The Different States Of A Security Program
  • 26 Jul 2023
  • 6 Minutes to read
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The Different States Of A Security Program

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The Different States Of A Security Program

Thank you to Lee Vorthman for sharing his blog on our site.

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It may be obvious, but every company that has a security program is in a different state of maturity. As a CSO, it is important to recognize and understand what these different states mean in terms of where your energy will be applied. If you are interviewing or hiring into a company, it is critically important to understand what state the security program is in so you can determine if the opportunity is right for you and to ultimately maximize your impact in the role.

The Different States

In general, a security program can be in one of three different states:

  • New / Building
  • Existing / Incremental
  • Shrinking / Decline

New / Building

A security program that is new typically comes along with new companies, startups or possibly new business units that are acquired via acquisition. However, a company may also be establishing a new program if they are found deficient during an audit or if they suffered a security breach. In this state the CSO (or security leader) needs to establish a program from scratch, which will include mapping risks, developing a budget and establishing funding, recommending tools, evangelizing security best practices and hiring a team. There will be a lot of focus on foundational aspects of security like asset inventory, reporting and initial risk baselines for the organization. Your team will also go after initial program certifications like ISO27001, SOC or other compliance activities. You may even need to establish new processes and ways of working.

Here are some good questions to ask to determine if a program is in the new / building state:

  • Who is performing the function of security today?
  • What goals does the organization have in the first year and three years from now?
  • What is the expected annual budget?
  • How many headcount do you expect for the security team in the first year?
  • Where does your company operate and do you expect to have security resources in those geographic regions?
  • What security tooling is in place today (if any)?
  • Does the company have any existing compliance certifications (like SOC, ISO, etc.)?
  • Why is the company focusing on hiring a security leader and building a security program? Did this come about due to a security incident or other security event like a failed audit?
  • What industries does the company do business in? E.g. finance, government, healthcare, etc.

In my experience, establishing a new security program from scratch is a rare opportunity, but if you get the chance it is truly exciting and offers the opportunity for giant leaps forward in terms of security maturity for the company.

Existing / Incremental

The next state of maturity is existing or incremental and most companies will be in this state. In this state a security program has already been established and has the foundations in place in terms of people, processes and technology. Tooling has already been purchased and implemented, an annual budget has been established and a team exists with different functions like security engineering, security operations and security compliance.

An existing security program usually has smaller goals or incremental annual objectives designed to address some specific area of risk that has been outstanding, or to address a new risk area based on business growth. For example, perhaps the organization has an existing Identity and Access Management (IAM) program, but needs to roll out 2-Factor Authentication (2FA) to further secure access. Or, maybe the business is expanding into the financial industry and needs to become PCI-DSS compliant. These are incremental improvements to the security program and will require increases or reallocation of people and budgets.

A CSO or security leader in charge of an existing security program will generally keep things running smoothly, make sure the company doesn’t regress with respect to security maturity and will continually be evaluating the business for new or existing risks that need to be managed.

Here are some questions you can ask if you are interviewing for a new role that will lead an existing security program:

  • What is the annual budget for the security program?
  • What security tools are in place?
  • How is the team structured?
  • What are the security objectives for this year? For three years?
  • What security compliance certifications does the company maintain (e.g. SOC, ISO, etc.)?
  • How many people are in the security team?
  • What functions does the security team perform? (I.e. security engineering, compliance, risk, product security, security architecture, security operations and incident response, etc.)
  • Why are you looking for hire for this role or who am I replacing if I am hired?
  • How do you expect the business to perform over the next year?

Shrinking / Decline

It is an unfortunate reality that not all programs are in the building or existing states. Sometimes security programs shrink or slip into decline. This can be for a number of reasons such as poor leadership or a declining business. A shrinking security program can also be a temporary state that matches normal expansion / contraction of a mature business and the economy. Whatever the reason, leading a declining security program has significant challenges. First, the security leader will need to over communicate the existing risks to the business and make sure budget and headcount reductions match the reduction of risk as the business shrinks. A CSO can run into real trouble if the reductions are arbitrary and leave the business exposed.

Second, you can expect to have to do more with less. As the business contracts your team will still need to perform, but there may not be additional perks such as training, travel, new tooling, etc. You may also need to consider shrinking budgets and reductions in license counts or other tooling.

Another reason for a shrinking / declining security program is during mergers and acquisitions. Depending on how the deal is structured and the capabilities of the acquiring business, your security team may be redundant or parts of your team may no longer be needed.

A shrinking / declining security program isn’t the end of the world, but it does require careful leadership to make sure the risks are managed appropriately and morale doesn’t completely decline and impact the performance of the remaining team.

Not Everyone Is Good In All States

Not everyone will admit it, but the reality is not everyone is good in all states. This shouldn’t be surprising. Startup founders routinely find they can’t scale a company past a certain point and require additional help. Similarly, I have personally experienced that security programs require different leadership depending on the state of the program and the skills of the individual. Some people just can’t scale a program past the building phase and into the incremental phase. Some people don’t know how to handle decline. Leadership skills aside, some people just have a specific preference for what they like to do.

No matter where you are in your professional career or whatever state your security program is in, I hope this post will help you identify and navigate the type of security program you enjoy leading or are looking to lead one day.

Author: Lee Vorthman
I'm the Chief Security Officer at a public cloud company where I've built a successful security program from the ground up that has reduced risk to the business by over 70 percent. I have over 23 years in the technology sector and am a U.S. Navy Veteran. Previously I was the Chief Technology Officer for Civilian Agencies at NetApp Federal. I am available for consulting, speaking and media opportunities. View all posts by Lee Vorthman

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