CISO Dialogue: How to Optimize Your Security Budget

CISOs are never going to have all the finances they want. Hard choices must be made. The CISO of Amazon Prime Video discusses his approaches to a slimmed-down budget.

Chris Triolo, Vice President of Customer Success, Respond Software

June 18, 2020

4 Min Read

It's unavoidable: New projects require budgets. To justify the expense, any budget spent on new technology needs to be designed to lower the risk profile. Or the problem might be an inefficiency in the program that can be better addressed with new technology. So, how can CISOs understand how best to optimize their limited pool of security budget? I sat down with Brett Wahlin, the CISO of Amazon Prime Video, to discuss the topic.

"There are many different approaches to managing a security budget, and CISOs organize and prioritize uniquely based on the company, industry, and threats. Three consistent areas of spending are identity and access management (IAM), global risk and compliance (GRC), and security operations," Wahlin told me, noting:

  • IAM is always a mess because no one wants to deal with access management, passwords, access sprawl, and so on.  

  • GRC is difficult because there are always new regulations to remain compliant with; privacy, in particular, is an ongoing challenge.

  • With security operations, levels of effectiveness vary. Wahlin posed several questions for consideration. "Is it in-house? Are you outsourcing to an MSSP? How are you measuring effectiveness? It's an area where I often have to retool from a people, process, and technology standpoint."

Budget allocation should shift to address these problems. Wahlin's trick to shift budgets to new priorities? Find money in existing budgets through optimization — such as replacing humans with software, moving operating expenditures to capital expenditures. "If I can automate an activity with software and repurpose human resources, that's a powerful money-saving step," he said.   

ROI? No So Fast
ROI is a legitimate business concern, but Wahlin generally discourages the idea of ROI as a gauge of cybersecurity success. Referencing ROSI, return on security investment, Wahlin said ROI alone is a vendor-driven metric. "It makes the assumption that you can place a value on an asset that is out of your control and that you can measure a loss and a probability of occurrence."

Still, CISOs want to save wherever they can. Security operations and monitoring is an opportunity for replacing head count with software, which Wahlin has done. "If you automate your Tier 1 security analysts, you can free up head count and save budget," he said. "Plus, the analysts who remain will have a much better job experience. They won't be staring at events on a screen but doing more meaningful, satisfying work."

SOAR and SIEM: Worth It?
Some organizations wonder if security orchestration and response (SOAR) tools are worth the engineering upkeep. "I think it's promising. When I look at getting efficiencies out of a SOC, I have to look at events, correlate, and then determine what needs to be done," Wahlin said. "Your SOAR is only as fast as the individual making a decision. Automate the decision and the SOAR will operate better." 

Wahlin continued, "As for [security information and event management (SIEM)], I used to feel that it was necessary to build a SOC because teams had to collect alerts from a diverse number of sensors and reduce them to meaningful incidents to investigate. I now find my opinion changing." A next-generation SIEM can take all the alerts from the sensors directly and make decisions on those alerts, and then you don't have to store them in the SIEM.

Top Tips for New CISOs
Wahlin concluded with a breakdown of the most important things he would recommend a new CISO look at, both budgetary and beyond:

  • Look at the three most problematic areas: IAM, GRC, and SecOps. You can always find things to fix, and it will give you some quick wins.

  • Know your industry and how your security program can help the company grow.

  • You need to be able to constantly communicate the value you're bringing to the table — it's how you'll get budget and, more importantly, it's how you keep it.

  • "Partnering with the business" is not just a catch phrase batted around at security conferences. Learn what it means for your company and be a good partner.

  • Think like an architect: As you build a program, how do the different functions interact with each other? How do you plan to grow based on shared communication? 

  • Don't be afraid to pull something out if it's not raising the security bar for your company.     

CISOs are never going to have all the finances they want. Hard choices need to be made — choices that will determine your entire organization's security posture. Diagnose what needs immediate attention and work from there. Your priorities will help you see where you can save money by making changes in other areas, such as using automation to reduce head count. These best practices will help you build a solid security foundation that optimizes your budget.  

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About the Author(s)

Chris Triolo

Vice President of Customer Success, Respond Software

Chris Triolo's security expertise includes building world-class professional services organizations as VP of Professional Services at ForeScout and global VP of Professional Services and Support for HP Software Enterprise Security Products (ESP). Chris' depth in Security Operations and leadership includes a long tenure at Northrop Grumman TASC supporting various Department of Defense and government customers including Air Force Space Command (AFS PC) Space Warfare Center, United States Space Command (USSPACECOM) Computer Network Attack and Defense, Air Force Information Warfare Center (AFIWC), and others.

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