Are security certifications worth it?

IT managers need to have security certifications that will enhance their standing as generalists, who will be prudent in any situation. But the time and effort is also a worthwhile investment that can lead to better pay.

A recent survey by Certification Magazine suggests that high-level security certifications such as CISSP are paying off handsomely. The survey of nearly 1,000 respondents in late 2002 indicated that those who earned their CISSP received an average $7,140 raise in 2001, compared with a raise of $3,487 for other certifications. According to the Certification Magazine survey and a BC Management salary survey in 2001, those individuals holding CISSP certifications on average are paid more than people who have any other certification.

According to a survey by InfoSecurity magazine in August 2002, IT professionals' average salaries overall decreased by 5.5%, while those in IT security increased by 3.1%. While this statistic is independent of certification, it does show that experience in security is a valuable skill.

And it should also be evident that in most, if not all, cases, certifications should be vendor-neutral. This is because IT managers need a broad view of security that transcends the specific technical platforms that their department manages. Vendor-neutral certifications go beyond the specific technologies and deal with how the technologies are used.

Here are some of the best and most widely known certifications available to security managers.

High-level and recognizable: CISSP

The most comprehensive, prestigious and recognized security certification is the CISSP, or Certified Information Systems Security Professional. The CISSP certification encompasses 10 subject areas:

  • Access control systems and methodology
  • Applications and systems development
  • Business continuity planning
  • Cryptography
  • Law, investigation and ethics
  • Operations security
  • Physical security
  • Security architecture and models
  • Security management practices
  • Telecommunications, network and Internet security
Peter H. Gregory

The CISSP certification has been around since 1989, long before security was considered cool. The International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium administers the certification. In mid-2002, the 10,000th CISSP was certified.
Exams are offered frequently in most parts of the world. More information is available at .

CISA: Focusing on verifiability
The first runner-up certification is the CISA, or Certified Information Systems Auditor. Once the exclusive domain of IT auditors, the CISA is quickly becoming a sought-after certification for senior-level personnel and management. The CISA's subject areas have moderate overlap with the CISSP, but it focuses more on business procedures than technology. And as you might expect, the CISA places an emphasis on auditing, which is glossed over by the CISSP.
The CISA certification is administered by the Information Systems Audit and Control Association & Foundation (ISACA), which was founded in 1969. The CISA certification itself has been around since 1978. As of late 2002, there were about 28,000 individuals holding the CISA certification around the world. The focus areas of the CISA certification are:

  • Management, planning and organization of IS

  • Technical infrastructure and operational practices

  • Protection of information assets

  • Disaster recovery and business continuity

  • Business application system development, acquisition, implementation and maintenance

  • Business process evaluation and risk management

  • The IS audit process

One downside of the CISA certification is that the exam is offered only once each year on a Saturday in early June. Miss it, and you must wait an entire year to take it.
Many CISSPs have gone on to earn their CISA, on the grounds that the two certifications together are complementary and are a powerful advantage in the job market.

New kid on the block: CISM
The ISACA has recently developed the Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) certification. This certification recognizes the knowledge and experience of an IT security manager. Because it's new, the CISM is in a "grandfathering" period, during which applicants who can show eight years of experience in information security can earn the certification without taking the exam. This period is open until Dec. 31, 2003, after which time a candidate will be required to take a certification exam and will still be required to verify work experience. The first CISM exam will be offered in June for those who don't qualify for the grandfathering process.

Global information assurance certifications
The SANS Institute got on the certification bandwagon with its suite of certifications under the GIAC (Global Information Assurance Certification) program. While GIAC certifications are intended primarily for practitioners (that is, the hands-on personnel such as system administrators, network engineers, etc.), there are a few that would be appropriate for early-career managers.
The GIAC Information Security Officer (GISO) is an entry-level certification that includes knowledge of threats, risks and best practices. The GIAC Security Essentials Certification (GSEC) is an intermediate-level certification that demonstrates basic information security knowledge for both practitioners and managers.
Information on GIAC certifications can be found at

Other certifications
I've seen postings for IT managers or IT security managers that require MCSE, Cisco and, occasionally, other certifications. In smaller departments, the IT manager may be hands-on; second, possession of relevant vendor-specific certification gives much-needed credibility with his staff.

Possession of one or more certifications, even CISSP or CISA, doesn't necessarily indicate the existence of good security intuition. However, these two certifications are probably as good an objective measure as you can get on paper. Aim high and get the best certification you can within the next three to 12 months. The CISSP certification should be the long-term goal.


Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon