Chief information security officers (CISOs) play a critical role in any organization. Virtual CISOs, or vCISOs, do the same. With responsibilities including security planning, risk management, data processing, and general team leadership, it’s a multifaceted job that covers the breadth of your IT program. But with so many options available, many organizational leaders regularly ask, “For how long should I engage the services of a virtual CISO?”
Finding the Perfect Virtual CISO for Your Needs
Virtual CISOs, by their nature, are highly adaptable. With some assuming a more general approach and others focusing on a specific field or industry, there are many candidates from which to choose. However, their flexibility makes it easier to find the perfect vCISO than a full-time executive.
The process of choosing a vCISO requires answering a series of different questions, including:
- What is a virtual CISO?
- What benefits do virtual CISOs provide?
- For how long should I engage the services of a virtual CISO?
- How do I start searching for a virtual CISO?
What is a Virtual CISO?
The chief information security officer (CISO) is the senior-most leader of your organization’s IT staff and a C-level executive. Their primary responsibility involves cybersecurity strategy and securing organizational assets and resources, but they also play a central role in managing IT teams, maintaining IT infrastructure, compliance, reporting, and more.
The virtual CISO, or vCISO, is typically assigned when enlisting the help of a managed security service provider (MSSP). While the overall responsibilities are still similar, vCISOs generally maintain a remote position.
However, remote doesn’t mean that it’s a hands-off role. On the contrary, vCISOs contribute in several critical areas, and many organizations find that a virtual executive meets their needs better.
IT Security Planning
The brunt of the vCISO’s day-to-day responsibilities revolves around IT security planning, strategy, and execution. It begins with an initial assessment of your existing assets, resources, and infrastructures, including software and hardware, before creating a plan to match your needs.
While this is a critical first step, it’s also one that’s never really complete. Since new threats and vulnerabilities regularly emerge and implementations require replacing at the end of their lifecycle. Therefore, it’s critical that your vCISO’s planning is as fluid as possible.
One of the essential aspects of the vCISO’s role is regulatory compliance. Much like IT security planning, compliance efforts are never finished. The effort of ensuring that cybersecurity infrastructure meets compliance assessment requirements often follows either a cyclical or constant schedule that necessitates oversight. Failure to demonstrate adherence generally results in fines, reputational damage, and, potentially, much more significant legal penalties.
vCISO’s management of compliance efforts helps you avoid these consequences. It also ensures that your organization delivers a safe and secure service to all of your customers or clients.
Regulations also tend to evolve over the course of time. This is done to account for new and emerging trends, threats, and practices in IT and vCISOs need to ensure that the organizations they partner with remain compliant through any changes.
vCISOs with a Compliance Framework Specialty
Every industry manages compliance challenges, and some organizations are bound by more regulations than others.
For example, all healthcare companies and their business associates that work with confidential patient information must abide by HIPAA standards. Retailers that process credit card information must abide by a completely different set of regulations, known as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).
When evaluating vCISO services from an MSSP, ensure that they can provide the necessary compliance expertise for your applicable framework(s).
Data Management and Reporting
Most vCISOs provide regular reports to fellow C-level executives and other organizational leaders and stakeholders. This involves:
- Tracking, maintaining, and managing data that relates to potential threats
- Documenting any incidents that occur
- Describing the actions they’ve taken to resolve such issues.
Forecasts, projections, and new threat intelligence help predict future trends and make it easier to plan ahead. The best vCISOs will help protect your system from threats before they even occur by leveraging data and analytics.
Policies and Procedures
Policies and procedures provide a clear protocol for accessing IT resources, handling data, and reporting issues. When creating or revising policies and procedures, vCISOs leverage all of their strategic, compliance, and threat intelligence to ensure that the codifications meet your organization’s needs.
If you have yet to establish these standards for your organization, a virtual CISO may be the best option for consultative expertise. Their remote (and sometimes part-time) roles with different organizations allow them to provide different perspectives from an in-house CISO that has stayed with the same organization for some time.
What Benefits Do Virtual CISOs Provide?
Virtual CISOs are beneficial to any organization in need of executive-level cybersecurity leadership. They’re equally helpful when first launching your business as when maintaining competitiveness with the most established names in your industry.
Depending on your specific organizational needs, vCISOs have many different benefits:
- Availability and accessibility – Since the need for CISOs and vCISOs has grown exponentially in recent years, more IT experts are pursuing the role as their chosen career path. Between the increasing reliance on remote workforces and vCISOs ability to scale their services according to your needs, they’re increasingly becoming the go-to option for many organizations.
- Affordability – Full-time and in-house CISOs regularly earn upwards of $200,000 annually. For many businesses, this added expense isn’t feasible. In contrast, a vCISO can be hired part-time, seasonally, or situationally.
- Immediate productivity – Most vCISOs are available to start immediately, or at least within a few days of finalizing your contract. This means you won’t have to wait through any pre-employment screening, orientation, or onboarding.
- Best practices – Your chosen vCISO will work with you and your organization to develop a specific set of best practices. If you forgo their services in the future, or even if you switch to a new vCISO, you’ll still be able to maintain your best practices during their absence.
Are vCISO services worth it? The answer is a resounding yes. If you’re currently missing an in-house CISO, or if you’d prefer the flexibility of a virtual CISO, your entire organization will benefit immensely with an experienced IT professional leading the way.
For How Long Should I Engage the Services of a Virtual CISO?
The simple answer is: as long as you need them.
In most cases, virtual CISO services are provided by an MSSP on a contractual basis. Many contracts cover one year but can be customized to meet your specific needs.
This is because vCISOs are most beneficial when used on a long-term basis. Protecting your organization’s IT network against modern threats is a continuous process that requires ongoing analysis, monitoring, and procedural updates as necessary.
Interim Appointments for vCISOs
Virtual CISOs are especially helpful when bridging the gap between in-house CISOs or if your current executive will be absent from work for some time. If you’re having difficulty finding a local, in-house CISO, or if you’re leading a startup organization with a limited budget, a vCISO is a great interim solution.
If you haven’t enlisted their services already, you might consider a virtual CISO if you’ve recently experienced:
- Ransomware attacks, data breaches, or other security incidents – It’s impossible to properly address these incidents without the help of a skilled expert. Virtual CISOs will help you recover from previous attacks, mitigate any existing threats, and safeguard your system for the future.
- Warnings or fines for noncompliance – Regulatory compliance is a severe matter. Aside from financial and legal repercussions, noncompliance may deal serious, lasting harm to your reputation as an organization. Virtual CISOs help you avoid such issues by ensuring compliance at every step.
- Departures or long-term absences – If you’re facing the sudden absence of your local, in-house CISO, a virtual CISO is an excellent solution for short-term relief.
- New organizational startups and launches – Virtual CISOs are helpful when first launching a new company. The strategic cybersecurity foundation they establish will help streamline day-to-day IT operations for years to come, regardless of their contract.
Starting Your Search for a Virtual CISO
Your search for a virtual CISO begins once you’ve determined your organizational needs. However, before browsing MSSPs and interviewing prospective vCISOs, it’s essential to consider some key points.
The overall involvement of your vCISO depends on their availability. While it’s unreasonable to expect 24/7 availability, your chosen vCISO should be available during your organization’s regular operating hours or a schedule that works best for you. Remember that many vCISOs provide their services part-time (i.e., “fractal vCISOs”). So, make sure they have the bandwidth to meet with you when you need.
It’s sometimes difficult to find a vCISO who’s familiar with your hardware and software systems. As a general rule, it’s even more challenging to find vCISOs familiar with some of the more complicated and specialized systems. If your organization requires expertise with a specific implementation, candidates providing that knowledge must be non-negotiable.
However, if you have yet to establish your IT framework, or if you’re seeking vCISO guidance to change current implementations, you’ll want to ensure that candidates are extensively experienced with large-scale strategic implementations and integrations.
You’ll also want to find a vCISO who has, at the very least, a basic level of familiarity with your industry. This knowledge is crucial when identifying threats and vulnerabilities, monitoring trends, integrating systems, and implementing the appropriate security measures.
As covered above, industry knowledge is also critical for compliance purposes. A vCISO who isn’t familiar with your compliance requirements will find it extremely difficult to keep up with industry rules, regulations, and standards.
Your Organizational Needs
Finding a vCISO that understands your organizational needs is critical to long-term success. Thankfully, this is easily determined during the earliest phases of IT security planning and risk assessment.
If a virtual CISO’s proposed security plan doesn’t meet your needs as an organization, don’t hesitate to look elsewhere. They’ll only be beneficial in the best-case scenario, and, in the worst cases, they can cause irreparable damage to your entire organization via misguided advice.
Key Questions to Ask
Before committing to a vCISO, it’s always helpful to ask some targeted questions. These inquiries go a long way when searching for the right vCISO.
- What are your specialties and experiences within the role? – Is your vCISO candidate an infrastructure strategy and implementation specialist? Have they navigated data breaches and other significant security incidents? Knowing all of your vCISOs specialties—and not merely the ones you’re prioritizing—will inform you of their complete skill set.
- Are you up-to-date with the latest industry regulations? – Ensure that your chosen vCISO is familiar with the latest regulations in your industry. While some inexperienced vCISOs are quick learners who can quickly adapt to your industry, this is a process that still takes time. If you want a vCISO who can start immediately, they’ll need to have an intimate knowledge of your industry before their service begins.
- How have you helped your past clients? – While some vCISOs are prohibited from providing specific details on past clients, most are able (and willing) to provide you with examples of their past work. This gives you a better understanding of their experience level, what they might be able to achieve, and what you can expect from your relationship.
- Do you have an emergency plan in place? – Knowing how your vCISO will respond to emergencies before they occur will help you avoid unnecessary stress. Ensure that contractual language guarantees their availability in the event of critical incidents.
- What’s your pricing structure for a vCISO? – Since MSSPs usually offer a variety of IT services, it’s critical that you ask specifically about their vCISO pricing structure. Certain MSSPs might offer different tiers to customize your level of service.
Choosing the Right vCISO
So, for how long should I engage the services of a virtual CISO? As long as you need them for.
Finding a vCISO familiar with your industry, knowledgeable about your priority projects, and meets your availability needs is the key to success. By providing actionable advice and guidance, a vCISO helps bolster IT security and drive productivity across the board.
Contact RSI Security today for more information about our vCISO services!