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How to Become a Chief Information Security Officer

January 4, 2023

Organizations and government agencies face increasing threats of cybersecurity breaches. In addition to exposing systems and data to the risk of misuse, these breaches are often expensive. According to a 2022 report from technology firm IBM, the average cost of a single data breach in the U.S. was $9.44 million.

One of the best ways organizations can defend against cybersecurity threats is to employ chief information security officers (CISO), who play a critical role in securing systems and data.

Individuals interested in a leadership role in cybersecurity can benefit from exploring how to become a chief information security officer. Among other steps, an advanced education in homeland security and emergency preparedness can provide cybersecurity professionals with the requisite tools and training to safeguard sensitive data.

The Role of a Chief Information Security Officer

In the digital age, employing a CISO to secure an organization’s digital assets makes good business sense. As a 2022 report in Forbes notes, in the days before the internet, access to systems and data was relatively limited. As business has moved increasingly online, systems and data have become much more accessible, both inside and outside of an organization. Ensuring digital security is critical, and the role of chief information security officer has evolved in response.

Responsibilities of a Chief Information Security Officer

As senior-level executives, CISOs have a wide range of responsibilities. In 2022, executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles surveyed 327 chief information security officers around the world. Survey respondents reported some common responsibilities associated with the role:

  • Ensuring the strength of overall security operations
  • Implementing strong governance and compliance controls
  • Overseeing penetration testing of systems
  • Building an effective security architecture
  • Ensuring the security of an organization’s products and applications
  • Conducting business continuity planning and disaster recovery planning

Employment portal Indeed has also noted a number of specific duties of CISOs, including:

  • Creating budgets for security functions
  • Keeping abreast of trends in cybersecurity
  • Supervising information security staff
  • Communicating with colleagues and board members about information security

Where Chief Information Security Officers Work

According to the Heidrick & Struggles survey, CISOs work in a wide array of private sector industries, such as:

  • Financial services
  • Telecommunications
  • Manufacturing
  • Energy production
  • Media
  • Retail
  • Health care

Chief information security officers also play an important role in the public sector. For example:

  • At the federal level, the Federal Chief Information Security Officer Council has been established to strengthen cybersecurity at all federal agencies.
  • At the state level, officials are realizing the benefits of a statewide approach to cybersecurity. According to a 2022 report from professional services firm Deloitte and the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, all 50 states have appointed a statewide chief information security officer, and several states have created additional positions such as chief privacy officer and chief risk officer.
  • CISOs are also coming together at the local level to strengthen cybersecurity. For example, local chief information security officers have formed the Coalition of City CISOs to collaborate on efforts to defend local governments from cybersecurity threats.

Chief Information Security Officer Work Environments

Work environments for CISOs can vary based on the organizations they serve. Cybersecurity certification firm EC-Council explains that in a large organization, the CISO is typically a member of the C-suite and has a traditional executive leadership work environment.

But small organizations also need to secure their digital assets. According to a 2022 TechRepublic report, CISOs for small organizations may work as independent contractors on a part-time basis. In those cases, they may work in a remote environment and fill the role of chief information security officer for multiple organizations.

Steps to Becoming a Chief Information Security Officer

To become a chief information security officer, professionals generally need to satisfy certain educational and experiential requirements. The following are some common steps in that process, as outlined by Indeed.

1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Earning a bachelor’s degree in information technology, computer science or cybersecurity can lay a solid foundation for working in information security.

2. Obtain Experience in the Field

The next step is to gain real-world experience working in information security. For example, an individual may begin working as a programmer or network analyst and then progress to working as a security engineer or security analyst. That experience can lead to a role in management as a security director or security architect. To qualify for a CISO position, at least five years of experience in a management role is typically required.

3. Earn a Master’s Degree

Earning a master’s degree in an area such as information security, computer science, information technology or a related field is becoming a requirement for CISOs. These graduate programs can help individuals refine critical leadership and decision-making skills.

4. Consider Certification

Earning certification is a great way for aspiring CISOs to enhance their knowledge and skill set, as well as boost their credentials to stand out from other job-seekers. Examples include:

  • The Certified Chief Information Security Officer (CCISO) certification from EC-Council
  • The Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification from the International Information System Security Certification Consortium (ISC)²
  • The Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) certification from ISACA

Chief Information Security Officer Salary and Job Growth Potential

Given the increasing prevalence of cyberthreats and the importance of protecting sensitive data, becoming a chief information security officer can lead to an attractive salary and strong prospects for employment.

The median annual salary for chief information security officers was about $172,400 as of October 2022, according to Payscale.

While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t provide job growth projections specifically for CISOs, it has made a promising projection for a closely related occupation: information security analysts. From 2021 to 2031, the BLS projects 35 percent job growth for information security analysts, which significantly exceeds the projected 5 percent job growth for all occupations.

Forging a Career as a Chief Information Security Officer

Knowing what it takes to become a chief information security officer is the first step on the path toward a rewarding career in cybersecurity. Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness program can help prepare students for this leadership role, offering courses in Cybersecurity Law and Policy and Private Sector Preparedness.

Explore the program to learn how it can prepare you to help defend against global and domestic threats in the digital realm.