A chief information security officer (CISO) is the executive in an organization who oversees the protection of information and data. This is a senior cybersecurity role, and to reach this level, you will need thorough training, lots of experience, strong expertise, and management skills.
The term CISO is often used interchangeably with CSO (chief security officer) and VP (vice president) of security. This is because chief information security officers tend to have a broad role within the organization. A CISO is responsible for developing the vision, strategy, and program that will protect a company’s data assets and technologies.
Chief information security officers can find employment in all kinds of organizations, including private firms, governmental bodies, and NGOs. To become a CISO, you will need a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject. Many employers require that CISOs have a Master’s degree as well. It is quite common for chief information security officers to have more than one Master’s degree or even a PhD under their belt.
To learn more about what a career as a CISO is like, refer to our career guide below. We reveal the different aspects of this role and the skills and qualifications you need to reach this level of responsibility in an organization. In our career guide, you can also find information on the average salaries of chief information security officers and how to find the best positions.
What is a chief information security officer?
A chief information security officer can oversee the IT, information, and data security of the entire organization. The position can cover all aspects of IT, including:
- Strategic vision
- Scoping of requirements
- Incident response
- Staff training and development
- Adherence to all protocols, regulations, and legislation
As a CISO, you will need to have many years of relevant experience and training in a variety of IT-related roles. You must have in-depth knowledge so you can effectively manage every aspect of data and information security at your organization.
What does a chief information security officer do?
As we can see, a CISO has many responsibilities. The precise role that a chief information security officer plays will depend on a multitude of factors, such as the size and type of organization they work for. Nonetheless, there are some common tasks that CISOs can expect to perform, including:
- Being aware of developing security threats and helping the board understand the potential security problems that may arise following certain business decisions.
- Carrying out real-time analysis of immediate threats and deciding how to proceed when something goes wrong.
- Taking steps to ensure that only authorized individuals can access restricted data, information, and systems.
- Ensuring that internal staff don’t misuse or steal data.
- Planning, buying, and rolling out security hardware and software. Making sure that IT and network systems are designed with the most effective security practices in place.
- Overseeing software launches and upgrades.
- Planning, monitoring, and forecasting security budgets.
- Ensuring network upgrades and IT projects work without disabling or compromising security.
- Figuring out what went wrong in a security breach. This also involves dealing with anyone internally who is responsible and planning how to avoid the same issue in the future.
- Meeting security needs by putting in place programs that minimize risks.
- Hiring and managing security and IT professionals.
- Leading employee education programs.
- Ensuring that all initiatives are running smoothly and are adequately funded. A CISO will also communicate the importance of these programs to corporate leadership.
What skills are required to become a chief information security officer?
A chief information security officer will need the skills to match the diverse, broad, and in-depth duties involved in this role. The skillset of a CISO will tend to include the following:
- Risk and compliance management
- Technical IT expertise
- Communication skills
- Leadership skills
- Presentation skills
- Knowledge about government (for example, legislation, both current and incoming)
- Knowledge of regulation and standards compliance
- Policy development skills
- Administration skills
- Financial, planning, and strategic management skills
- Supervisory and incident management skills
How to become a chief information security officer
The path to becoming a chief information security officer is a bit more complicated than it is for other cybersecurity professions. This is due to the seniority of the role. With this in mind, you should be prepared for a career path involving a significant investment of time, hard work, education, and personal development. Here are the three essential steps you should take to become a CISO, as well as some examples of potential avenues toward this position.
1. Obtain required and helpful degrees
You will need a Bachelor’s degree as a minimum requirement to become a CISO. Relevant subjects for a Bachelor’s degree include computer science, IT, cybersecurity, and engineering. If you’re just starting on this career path you may be able to find cybersecurity scholarships to help fund your study.
A few examples of top degrees include:
- Rice University’s BA in Computer Science
- Bellevue University’s Bachelor of Science Cybersecurity Degree
- Norwich University’s Bachelor of Science in Cyber Security
Many employers, however, will require you to have obtained a relevant Master’s degree. This is because a CISO needs to apply more in-depth knowledge in their role. Some worthwhile Master’s degrees to consider include:
- UC Berkeley School of Information’s Master of Information and Cybersecurity (MICS)
- A. James Clark School of Engineering’s Masters of Engineering in Cybersecurity
- University of Delaware’s Online Master’s Degree in Cybersecurity
Education beyond a Master’s level qualification can be helpful too. Chief information security officers are usually experts in their field and as such, they need to have a high level of technical knowledge. Studying a PhD is one way to gain this degree of understanding. This level of education also allows you to make a meaningful difference in your field, through the research you carry out. A relevant PhD will act as a unique selling point, providing a solid reason for an employer to trust you as a CISO. Here are some examples of reputable PhD programs to keep in mind:
- Capitol Technology University’s Doctorate (DSc) in Cybsersecurity
- University of Fairfax’s Doctorate of Information Assurance
- Dakota State University’s Doctor of Philosophy in Cyber Operations
2. Consider useful certifications
As well as degrees, it can be useful to gain some certifications to supplement your knowledge and skills. Due to the breadth of a CISO’s role, the more varied certifications you have, the better. Extra qualifications that are particularly valuable for the CISO role include:
- EC-Council’s Certified Chief Information Security Officer
- SECO’s Certified Information Security Officer (S-CISO)
- GIAC’s (Global Information Assurance Certification) GPEN certification
- ESCA – EC Council Certified Security Analyst
- CISM – Certified Information Security Manager
- CompTIA Security+
- CISSP – Certified Information Systems Security Professional
- CISA – Certified Information Security Auditor
3. Gain the necessary years of experience
It’s not a quick and easy process to move from being a graduate to gaining a CISO position. To reach this degree of seniority, you’ll need to have gained many years’ experience in IT security. Most employers will require at least 10+ years in senior risk management and security roles. Also, bear in mind that, like most professions, you become an expert in your field after 20 years of relevant experience. For this reason, you have to be dedicated to a very long-term plan if you want to become a chief information security officer.
In terms of the experience you need, there is no single route to attaining a job as a chief information security officer. If you speak to different CISOs, you will hear a unique story each time. These distinct career paths can involve:
- Degrees in varied subjects, with different kinds of specializations
- Varied levels of education
- Progression within a single company, beginning with an entry-level role, working your way up to a CISO position
- Achieving career progression in various organizations
- Developing your career in different industries (for example, moving from education to media to finance)
- Attaining an assortment of senior roles before becoming a CISO
- Gaining managerial and leadership skills through different means (for example, leadership qualifications and hands-on experience)
Senior roles that people commonly hold before becoming a CISO include:
- Chief information officer (CIO)
- IT consultant
- Information security officer
- IT director
- Chief technology officer
- VP of IT
Finding CISO vacancies
If you want to find chief information security officer vacancies at governmental organizations, you can check out the following resources:
On the other hand, you may prefer to work in the commercial sector. If so, there are recruitment firms that specialize in cybersecurity jobs. These recruiters can help you find your ideal role in a reputable company. Recruitment agencies to keep in mind include:
- 3P&T Security Recruiting
- Alta Associates
- Caliber Security Partners
- Computer Futures
- Cyber Security Recruiters
You can also find chief information security officer positions by utilizing the major job sites, such as Glassdoor, LinkedIn, ZipRecruiter, Indeed, and Monster, as well as niche sites such as CyberSecJobs.com and CyberSecurityJobsite.com.
Chief information security officer salary
Given how prominent a CISO’s role is in an organization, you can expect a high salary to match. A useful resource for checking the average salaries of CISOs is PayScale since it aggregates these salaries from a number of other sites. According to PayScale:
- The average salary for a chief information security officer is $165,144.
- The range of pay for a chief information security officer is $105,000–$229,000.
You can also find data highlighting how your salary can increase over time:
|<1 year||1–4 years||5–9 years||10–19 years||20+ years|
PayScale also breaks down salaries by location. The best-paying locations to work as a chief information security officer are major cities like:
- New York
- San Francisco
- Washington, D.C.
These cities tend to pay higher than average for this role. Keep in mind, though, that the cost of living in these cities will also be higher than in many other locations. As such, before planning a move, it’s important to work out if your higher salary will make these extra costs worth it.