30.11.2021 What is a virtual CISO (vCISO)? And 5 signs you might need one

by Katie Yahnke

Looking to bring a top-tier cyber security expert to your company, but not sure where to start? You might want to consider a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) — but the hiring process can be long and difficult. Finding seasoned experts to bring information security leadership, skills, and guidance in-house is tough. That’s where a virtual CISO (vCISO) comes in.

vCISOs are a new solution to an all-too-common problem for organizations of every size: getting the expertise they need to build a cyber security program that can meet compliance regulations, pass client audits, and stand up to modern cyber criminals.

In this blog post, we’ll explain the difference between a traditional and virtual CISO, highlight the unique benefits of a vCISO, and share five key reasons why your business might need one.


What is a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO)?

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

CISOs may play a role in:

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

The CISO is a relatively newer role, at least in comparison to other c-suite members. Not long ago, infosec primarily involved installing an antivirus, recommending that employees follow cyber security best practices, and backing up critical data.

But workplaces went digital — adopting tablets, wireless keyboards, smart printers, virtual private networks (VPNs), cloud-based services, and more — increasing the risk of a cyber attack. This, coupled with new pressure from government and regulatory bodies to prioritize cyber security, created a need for a dedicated information security department and leader.

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

Full-time CISOs are hard to find, especially for small and mid-size businesses (SMBs) that may not have the budget, benefits, or perks needed to attract a qualified candidate. But even the largest enterprises can struggle to retain their CISO. In part due to the high stress of the job and the extremely enticing market, the average CISO tenure is 18-26 months which is 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. Instead, many organizations are turning to a virtual Chief Information Security Officer (vCISO).

What is a virtual CISO (vCISO)?

A virtual CISO is an on-demand infosec consultant that fills the role of an in-house cyber security executive. These are outsourced security practitioners who use their years of industry experience to help organizations strengthen their security posture.

It’s common for seasoned professionals to transition into the consultant role, and the vCISO is no different. They’ll typically work on a virtual, part-time basis, offering their guidance, expertise, and leadership as needed.

Why choose a vCISO over a CISO?

A vCISO may support the 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 leaves or is on an extended leave of absence, the virtual CISO can come in to fill the gap. Sometimes organizations may not need someone full-time, so they hire on a short-term, temporary basis.

For many businesses, especially those limited by budget or location, a vCISO makes sense. They typically cost less than a traditional CISO, operate virtually, need little-to-no training, and can start almost immediately. And, because vCISOs are external consultants, they can offer an objective point of view of the organization hiring them to achieve top-notch results.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into the benefits of bringing on a vCISO.

The benefits of bringing on a vCISO

With a virtual CISO, you benefit from independent, unbiased cyber security 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 a regular CISO would carry out.

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 saves time and money while beefing up your company’s security posture.

Bringing on a vCISO can reduce your cyber risk, too: they can help you obtain cyber security solutions or technologies that will strengthen your organization’s defence. As a bonus, this reduced risk can also lower your cyber security insurance costs.

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.

A vCISO can also build the cyber security culture of your organization by giving employees the right awareness training and tools. This will have a lasting effect on the security posture.

The vCISO can map your strategy and measures to recognized cyber security frameworks, including:

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

Clearly the benefits are extensive, but how do you know if a vCISO is right for you?

Signs a virtual CISO might be 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 cyber attacks and data privacy regulations has made cyber security a top focus for organizations everywhere. In fact, a recent study 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. If you’re in the market for a cyber security leader but don’t have the budget for someone permanent, full-time, and in-house, consider a virtual CISO. Most vCISOs 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 professional to lay the cyber security groundwork

One of the hardest parts about cyber security is just getting started. You need the right policies, standards, procedures, and guidelines in place. After that, it’s mostly about following them.

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

Your vCISO can develop and launch cyber security 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 cyber security success.

3. Your IT team requires strategic leadership

Another reason you might want to bring in a vCISO? They can help manage, direct, or upskill 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 make sure your team has the people and budget to get the job done right.

Your virtual CISO can also act 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 specific task or with niche skills

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 your current CISO or cyber security leader leaves the company. A virtual CISO can come in and bridge that gap, providing leadership and direction until you fill the role (which can take a long time). Your vCISO may even help recruit, interview, and onboard the replacement.

Here’s another example. You may have a mature cyber security 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 to develop or modify existing policies, guidelines, and frameworks to reflect a new normal.

5. You need help complying with regulations or frameworks

Information security and data privacy regulations have heated up in recent years. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) set 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 cyber security regulations, a vCISO can help.

Virtual CISOs, especially those that specialize in regulatory compliance, can assess your current cyber security 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 crippling noncompliance fees should a security incident occur.

How to hire a vCISO for your business

Before hiring a vCISO, 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 cyber security policy from the ground up, or just conduct annual risk assessments? 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 or scale-up, for example, your cyber security needs and expectations will be vastly different from a Fortune 500. Seek out a provider that understands the market you’re in.

Put our virtual CISOs to work for you

Field Effect represents the best in the cyber security industry and technology sector. Behind our vCISO service is a team of cyber security 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 cyber security programs, support IT staff, assess cyber risk, align with security frameworks, or ensure compliance with a long list of regulations — we’re here. And, unlike hiring a full-time permanent CISO, we can start today.

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.


Katie Yahnke


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