Virtual CISOs Are the Best Defense Against Accelerating Cyber-Risks

A poor, permanent hire can be a very expensive error, whereas a mis-hire on a virtual CISO can be rapidly corrected.

Jim Tiller, Global CISO, Nash Squared and Harvey Nash USA

July 14, 2022

4 Min Read
Source: Panther Media GmbH via Alamy Stock Photo

The cybersecurity challenges that companies are facing today are vast, multidimensional, and rapidly changing. Exacerbating the issue is the relentless evolution of threat actors and their ability to outmaneuver security controls effortlessly.

As technology races forward, companies without a full-time CISO are struggling to keep pace. For many, finding, attracting, retaining, and affording the level of skills and experience needed is out of reach or simply unrealistic. Enter the virtual CISO (vCISO). These on-demand experts provide security insights to companies on an ongoing basis and help ensure that security teams have the resources they need to be successful.

How a vCISO Works
Typically, an engagement with a vCISO is long lasting, but in a fractional delivery model. This is very different from a project-oriented approach that requires a massive investment and results in a stack of deliverables for the internal team to implement and maintain. A vCISO not only helps to form the approach, define the action plan, and set the road map but, importantly, stays engaged throughout the implementation and well into the ongoing management phases.

The best vCISO engagements are long-term contracts, such as 12 to 24 months. Typically, there's an upfront effort where the vCISO is more engaged in the first few months to establish an understanding, develop a road map, and create a rhythm with the team. Then, their support drops into a regular pace which can range from two to three days per week or five to ten days per month.

What to Expect From a vCISO
When bringing a vCISO on board, it's important that person has three key attributes: broad and extensive experience in addressing cybersecurity challenges across many industries; business acumen and the ability to rapidly absorb complex business models and strategies; and knowledge of technology solutions and dynamics that can be explored to meet specific organizational needs.

The first thing a vCISO will focus on is prioritization, beginning with understanding a company's risks. They will then organize actions that provide the greatest positive influence on mitigating these risks while ensuring sustainability in the program. The goal is to establish a security approach that addresses the greatest risks to the business in a way that has staying power and can provide inherent value to additional downstream controls.

Having extensive experience in the technical space, a vCISO can take into consideration the full spectrum of options — those existing within the business environment, established products and services in the marketplace, and new solutions entering the market. Just within that context, a vCISO can collaborate with the technical team to take advantage of existing solutions and identify enhancements that can further capabilities in a cost-efficient manner.

The Value of a vCISO
One of the most common findings is that companies often have a large portfolio of cybersecurity technology, but very little is fully deployed. Additionally, most tech teams are not leveraging all of the capabilities, much less integrating with other systems to get greater value. Virtual CISOs help companies save money by exploiting existing technical investments that dramatically improve security. And, since the improvement is focused on existing tools, the transition for the IT and security staff is virtually eliminated due to established familiarity with the environment.

Another essential value point of a vCISO is access to an informed and well-balanced view on risk and compliance. While cybersecurity is dominated by technical moving parts, the reality is the board, executive leadership, and management team needs to incorporate cyber-risks and related liabilities into the overall scope of risk across the business at an executive level. In this sense, leadership has a vast array of competing challenges, demands, and risks and some can be even more impactful than cybersecurity.

How to Convince the Executive Team
A CEO is under a constant barrage of challenges, problems, risks, and opportunities. Cybersecurity needs to be part of that formula. If one of the core values of having a vCISO is getting meaningful cyber-risk insights, then trust and confidence in that person is paramount and needs to be established from the beginning.

Another challenge is the team dynamic — at the heart of being a CEO is their success as a leader. Introducing what is essentially a consultant can be an adjustment for the team. It's important that the vCISO hire fits the culture and can easily integrate with everyone on the team including the CIO, CTO, CPO, CRO, etc.

The conversation with the CFO will understandably have a heavy financial tone. For companies debating between a full-time CISO or a vCISO, it's clear a poor permanent hire can be a very expensive error, whereas a mis-hire on a vCISO can be rapidly corrected.

As organizations continue to come to grips with the byproducts of digitization and new security challenges that often seem insurmountable, a vCISO can be an enormous value. Beyond offering an efficient and cost-effective model, they bring many advantages to businesses with fewer risks than a dedicated resource.

About the Author(s)

Jim Tiller

Global CISO, Nash Squared and Harvey Nash USA

Jim Tiller, Global Chief Information Security Officer at Nash Squared and Harvey Nash USA, is an internationally recognized cybersecurity authority with more than 25 years of cyber risk management, security technology hands-on experience, and industry leadership. He has also served as a virtual CISO for multiple companies in the US and Europe.

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