vCISO: A Definitive Guide

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vCISO: A Definitive Guide

  Cyvatar | 03/06/2023

Safeguarding your business and customer data requires constant monitoring that requires the guidance of an executive-level officer, popularly known as a CISO (Chief Information Security Officer).

A CISO is responsible for enforcing an organization’s cybersecurity policies. Executives of companies that don’t have a CISO feel that their security posture and cyber training are not effective.

Many businesses cannot afford to hire a full-time CISO, and this is where a virtual CISO’s services gain precedence.

In this post, we are going to explore beyond the CISO’s meaning and learn how vCISO could be a game-changer.

What is a vCISO?

A virtual CISO can be defined as a highly-qualified cybersecurity expert who handles IT security and compliance issues on a contract. Since they work with multiple organizations, they bring years of experience to provide the best cybersecurity advice.

vciso working at an organization
Illustration representing the virtual CISOs that work for an organization.

They build close relationships with the C-suite executives, system administrators, the IT team, and others.

vCISOs build strategies to offer protection, governance, compliance, and reporting, including a detailed roadmap. They become a core part of the organization’s information security officer role.

Apart from providing their technical expertise, they also ensure the organization’s regulatory and compliance requirements are in place. This article will act as a detailed guide to vCISO.

What does a virtual CISO officer do?

A vCISO’s responsibilities depend on the varied business needs of the organization. Their key responsibilities are as follows:

  • To provide effective consultation for building cybersecurity programs. 
  • They facilitate the integration of security into the company’s day-to-day operations, culture, and process.
  • They offer strategies and support on risk management, governance, incident response, disaster recovery, and business continuity. 
  • Manages the implementation of cybersecurity programs.
  • Conveys the security goals to the leadership team.
  • Help define security budgets and choose cost-effective security solutions. 
  • Determining the acceptable level of risk and managing the entire organization’s risk. 
  • Provides expert assessment on risks compliance and security vulnerabilities.
  • Assists with the interpretation of information security program controls.
  • They serve as the industry experts for standards such as NIST, ISO 27001, HIPAA, PCI-DSS, and other compliance standards.
  • They serve as security liaisons to assessors, auditors, and examiners.
  • Reviewing the current internal security controls.
  • Guiding the team with annual security planning, auditing, and training.

What makes a good vCISO?

The best vCISOs are those that can communicate with the board members with confidence and assertiveness. Excellent communication is pivotal since they will work with client companies from diverse backgrounds and industries.

They should be able to learn and adapt quickly, as they don’t get a lot of time to get started. 

A vCISO should capture the finer points of the business soon. After this, they are expected to work on the cybersecurity strategy for the organization.

One of the critical tasks of a vCISO is to identify how much risk an organization carries and come up with strategies to reduce the risk to an acceptable level.

Why are vCISOs becoming more popular these days?

Virtual Chief Information Security officers are growing in clout for the following reasons:

  1. CISOs are expensive

The average CISO costs over $200,000 a year, according to Even though every startup and SMB would do well by having a CISO on their payroll, it is not possible for most of them due to a lack of funds.

Data by

On the other hand, vCISOs allow organizations to avoid the overhead of a full-time employee by only paying for specific work. Virtual CISO hourly rate is $54.43/hour, according to Zip Recruiter.

  1. CISOs are in demand

With an increase in cyberattacks, including the sophistication of the attacks, organizations are worried about how much protection is enough. Organizations want a comprehensive set of plans to counter cyber attacks.

A vCISO helps organizations quickly fill security gaps without going through the rigmarole of the hiring process. Virtual CISO jobs are in demand these days because of the security and compliance requirements in most organizations

  1. They can work from anywhere

If you want to hire a full-time CISO, you will be limited by geography, not to mention the fact that you need to pay extra for the candidate to move, in case you are insistent on hiring someone from a different area.

However, when you have a virtual CISO working for you, it doesn’t matter where they are. 

  1. They are more experienced

vCISOs have the reputation of having worked with multiple organizations from different backgrounds.

Their expertise, collected over the years, can be applied in several industries. They would be well-equipped to handle unique situations. 

  1. You pay-as-you-go

If you hire a full-time CISO, you will pay them even if they don’t have much work. A vCISO will not work that way since they are a contractor. You will only be paying for the work done. 

Where to find virtual CISOs?

Several security consulting companies also offer virtual CISO services. It is best to ask for recommendations of good vCISOs from your business peers.

Before you begin your search, you need to clearly define your expectations. Make sure you are clear about the kind of support you require, including the amount of money that you are willing to spend on vCISOs each month.

For most SMBs, the need for a CISO is for regulatory compliance. Understand if you really want a vCISO service provider by getting to know the scope and expectations of their services.


vciso vs ciso

vCISO Use Cases

vCISOs perform crucial functions such as cyber-risk analysis, security operations, security architecture, access management, loss prevention, and governance and compliance.

Let us go through a list of use cases where a vCISO may be the perfect choice over a full-time CISO.

  1. Hiring a full-time CISO

Losing your existing CISO can be a vacuum that needs to be immediately filled. It will derail the efforts put in so far as a part of cybersecurity initiatives.

An experienced vCISO should be able to review the current cybersecurity strategy and help interview and recruit a full-time CISO or transition into one. 

  1. Develop a cybersecurity program for SMBs and Startups

A full-time CISO will be too costly for small and medium-sized companies. A vCISO will be able to create a mature cybersecurity program that would not have been possible otherwise.

  1. Creating a compliance program

Organizations may not be aware of a particular compliance mandate. Even those with a CISO might not know how it translates to creating policies and processes to secure protected information. You can hire vCISOs who are specialists in a given compliance regulation.

They will be able to assist in helping develop strategies to meet the specific mandates required in the compliance standard. For example, HIPAA compliance for healthcare organizations and PCI DSS compliance for businesses that process credit card payments.

  1. Rejig cybersecurity program

Your cybersecurity program needs to keep evolving. A plan that seemed perfect a year ago might be the worst-case scenario for you now. vCISOs can look at your organization’s cybersecurity plan, the current budget and how it is spent, the tools used, and so on. 

  1. Increasing CISO capacity with multi-tasking

CISOs can be overworked too. They will not be able to handle several tasks at the same time. For example, creating a cybersecurity strategy and building the organizational roadmap at the same time can be difficult. This is where vCISOs can help increase the capacity of the CISO.

  1. Helps bridge the gap in recruiting a new CISO

The organization might find itself without a CISO, maybe due to restructuring or the person concerned quitting their job.

You can hire a virtual CISO to review the existing security program, make necessary changes, interview candidates, and hire the new CISO. In the meantime, cybersecurity operations won’t be halted.

  1.  To develop cyber capabilities

A small organization might not require the services of a full-time CISO. But they would surely want to have a solid cybersecurity program in place. A virtual CISO would be able to develop cyber capabilities and provide them with access to various cyber security tools and services.

  1. Develop a cyber, risk, and compliance program

Small manufacturers and vendors are being asked by customers to demonstrate their effectiveness with sufficient cyber risk and compliance programs. Even businesses with solid cyber security programs in place might not have accounted for strict risk and compliance programs. 

  1. Review cyber spending

Businesses can engage vCISOs for a short-term engagement to review their cybersecurity contracts. They can check if the spending has become misaligned with the values and goals of the organization.

There might be old contracts and vendors who are out of touch with the latest policies. Reviewing cyber spending will help flesh out new contracts.

You will understand where the money is going and if it is effectively being spent. The incumbent technology, if obsolete, will be revamped.

How does a virtual CISO integrate with your existing team?

vCISOs should be able to create a plan of action that includes security policies, standards, guidelines, and region-specific rules. Successfully implementing any business objectives the vCISOs outline is only possible when the staff are adequately coached. 

Hiring a vCISO is not a replacement for in-house participation from the employees in your information security program. You need to have ample participation from the employees to implement policies on the ground.

No matter how hard vCISOs try, the cybersecurity program will not be a success unless employees are trained to implement the policies. You have to train employees and provide effective day-to-day oversight. It isn’t the job of the vCISO to do that.

Cyvatar’s Cloud Prevention helps train your employees to be cyber-sound.

For better integration with the existing team, clear communication is necessary. One of the best ways to ensure effective communication is to find an executive to coordinate with the vCISO team. Each department can have a separate team member to liaison with them. 

If the above communication protocol works perfectly, it is possible to get things done smoothly. You can see the plans outlined being followed accordingly. Setting clear expectations is pivotal for a vCISO to succeed at what they do.  

vCISO Onboarding Process

Step 1:

In this step, the vCISO interviews the existing stakeholders to understand their business risk appetite, goals, objectives, and tolerance. They learn about the current resources available and the capabilities of the team.

The vCISO goes through assets, asset owners, sensitivity, business governance, and compliance requirements.

A set of random employees is chosen to benchmark the information provided and to get an overview of the cyber risk awareness culture.

Step 2:

Based on the inputs gathered so far, the vCISO will draft a six or twelve-month activity roadmap that can be implemented.

The roadmap will include annual and quarterly goals, KPIs to measure performance, etc. The roadmap will also specify reporting subjects, frequency, deliverables, dates, etc.

Step 3:

Once the activities involved in the roadmap are ratified, the vCISO will work on implementing the actions. You can add or modify activities after discussions with more stakeholders. The roadmap shall remain the same throughout the lifetime of the engagement.

Factors in choosing a vCISO service provider

Hiring a virtual CISO service provider isn’t an easy task as they have a lot of say in your cybersecurity operations. They can be the difference between fines of millions for data breaches and keeping your business and customer data safe. 

Let us look at the characteristics that you should consider when choosing a vCISO service:

  • Understand how many years of experience they have specifically in catering to vCISO services
  • What are the industries and niches that they have worked on? Will they be able to relate to your industry?
  • Knowledge of compliance requirements specific to your business (ISO 27001, SOC 2 Type 2, DPA/GDPR, PCI compliance)
  • Find out how good they are at communication. 
  • Testimonials from other clients (Head over to their LinkedIn profile and see if anyone has endorsed them)
  • Will they be able to meet all your cybersecurity requirements? 
  • Can you measure their performance using KPIs?

Who should hire virtual CISOs?

CISOs have become the quintessential leadership figures in cybersecurity. vCISOs are the de-facto alternatives to traditional CISO roles.

They are your outsourced cybersecurity experts who offer their efforts and insights, but on a contractual basis and work remotely.

Let us look at who should hire virtual CISOs:

  1. Organizations with limited budgets

The cost of a virtual CISO is considered to be 30-40% less than hiring a full-time CISO, according to CSO Online. If budget is a concern, hiring a vCISO will help.

Even if you do end up hiring a full-time CISO, there are chances of them being poached by another organization. You need to continue the same process of finding candidates, interviewing them, recruiting, onboarding, and training them.

  1. Requires unique skill sets

All CISOs don’t have the same amount of experience or expertise. It makes finding the right CISO all the more difficult. vCISOs are part of a large organization with experts who have different levels of experience, familiarity with tools, and so on.

They are better suited to address any specific needs that your organization might have.

  1. Has sensitive information

All organizations store sensitive information these days, either that of their customers or internal data. If the organization is serious about protecting its data, hiring experts to develop programs to keep them safe is the right step to take.

  1. Don’t have time to train a new CISO

In fast-paced environments, onboarding a new employee can take a lot of time. vCISOs can get started immediately.

They can quickly respond to security issues as they have been in such situations plenty of times. No matter what niche you are in, they will have probably seen it before.

Also, the average tenure of a full-time CISO is 24 to 48 months, so the position keeps changing. You might as well hire a vCISO to get immediate and lasting results.

  1. You have security compliance needs

Choose a security consultant with strategic skills that align with your organization’s unique governance, risk, and compliance needs. vCISO experts can quickly guide you towards compliance and help your IT team develop security policies, guidelines, and standards. 

  1. You have a low-risk tolerance

Every organization needs to have an idea of how much risk they can tolerate. For example, a retail manufacturing unit can tolerate higher levels of risk than a healthcare organization.

Your vCISO team will work with you to identify your potential and current risks, showcase the cybersecurity gaps, and measure your actual risk exposure. With the threat landscape increasing, businesses will have to find experts to address and mitigate these risks. 

  1. Your industry is highly regulated

The insurance, finance, and healthcare sectors have a lot of sensitive information, and the repercussions of a data breach in these industries can be intense.

They have stricter regulations and compliance requirements to follow. Noncompliance threatens a business due to cybersecurity exposures, and they can result in huge fines.  

  1. You have a large and complex organization

Big companies have more infrastructure and employees, which means higher risk factors. Securing the data becomes increasingly complex.

Maintaining technology stacks, architecture distributions, and applications requires an unbiased and highly experienced security team. vCISOs will be able to provide a clear perspective on the IT architecture, apps, and services.

  1. Companies that require a supplement to their cybersecurity program

There are times when the organization wants an interim solution when there are specific needs. It could be to incorporate existing compliance programs or build a comprehensive plan, or when there are new legal or technical requirements that need extra support or expertise.

Benefits of a vCISO

Hiring a virtual CISO has a host of benefits. Let us look at some of them:

  1. It costs less than in-house CISOs

The most significant advantage of hiring virtual CISOs is the savings. Finding qualified and experienced CISOs and bringing them into your fold can be an expensive affair.

When you hire a vCISO, you will only pay them for the time they work with your organization. 

According to, the median salary of a CISO in 2020 was $224,305. Small and medium-sized businesses may not be able to afford it.

It might even be their entire budget for cybersecurity for the year. vCISO’s pricing is also dependent on your requirements. You can have a yearly retainer for vCISOs for as little as $28,800.

  1. Highly adaptive

When organizations grow, there are a lot of changes happen. A full-time CISO might not have the experience to handle such a change as they are experts working only with a few organizations.

On the other hand, a vCISO has dabbled in organizations of different sizes, capabilities, and organizational styles. Virtual CISOs are perfect when it comes to handling a wide array of security requirements.

  1. They are more updated

Cyber attackers are always getting better and coming up with unique changes to how they usually attack. A cybersecurity officer should keep up with the latest threats in the ecosystem.

A vCISO service will be able to handle new security threats as they are working with multiple organizations and have a team to handle issues.

  1. 24*7 cybersecurity monitoring

A CISO is just one person handling security optimization and incident response management for the entire organization. With a vCISO, you get access to a set of experts who can cover for each other to provide continuous monitoring.

They are accessible in a way that CISOs can never be. They are usually contracted on an “on-call” basis, which means that companies may be able to contact them whenever there is a security need.

  1. No conflict of interest

A full-time CISO will be a part of your organization, working closely with the employees, systems, and processes. Because of this, a CISO might be inclined to say yes to the recommendations of the IT security officer just to be on good terms with the person.

A vCISO will not have to think twice about disagreeing with incorrect suggestions. A CISO might also look at cybersecurity solutions they are familiar with, instead of choosing the one that is best.

A virtual CISO has a team of professionals who have their own perspectives on different matters, and they are always on the lookout for the best solutions.

This collective decision-making reduces bias and focuses on objective solutions. 

  1. Faster and better onboarding

Hiring a full-time CISO involves a lot of catching up before the work gets underway. There is a cost and time involved in interviewing and vetting candidates, negotiating pay, etc.

Virtual CISOs have experts ready and they are raring to go, not to mention that their onboarding costs are negligible. vCISOs may require less training as they are familiar with different environments and programs.

  1. They can provide general or niche expertise

There are times when companies need the expertise of a CISO only for specific tasks such as dealing with compliance issues, insurance, reviewing cybersecurity infrastructure during mergers, or doing a post-attack analysis.

Hiring a full-time CISO only for these activities can be avoided, as virtual CISOs are your best option.

  1. vCISOs offer a predictable monthly cost

Cost is one of the most important factors for businesses that seek CISOs. People who have the right expertise and experience will always have several options for themselves.

It is not an aberration for CISOs to leave their current jobs when they get better offers; the only problem is that most of the good ones are being poached by organizations who are willing to pay what they ask for.

The above scenario causes companies to always look for CISOs, spending a lot on onboarding, recruitment, and training.

Since they are salaried, there will be days when they will not be available, and it will result in work downtime.

But with a vCISO, you will keep paying a monthly retainer that has already been decided.

  1. They bring along resources

If there is one thing about vCISOs that is surprisingly overlooked, it is the fact that they bring their resources with them. They bring a set of tools and documents that help them get started immediately. These tools have already been tested in real-life environments. 

Challenges working with vCISOs

vCISOs face several challenges regularly. Let us look at some of them: 

  1. Doesn’t replace in-house

Organizations that hire vCISOs should not be of the opinion that their entire cybersecurity is taken care of. You cannot replace in-house cybersecurity professionals. 

  1. Needs external permissions

They need additional 3rd parties to provide attestations and assistance in the case of any technical services.

  1. It is not rigidly defined

The concept of a vCISO is not rigidly defined. There are several service providers who have set limitations on what they can offer. You might want to do your research before agreeing to work with a vCISO service provider.

  1. They might lack the inside perspective

vCISOs might not have inside knowledge about the organization. The internal CISOs have a 360-degree understanding of the company, and it helps them follow through better.

When there is a cybersecurity incident, vCISOs might not even be in the middle of the action. Since they are in a virtual and contractual position, they are not obligated to do anything extra either.

  1. vCISOs are not dedicated to a single organization

They are cheaper than full-time CISOs because they work with multiple organizations to offset the cost. By dividing their time between different organizations, they manage to provide their services at a lower price.

Given their time constraints, their effort could be diluted.

Alternatively, CISOs work only with a single organization and dedicate their entire working hours to your benefit. Instead of diversifying their time and efforts, they dedicate their insights and expertise to your specific security issues.

  1. Lack of risk ownership

The organization must look carefully at the contract and discuss risk ownership accordingly before hiring a vCISO. They should accept some organizational risks and be obligated to manage them.

If your organization comes under breach because of the fault of the vCISO, they should be liable for it.

CISO VS vCISO: Which one should you choose?

No matter how sophisticated your tools are, the human touch is pivotal for success. Cyber attackers are humans who have their own agendas and modus operandi.

Understanding their mindset requires highly-trained cybersecurity experts. For this, you need a leader who can handle security issues of all types and who is ably supported by an experienced team. 

Hiring a full-time CISO is something that many organizations consider, but it has more disadvantages than advantages.

We want to set the record straight by mentioning that not every organization will be better served by a vCISO either. The decision you make should be based on specific requirements for your organization. 

The decision to hire a full-time or a virtual CISO for your organization signals just one thing: that you are committed to keeping your organization away from cyber attackers and are determined to protect your organization’s data and IT resources.

Talking about keeping away the cyber attackers, it’s good to start with cybersecurity that costs nothing to start with. Should you need help on the way, you can always reach our dedicated cybersecurity support team.

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