IT security chiefs can make big bucks but are they happy?

The top IT security chiefs make salaries that can run over $1 million per year, but are they happy? Ponemon Institute, which interviewed about 700 security professionals in the top IT security spot at their companies to find out, learned they make big bucks but the job often feels stressful and isolated.

Ponemon Institute conducted interviews with 133 individuals who are "chief information security officers" (CISO), while the remainder at these U.S. based companies had assorted IT security job titles, all with top responsibility for data security. Ponemon, who conducted the research with SecureWorld, found median salary range for these security professionals was between $250,000 to $300,000 but there were those whose salaries soared far above, to over $1 million.

"There was quite a bit of variance," says Larry Ponemon, CEO and founder of the research firm, about the approximately 700 IT security chiefs, noting that at the low end, salaries were about $188,000 and at the high end, even hit $1.2 million.

CISOS at large companies and in certain industries such as tech and communications, for example, tended to see substantially higher salaries than those in other industries, such as retailing, he pointed out.

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According to Ponemon, the background to all this is that a company will often appoint a CISO because it had a data breach and the CISO is brought in with high expectations for assuring data security across the business.

CISOs typically carved out careers starting with computer security backgrounds, are inclined to be tech-minded "gearheads," while often hailing from law enforcement or the military. These corporate security pros have earned professional IT security certifications, such as CISSP or CISA. But adding graduate degrees, such as an MBA or law degree, increased their fortunes notably.

The research found that more than half of these top IT security chiefs reported to the company CIO, with the balance reporting to the chief financial officer (CFO), the vice president of risk management, or even just the business head of a division such as financial services.

Nonetheless, these top IT security chiefs showed evidence of discontent, departing from their companies after a just a couple of years, Ponemon points out. Sometimes they are looking for something better and their skills are generally in demand. One psychological element is this seems to be that the top IT security chiefs often feel "stuck at their level" because there's usually no other rung to climb in their organizations. But CISOs also "get blamed for bad things, such as cyber-attacks," he says.  "The pattern is, a lot of people are very insecure about their jobs."

When things seem to be going well in their companies in terms of security, few people notice them, and they feel "invisible." But they are the ones in the hot seat when IT security problems happen. To make matters worse, these IT security chiefs feel frustrated by the "shadow IT" movement in which the lines of business people go around the IT department altogether in buying cloud-based services without consulting IT security. These days, even IT personnel engage in "shadow IT" by ordering cloud-based services.

Another high-pressure aspect of the top IT security job is always fighting for budget dollars and the standard return-on-investment budget models don't really help them much. But the way the "bad guys" are attacking is always changing, Ponemon adds.

Though most IT security pros believe deeply in the merits of their jobs, one aspect of it is particularly hard on them, and that's having to strongly criticize or stop data-sharing practices at their companies that they deem high risk. "It's pretty lonely because you're saying 'no' to people," Ponemon points out, adding, but to be competent, "you sometimes have to."

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: MessmerE. E-mail:

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