCIMS or

Bullhorn, which lets them forward a message about the open position through their employees’ online social networks. Some businesses are turning social networks into their recruiters. Others are using recruiting software to speed the hiring process and make good picks.

Finding a good personality match

Conduct an interview with a prospective virtual CIO just as you would if you were looking to hire someone full time, says Rocky Vienna. The long-time IT professional has worked as a contract CIO and currently runs Vienna Technology Group, a Silicon Valley IT outsourcing firm. Since it’s a leadership position, the person’s personality should fit in with the rest of the company’s executive team “since they’ll be sitting at the table with them,” Vienna says. He recommends asking candidates to sign a non-disclosure agreement so a CEO can talk candidly about corporate goals, projects and problems in order to find out how they’ll respond.

Companies need to be very clear about the areas they want a contract CIO to cover, Vienna says. “If they don’t, they run the risk of not getting what they’re paying for,” he says. “If your product launch doesn’t go off on time and you’re relying on your virtual CIO to make that happen, the potential loss is much greater than what you’re spending on the consultant’s rates.”