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CISO Career Guide

How to Become a Chief Information Security Officer

With more organizations relying on computer technology, the need to protect these vital systems is rising as well. Enter the chief information security officer or CISO. A chief information security officer is a seasoned cybersecurity and IT professional, often with an IT degree. and several years of experience in the cybersecurity field. This relatively new and desirable C-level position was created to help corporations protect their computer systems and networks from hackers, spies, and other cyber threats.

 

A group of business people meeting in a board room.

What Is a CISO?

CISO stands for chief information security officer. CISOs work alongside company officers, business managers, cyber security teams, and IT managers to effectively monitor and maintain the security of their organization’s applications, databases, computers, and websites. They’re also tasked with establishing enterprise-wide security policies, developing data breach resiliency plans, overseeing system update communications, and managing the information security financials.

It’s no wonder that chief information security officers must work long hours and have extensive IT education and experience. However, they’re paid exceptionally well for their efforts and have excellent job security.

What Does a CISO Do?

Your primary responsibility as a chief information security officer is to understand the security operations and challenges in the current and future state of your business’s operations. This will help you prepare employees in your organization with the right tools, skills, resources, relationships, and capabilities to protect against information security risks.

However, successful CISOs also have a great deal of enterprise business acumen. Since they work within the C-suite of executives, they must understand other business disciplines such as finance, HR, and compliance. And they’ll need an in-depth knowledge of their organization’s operations and functions to make effective business decisions. 

Your specific CISO duties and responsibilities can vary greatly depending on your enterprise size, hierarchy, industry, and compliance regulations. These responsibilities typically cover many functional company domains, including:

  • Security operations—evaluating the IT threat landscape, devising cyber security policy and controls to reduce risk, leading auditing and compliance initiatives, and more.
  • Disaster recovery—developing cyber resiliency so your organization can rapidly recover from hacking, security incidents, or infringements. 
  • Security finance management—determining if your data security initiatives are worth the financial investments.
  • Documentation—contributing to a variety of security policy domains associated with compliance, governance, risk management, incident management, HR management, and additional domains.
  • Compliance—ensuring that your organization is adaptable to evolving compliance regulations. 
  • Program onboarding—weighing business opportunities against security risks that can potentially compromise your organization’s long-term financial rewards. 
  • HR management—establishing a system that reduces human error and its impact on your organization’s security posture.

How do I Become a CISO?

To begin, you’ll need to get your bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity or information technology. If you do choose to pursue an IT degree, make sure to stack your undergraduate program with as many security-related courses as possible since that will be your primary focus as a CISO.

You can also start accruing your years of experience by working in information technology while you get your bachelor’s. Online programs, like WGU’s, offer accredited and respected IT degrees that you can earn while working. In fact, many of WGU’s students work full-time since they can access learning materials, complete coursework, and take tests when and where it best fits their schedules.

In addition to your B.S., you should earn several certifications (aka “certs”) to broaden your knowledge and make you a more desirable candidate for future job opportunities or promotions. Some schools, like WGU, include these certs in their undergraduate programs, which can save you a lot of time and money. 

If you’re looking to become a C-level executive, it’s common that you’ll need a master’s degree also. Consider a Master of Science in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance.

Here are the key certs you should look for with a CISO career in mind:

  • Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP) – Associate of (ISC)² designation
  • Systems Security Certified Practitioner (SSCP) – Associate of (ISC)² designation
  • Certified Encryption Specialist (EC-Council ECES)
  • A+ (CompTIA)
  • Cybersecurity Analyst Certification, CySA+ (CompTIA)
  • Network+ (CompTIA)
  • Network Vulnerability Assessment Professional (CompTIA)
  • Network Security Professional (CompTIA)
  • Security Analytics Professional (CompTIA)
  • Security+ (CompTIA)
  • Project+ (CompTIA)
  • PenTest+ (CompTIA)
  • IT Operations Specialist (CompTIA)
  • Secure Infrastructure Specialist (CompTIA)
  • ITIL® Foundation

Best Degrees to Become a CISO

Cybersecurity and Information Assurance – B.S.

Protect your career and earning potential with this degree....

Protect your career and earning potential with...

Protect your career and earning potential with this degree.

  • Time: 70% of graduates finish within 29 months.
  • Tuition and fees: $4,245 per 6-month term.

Some careers and jobs this degree will prepare you for:

  • Cyber crimes investigator
  • Director of cybersecurity
  • Chief of cyber counterintelligence
  • Cybersecurity engineer
  • Cyber operations planner

Certifications included in this program at no extra cost include:

  • Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP) - Associate of (ISC)2 designation
  • Systems Security Certified Practitioner (SSCP) - Associate of (ISC)2 designation
  • ITIL® Foundation Certification
  • CompTIA A+
  • CompTIA Cybersecurity Analyst Certification (CySA+)
  • CompTIA IT Operations Specialist
  • CompTIA Network+
  • CompTIA Network Vulnerability Assessment Professional
  • CompTIA Network Security Professional
  • CompTIA PenTest+
  • CompTIA Project+
  • CompTIA Secure Infrastructure Specialist
  • CompTIA Security+
  • CompTIA Security Analytics Professional

 

Cybersecurity and Information Assurance – M.S.

Become the authority on keeping infrastructures and information...

Become the authority on keeping infrastructures...

Become the authority on keeping infrastructures and information safe.

  • Time: 70% of graduates finish within 22 months.
  • Tuition and fees: $4,590 per 6-month term.
  • Certifications: cost of two EC-Council certs, included.

The curriculum is closely aligned with the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) Workforce Framework, plus includes the opportunity to earn these certifications:

  • EC-Council Certified Ethical Hacker
  • EC-Council Computer Hacking Forensic Investigator (CHFI)

This program was designed in collaboration with national intelligence organizations and IT industry leaders, ensuring you'll learn emerging technologies and best practices in security governance.


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What Skills Does a CISO Need?

To become a CISO, you’ll need to demonstrate your technical chops in the trenches, become the de facto security leader for your organization, and work your way up to earn the role of official cybersecurity executive. CISOs are often more involved with the business in which they work than in the technology their teams use. Cybersecurity is also gaining more visibility in the boardroom, so to succeed in your C-level role, you’ll need excellent leadership and management skills.

Other skills that you should master include:

  • Financial fluency. You need to not only understand but also lead discussions on the financial topics relevant to your business. This will enable other leaders to take intelligent financial risks (pertaining to information security gains) and will help you contribute directly to the financial discussions about those risks.

  • Communication. You must be able to communicate effectively with a variety of different people—crossing the divide between technical and business audiences. This means not only delivering presentations well but also communicating effectively in interpersonal situations. 

  • Empathy. You’ll need this critical skill to successfully connect with your organization’s business leaders, customers, and employees so you can determine the right level of risk tolerance for your IT security initiatives. Without empathy, cybersecurity becomes nearly impossible to do well.

  • Ambition. You’ll need a strong desire to become an executive. The CISO job isn’t for everyone. It comes with great responsibility, risk, and reward. And you’ll have to take many risks in your career to get there, such as taking jobs with smaller or struggling organizations to get a seat at the executive table. 

How Much Does a CISO Make?

$165,000

As of 2021, the median annual salary for a chief information security officer is over $165,285. The highest earners make more than $229,000 per year, and the lowest 10% make around $104,000. Working as a C-level executive in information security can be a financially lucrative career.

What is the Projected Job Growth?

13%

The job outlook for chief information security officers is very favorable. From 2020 to 2030, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment in computer and information technology occupations to grow by 13%. The need to collect and store big data in today’s information economy is driving rapid growth. As companies look to senior IT and cybersecurity executives to lead out in protecting valuable customer data, the need for CISOs will continue to increase.

How Long Does it Take to Become a CISO?

10+ Years

Since CISO is a senior C-level position, it’s understandably not a role you can step right into after completing a bachelor’s or even master’s degree. The time, experience, and training needed to become a CISO can vary depending on the size of the company and the industry. While it’s tough to say exactly how many years it takes to become a chief information security officer, plan on earning as much education as possible and gaining several years of experience in the field before becoming a CISO. A master’s degree is a great start. 

Interested in Becoming a CISO?

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