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February 15, 2024 |

What is a virtual CISO (vCISO)?

Last updated: April 8, 2024

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Looking to bring in a cybersecurity expert to your company? You may be considering adding a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) to your executive team—but that can be a long and difficult process for various reasons.

Instead, many organizations are choosing to work with a virtual CISO (vCISO) or by using vCISO services.

vCISOs are a new solution to an old problem. With a vCISO, organizations can access the expertise they need to meet their cybersecurity goals, without the hiring complexities and high costs that typically come with a permanent, in-house cybersecurity leader.

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In this blog post, we’ll explain the difference between a traditional and virtual CISO, the benefits of a vCISO, and five signs that a vCISO is the better approach for your business.

What is a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO)?

Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs) spearhead cyber and information security for a business. As valued members of the C-suite, they take on a long list of strategic and operational responsibilities.

CISOs often play a role in:

  • Developing infosec policies, procedures, and guidelines
  • Leading and representing the team at executive or board meetings
  • Managing and optimizing the security stack
  • Aligning cybersecurity goals with business objectives
  • Various other information security-related tasks

Despite this lengthy list of responsibilities, the CISO is a relatively newer role (at least compared to other members of the C-suite).

Originally, cybersecurity was something an IT member would do off the side of their desk. Then, as cyberattacks became more common, threat surfaces grew in size, and security-related regulations and frameworks arose, many businesses saw the need for a dedicated infosec department and leader.

Depending on company size, CISOs may report to a Chief Information Officer (CIO) or directly to a Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Regardless, CISOs will have years or even decades of IT experience, usually a degree in a related field, and various certifications.

The problem is full-time CISOs are hard to find, especially for small and mid-size businesses (SMBs) that may not be able to offer the pay, benefits, or perks to attract the right candidate.

Even the largest enterprises can struggle to retain their CISO, often due to the high stress of the job and the extremely enticing market. In fact, the average CISO tenure is only 18-26 months—far shorter than that of other C-suite roles.

It can take years (not to mention your entire IT budget) to recruit and onboard a full-time internal CISO, and this is why many organizations are turning to vCISOs instead.

What is a virtual CISO (vCISO)?

A virtual CISO is a skilled and experienced cybersecurity professional who provides the same level of expertise and guidance as an in-house CISO but typically on a remote, on-demand basis.

This approach to accessing cybersecurity expertise is useful, especially for organizations without the budget or need for a full-time CISO.

What can a vCISO do?

A vCISO is similar to an outsourced security practitioner, using their years of industry experience to help organizations strengthen their security posture.

With a virtual CISO, you get independent, unbiased cybersecurity expertise, methodologies, and resources. This expert can conduct cyber risk assessments, set goals, develop programs and initiatives, evaluate third-party vendors and partners, and perform various other information security activities that lower your cyber risk.

vCISOs can map your strategy and measures to recognized cybersecurity frameworks, including:

They can also pull together policies, guidelines, and standards that help your business follow industry- or location-specific regulations, such as:

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A vCISO can also build the cybersecurity culture of your organization by giving employees the right awareness training and tools.

What are the benefits of a vCISO?

One of the biggest benefits of a virtual CISO or using a vCISO service is that it offers a flexible, cost-effective approach to cybersecurity. Unlike a full-time CISO, they can be engaged as needed, depending on the complexity of the security issues at hand. Because they’re brought in only as needed, you’ll lower your onboarding and administration costs.

The unfortunate reality is that CISO turnover is high, and the cost to recruit and train someone new every few years is even higher. A vCISO makes it possible for small to medium-sized businesses to leverage the expertise of a highly skilled cybersecurity professional without incurring the cost of a permanent, full-time hire.

If you have an existing IT team or even a single security analyst, a vCISO can provide leadership, direction, and guidance. They can step in to ensure that the team has the resources, budget, and authority to do their job properly. The vCISO can also coach or upskill existing analysts, help recruit new team members, and more.

Some organizations even choose to bring in a vCISO to support their permanent, full-time CISO by taking on key responsibilities such as presenting to the board or spearheading compliance initiatives. If a company’s existing CISO is on an extended leave of absence, the virtual CISO can come in to fill the gap.

Clearly, the benefits are extensive, but what are the signs that vCISO services might be right for your organization?

Signs a vCISO service is right for your business

It can be challenging to decide if your business would benefit more from a virtual or full-time, in-house CISO. To help make the decision, let’s dive into five reasons a virtual CISO would be the best choice.

1. You have budget restraints

CISOs are in red-hot demand. The rise in cyberattacks and data privacy regulations has made cybersecurity a top focus for organizations everywhere. In fact, studies found that improving IT security was the number one priority for 61% of businesses. Naturally, businesses need a leader to determine suitable information security goals and develop programs that meet them.

But demand is outpacing supply and, because of this, a full-time CISO is no small expense. Most vCISO services operate on a consumption-based model, meaning you only pay for what you need. Together, you create a work schedule that meets your budget.

Because it’s a virtual role, there’s no need to hire someone local, which can be yet another limitation for organizations in smaller or more remote locations. This eliminates or drastically reduces recruitment, onboarding, and relocation costs.

2. You need a cybersecurity pro to lay the groundwork

One of the most challenging parts of cybersecurity is getting started. You need to implement the right policies, standards, procedures, and guidelines. After that, it's mostly about adhering to what you've put in place.

vCISOs have spent countless hours working for organizations, often of varying industries and sizes, giving them a plethora of information security experience. They’re in the perfect position to design a mature, high-quality cybersecurity program that your business can turn to for years to come. If you’re looking for a professional to get your cybersecurity efforts started, a virtual CISO may be the best choice.

Your vCISO can develop and launch cybersecurity and privacy policies and frameworks tailored to your organization’s needs and goals. They can build out an incident response plan that would provide step-by-step guidance for future incidents, conduct comprehensive risk assessments, and otherwise set your business up for long-term cybersecurity success.

Want to learn more about vCISO services?

Not sure if vCISO services are right for your business? Read our brochure to learn more about getting C-level cybersecurity expertise on demand.

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3. Your IT team requires strategic leadership

Another reason you might want to look at a vCISO service is if you need help managing, directing, or upskilling your existing information security team.

If your employees don’t necessarily need a full-time leader but would benefit from having a professional provide departmental direction, set goals, or conduct training and mentorship, then a vCISO would be a good solution. They can come in and ensure your team has the people and budget to get the job done right.

Your virtual CISO can also serve as the team’s representative, engaging and aligning with executive management, boards, investors, and even government agencies as necessary.

4. You need someone for a niche task

Many times, vCISO service providers have a team of experts with varying experiences working in the background. For this reason, a vCISO might be a good option if you have a very specific need or skillset.

For example, say you have a mature cybersecurity program already in place but acquired another company and need to adjust some of your processes. In this scenario, you can bring on a vCISO with specific experience in this area to develop or modify existing policies, guidelines, and frameworks to reflect a new normal.

5. You need help with cybersecurity compliance

Information security and data privacy regulations have heated up in recent years. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) sets a standard that other countries are quickly trying to meet or exceed with their own laws. If you’re not sure if your business is compliant with industry or geographical cybersecurity regulations, a vCISO can help.

Virtual CISOs, especially those that specialize in regulatory compliance, can assess your current cybersecurity posture and find areas for improvement or change. They can develop and implement a plan to help your business achieve compliance. This way, you won’t face sky-high noncompliance fees should a security incident occur.

How to hire a vCISO for your business

Before hiring a vCISO or choosing a vCISO service, do your best to clearly outline their role and the tasks involved. To create the most positive (and effective) experience, you and the potential vCISO need matching expectations.

Will you need this person to develop a complete cybersecurity policy from the ground up, or conduct an annual risk assessment? Will they need to provide day-to-day guidance for your existing infosec team, or simply act as the security representative at monthly board meetings?

It’s a good idea to look for a virtual CISO service provider with proven experience catering to your type of business. If you’re a start-up, for example, your cybersecurity needs likely differ from a major corporation's needs. Seek out a provider that understands you and the market you’re in.

Put our vCISO service to work for you

Field Effect represents the best in the cybersecurity industry and technology sector. Behind our vCISO service is a team of cybersecurity leaders and innovators with decades of unmatched hands-on experience defending some of the most critical, complex, and fast-paced security environments in the world.

The beauty of our virtual CISO service is its flexibility. Whether you need a vCISO to set goals, develop strong cybersecurity programs, support IT staff, assess cyber risk, align with security frameworks, or ensure compliance with a long list of regulations—we’re here.

Curious to learn whether a vCISO might be right for your business? Schedule some time to chat with our experts for a no-obligation, security consultation.