Are Security Qualifications Important?

Over the years I, like many IT professionals, have amassed a fair few number of qualifications.  Some vendor specific (MCSA, CNE, CCNA), some process related (PRINCE2, ITIL) and some security related (CISSP, CISA).  But in reality, has it been worthwhile pursuing them and have they made a difference to my career?

Well, there are a few ways to look at this.  Many people start out within IT either straight from college or university with a basic theoretical understanding of information systems or computer science principles.  Whilst this provides a basic understanding of some of the key technical and non-technical aspects of computing, I think it really acts to lay a foundation for how the person can pick up new information going forward, either through professional study or simply via on the job exposure.

When someone junior starts a new role, often, their main aim is to get promoted or gain a pay rise.  This can happen in a few ways - either through longevity (simply working in a role for x-number of months/years will result in a pay rise) or through being good at the role you're in.  Now, being 'good' is entirely subjective, unless some decent objectives and attainment targets are placed in a personal development plan.  One thing that 'good' can't argue against, is an industry qualification that relates to your role.  If an individual is qualified as good as an industry 'outsider', there are two implications for gaining a pay rise.  One, is that if the employer doesn't pay you the 'going rate', you are more likely to be able to leave and get employment elsewhere.  Secondly, if you do leave, the employer would find it difficult to replace you with someone with an industry qualification unless the salary increases.  The economics of salaries isn't really what I want to discuss, but ultimately, the chances of a pay rise will obviously go up.

On a practical aspect, does that industry qualification warrant the pay rise?  Will the qualification improve your ability to do the job, either through efficiency or via being able to complete more tasks and give more value?  This part becomes more subjective and depends largely on the qualification and how it relates to the everyday tasks.

From a security aspect there are several of the high-level umbrella style certifications that many employers ask for, or at least are added onto a recommended nice-to-have list.  I am thinking CISSP, CISA, CISM and CEH.  In addition there are numerous domain specific qualifications for things like penetration testing and forensics, but many are really assuming that a strong basic understanding of all aspects of security has been gained, either from one those 'big-4' qualifications or from 6+ years on the job experience.

There are numerous self-study approaches to passing each of the those 'big-4' qualifications, which in reality may help you pass a physical exam, but probably wont help with the real world issues those exams are aimed at solving.  Whilst some of the technical aspects can be consumed - thinking things like basic cryptography, risk assessment frameworks, network protocols and so on - the real world scenarios that require those skills to be implemented are very rarely picked up.  Whilst something like the CISSP is generally described as being an inch deep and a mile wide (referring to the fact the content is extremely broad but not in much detail), this can certainly help with picking up new factual knowledge in a range of areas.

But does being a CISSP for example really help with managing information security in an organisation or giving strong industry level advise to clients?  The answer is obviously subjective and as many positions require a candidate to have the exam passed it becomes a vicious circle.

I think the most important part is not necessarily the obtaining of the exam, but how the exam was obtained.  By this I refer to the training and preparation.  Some of the leading penetration testing exams, like for example the CPPT, have a much more hands-on approach to learning, with real-world simulations, labs and so on, taken over say 3-4 months.  This is certainly has a few benefits.  Not only do you approach the learning in a pseudo real-world setting, but you also have several months to cover the vast amount of material, avoiding that dreaded boot camp scenario.

As information security, not to mention IT in general, is a relatively immature profession in comparison to something like law or accountancy, qualifications certainly aim to help standardise the broad range of approaches and learning that is available.  I think the major concern is that how they are administered and viewed.  As with any qualification without experience they can become a dangerous tool, that only detailed interviewing and on the job monitoring can reproach

(Simon Moffatt)