What does a CISO do?

A chief information security officer will deal with more than firewalls and antivirus


Data is increasingly becoming the most valuable currency in the digitally-focused world in which we now live and work. As such, the idea of obtaining data without consent or knowledge and using it for nefarious purposes or to extort money is becoming a hazard that's par for the course.

Indeed, this rise in data use and consumption has led not only to innovative new services but also a growing threat of theft and fraud. Combating this growing cyber crime threat has required a strategy designed and coordinated from the board level.

Data security is now no longer seen as simply an IT issue - nor is it just a boardroom issue, either. In fact, data security is now the responsibility of everyone in an organisation, from the top down and bottom up.

What is a CISO?

But, in order for that responsibility to be taken seriously, a strategy and someone to lead that vision from theory into reality is required.

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Enter the chief information security officer, or CISO. First borne as a role that was exclusively the preserve of US companies, the job title has now made its way to our shores, too.

The CISO is an executive role that oversees the protection of company and customer data, as well as the protection of infrastructure and assets from malicious actors.

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In an age of rampant data theft and aggressive but important legislation, such as GDPR, every IT facility in an organisation must be secure. That not only requires implementing security safeguards but also training and educating employees. With the majority of cyber security incidents being the result of employee error, it's important that a CISO is looking both internally and externally for potential threats.

As the threat landscape continues to evolve, the work of a CISO must also keep pace.

What responsibilities does a CISO have?

Today's CISOs have a breadth of responsibilities, ranging from hiring IT personnel to providing the leadership and policy direction required to protect the company from emerging threats. They are also required to directly manage senior IT team leaders to ensure they are prioritising the right aspects of a strategy at any given time.

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A CISO must also spearhead the company's IT security hardware strategy and make sure necessary activities are undertaken by the appropriate department, whether this is IT staff or other IT security personnel.

Innovation also plays a key role in any organisation's security posture. As such, the CISO will also be tasked with keeping corporate security policies, standards and procedures fresh and fit for purpose, and making sure staff across the board comply on a day-to-day basis without fail.

CISOs are expected to work with the entire organisation to ensure everyone is pulling in the same direction. After all, ensuring security is a continuous process rather than something that can be auctioned once and then left alone. It needs to evolve and change as the threat landscape does. Success here, then, will include conversing regularly with senior management and employees to make sure all IT security policies are deployed, revised, sustained and overseen effectively.

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Emulating what might happen in the real world is one way of ensuring everyone is on the same page when it comes to the threat of breaches and data theft. By essentially phishing employees to see who clicks on what - in your own, controlled environment - you can be more sure of any awareness gaps and training needs. Showing employees the damage that could have been done, but thankfully wasn't, will also ensure security remains front of mind in future.

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As part of this, existing IT infrastructure must be audited and assessed for any security risks and CISOs are responsible for using the data they have at hand to predict any risks and deal with them accordingly. They need to be continuously assessing vulnerabilities and finding fixes before an incident occurs.

A CISO also needs to develop policies around security incidents and create an Emergency Response Team to act as and when a security breach is looming or has happened. As well as this, they may be in charge of developing a disaster recovery plan to allow for business continuity post-cyber-attack.

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Like many business and IT decision makers, CISOs are constrained by budgets, so resources need to be prioritised and allocated efficiently and financial forecasts prepared to ensure appropriate cover for security assets. A CISO needs to show that investments can be used to protect an organisation's assets and safeguard its data and reputation if the worst should happen.

What skills are needed to be a CISO?

To be a competent CISO, several key skills are required, beyond common sense. These include:

  • Communication and presentation skills
  • Policy development and administration skills
  • Knowledge about government (e.g. relevant legislation both current and incoming)
  • Collaboration expertise
  • Financial, planning and strategic management skills
  • Supervisory and incident management skills
  • And, finally, knowledge of regulation and standards compliance.

However, the most valuable skill for a CISO is the ability to articulate IT security and technical issues in a non-threatening, clear and actionable manner to non-technical leadership.

Generally speaking, it is also expected that someone applying for a CISO role is very experienced, with many roles specifying at least 10-plus years in senior risk management and security roles.

How much does a CISO get paid?

A CISO in the UK can expect to be paid on average around 86,000 a year. Many companies also offer additional bonuses and benefits. While the average UK salary is 86,000, some companies at the highest level are offering salaries of circa 132,000.

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