The Pragmatic CSO - 12 Steps to Being a Security Master

Posted on by Ben Rothke

The Pragmatic CSO: 12 Steps to become a Pragmatic CSO is worth reading for one sentence on page 12 which states: It's not about technology - it's about business. The even better news is that the book is full of insightful ideas like that, on how information should work, and how to make it work in today's large enterprise organizations. 

One of the mistakes many security professionals make is that they think of security for its own sake, when security is simply meant to support the business. CxO's could care less about encryption key lengths and operating systems. While they don't care about the technical details, the people from information security often mistakenly communicate to them in those terms. 

The book notes that there are three main causes to the poor state that information security finds itself in today in far too many organizations: 

  • Security is viewed as a technical function - Security staff is often part of the technical teams, but not members of the management team.
  • The bad guys are getting better - In years past, attackers would get your attention by playing music in the background as their virus infected your workstation. Today's attacks are built around stealth techniques. Attackers do their best to hide from your IDS, and often easily do so. 
  • Auditors are tougher - Both internal and external auditors are finally getting the power they deserve. The days of having them rubber stamp the audit are slowly coming to a close. 

The Pragmatic CSO: 12 Steps to become a Pragmatic CSO details a 12-step program, which is a structured program on which to build a strong information security program. The book goes through those steps ( as a way to keep you, as the CSO, focused on the goal. That goal is to demonstrate the value of information security management and the level of security to the internal and external auditors. 

The books 4 sections and 12 steps are structured similarly, beginning with what you will learn in the specific step, a dialogue-based introduction akin to an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) session, and an action plan for each step. Personally, I found the AA dialogues a bit cheesy, and by step 6, found them a bit annoying. Aside from that issue, the book is a highly valuable guide in which a new CSO can use to directly assist them in their job. A new CSO is recommended to use the guide in their first 100 days in office. Such an approach can spell the difference between success and failure. 

As its title implies, the book is all about being pragmatic. This practical approach is needed, as step 2 notes that it is hard for many security professionals to get beyond the typical vulnerability-centric definition of success. It is not about how many vulnerabilities are found, rather the pragmatic way in which they are handled. 

Part of this pragmatic approach is being realistic of the state of security in your origination. Step 7 underscores this when it shows how a CSO should never underestimate to things: the ability of the bad guys to make you look bad, and the ability of users to do something really stupid. The preceding is just one example of many where the book shows the reader what security is like in the real-world, as opposed to the often described pristine cryptographic world of security when Alice and Bob are involved. 

Perhaps the most important point the book makes is that pragmatic CSO's have no religion when it comes to security and technology, besides doing the right thing for their business and protecting their assets. Far too many people in security and technology turn technology choices into religious wars, most of which center around Windows, Linux, Cisco and Juniper. 

Step 11 details metrics and benchmarks and has a number of constructive questions in which to benchmark against. The areas of questions include effectiveness, awareness, attitude and financial. This is needed as metrics and benchmarking are needed to measure how you and your security team are doing, and to identify areas in need of improvement. Benchmarking can also point out areas which your organization differs from the norm. While that is not necessarily a bad thing, it is necessary to know when to follow so-called best practices, or whether to do what is specifically right for your organization. 

The Pragmatic CSO: 12 Steps to become a Pragmatic CSO is a most valuable book in that it provides fresh, real-world advice, as opposed to generics rehashed best practices. Author Mike Rothman's premise is that today's CSO's need to act more like business people in order to thrive. With firms laying-off back-office technology staff by the thousands, having this front-office approach is not only timely, it may just save your job.

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

data security

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