You've just been hired as your company's new CISO, and immediately, you're tasked with forming the company's information security program. So, how do you begin? As I completed my first month as the chief information security officer at Axonius, I found myself reflecting on what I've learned and done when it comes to that question, and here are a few tips based on my experiences so far.
As with any significant undertaking, it makes sense to begin by understanding the current state of the security program and the context in which you'll manage it. Start by covering the following:
- Risks: What security concerns do you, your colleagues, and your customers have? What gaps exist, and how might they affect the business? Sometimes figuring this out requires a formal assessment. Other times, it may require an informal survey, conversations with colleagues, and analysis to get to a sufficient starting point. I was fortunate to become the CISO after holding another role at Axonius, but there were many questions that my new position required me to ask that I hadn't asked before.
- Expectations: What expectations does the organization have of the security program and your role? Account for your own ideas and, of course, get input from your manager and other stakeholders. When outlining the goals, understand the business and technical needs that will influence the security program. You can see my objectives at Axonius, if you're curious.
- Situation: Get to know the technical and business environment in which you'll be operating. This often begins with an IT asset inventory to understand the devices, users, and software that makes up your company's ecosystem. Also, include in your situational awareness non-technical components, such as team dynamics, politics, and culture.
Your initial assessment of the current state will help you define not only the longer-term strategy for the security program but also the tactical projects you can start right away. Look for relatively easy wins that:
- Mitigate some of your high-severity risks, so you begin improving the company's security posture.
- Implement essential security measures, so you lay the foundation for the rest of your security program.
- Address the challenges important to your colleagues or customers, so you start building goodwill and showing value.
Balance the need to work on these tactical projects with the necessity for a more formalized, strategic approach to establishing a security program. Several control frameworks can help you combine your own prior experience with that of other practitioners to achieve this.
While there is no shortage of the methodologies you can use, here are the ones I found most helpful so far:
- Security4Startups Control Checklist: This open source checklist, initially compiled by several CISOs, offers a convenient starting point for young companies that aren't sure where to begin. It helps confirm that you implement essential measures related to identity and access management, infrastructure security, application security, resiliency, and governance. I found the checklist useful for confirming I didn't miss any important categories of security measures.
- Cybersecurity Defense Matrix: This handy table defines a structure for organizing your security capabilities related to devices, applications, networks, data, and users. The matrix helps you capture the measures you have (or want to have) across the functions mentioned in the NIST Cybersecurity Framework: Identify, protect, detect, respond, and recover. I used the matrix to identify the roles that various security technologies might play at Axonius, but that's just one approach to using it.
- CIS Controls: This practical guide catalogs the security measures that can defend against common cyberattacks. The framework, which has had a chance to mature over several years, accumulates advice from many security practitioners. It includes suggestions for selecting the controls according to the maturity of your security program and proposes metrics for measuring your progress. For a mapping between CIS and other frameworks, see the AuditScripts Critical Security Controls Master Mapping spreadsheet.
- NIST Cybersecurity Framework: This detailed framework offers one approach to structuring a formal security program. It includes a long list of categories of security measures along with the corresponding subcategories. It even provides pointers to the relevant details you can get from other frameworks, including CIS Controls, NIST SP 800-53, and the mighty ISO/IEC 27001. I found the NIST framework overwhelming when I first looked at it, so I'm taking care to pursue it in portions, not all at once.
If you're in a regulated industry or have specific customer commitments, you'll probably need to account for other frameworks, but that goes without saying.
Your first month as the CISO can (and probably should) focus on understanding the current state and laying the foundation for the formal security program. Yet, don't spend all your time merely planning and strategizing. Use the energy of the new role to start adjusting the appropriate processes and deploying the necessary technologies in support of your vision.
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