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How to Become a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)

Ed Tittel and Earl Follis

Becoming a CISSP can help your IT career.

Corporate America and the U.S. government have been sounding the cybersecurity alarm bell for years: There's a significant shortage of skilled information security professionals in this country. Although numbers vary among various sources, it's safe to say North America is lacking almost 500,000 security professionals (as of 2018), and the global shortfall for such jobs is expected to reach 4 million or more by 2021.

Almost every day, around 10,000 positions are available on U.S. job sites that request a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP). This clearly points to a need for skilled infosec workers, and CISSPs in particular, which is great news for aspiring CISSP candidates.

A CISSP is a seasoned employee or consultant, usually with a title such as security manager, security analyst or chief information security officer, to name just a few. This person has been on the job for five or more years, and has thorough knowledge of the IT threat landscape, including emerging and advanced persistent threats, as well as controls and technology to minimize attack surfaces.

A CISSP also creates policies that set a framework for proper controls, and can perform or oversee risk management and software development security.

Here's what you'll need to become a CISSP through (ISC)2:

  • Obtain five years of security work experience: You must be able to show proof of five paid full-time years of work experience in at least two of the eight CISSP CBK (Common Body of Knowledge) domains, which are Security and Risk Management, Asset Security, Security Engineering, Communications and Network Security, Identity and Access Management, Security Assessment and Testing, Security Operations, and Software Development Security. On-the-job experience is crucial for both the exam and the certification process.

  • Prepare for and pass the CISSP exam: Complete the CISSP exam with a minimum score of 700 out of 1,000. The exam is six hours long and includes a mix of multiple-choice and advanced innovative questions. It costs $699. The (ISC)2 CISSP webpage offers a download of the exam outline as well as a link to a Study App (available through the App Store and Google Play for about $10), a study guide, practice tests, and a host of other exam-prep aids. You can also obtain the official textbook and test your knowledge with CISSP Flash Cards. If you need more than self-study materials, (ISC)2 and a lot of third parties offer CISSP classroom and online training. Training costs vary widely, but the online self-paced course costs $2,795 through (ISC)2. Classroom-based training will cost appreciably more. Before scheduling your exam with Pearson VUE, go over the background qualifications, which might exclude you from sitting for the exam.

  • Get endorsed to become a CISSP: Once you complete the CISSP exam, you'll have to subscribe to the (ISC)2 Code of Ethics and complete an endorsement form to become a CISSP. The endorsement form must be signed by another (ISC)2 certified professional who verifies your professional work experience. You must submit the completed form within nine months of passing your exam to become fully certified, because passing the exam doesn't automatically grant you certification status.

After you become fully certified, you'll have to maintain your credential by recertifying every three years. CISSPs are required to pay an $85 maintenance fee during the three-year cycle ($255 total). They must also submit 40 continuing professional education (CPE) credits each year, for a total of 120 CPEs per three-year cycle. For more information on the steps to becoming a CISSP and maintaining your certification status, visit

Other certifications that can help you attain the CISSP

If you are certain that the CISSP path is right for you but you have no relevant work experience, look into becoming an Associate of (ISC)2. The program is ideal for students and career changers. It also allows you to take advantages of educational opportunities, forums and peer networking offered through (ISC)2. Another approach is to get the entry-level A+, Network+ and Security+ certifications from CompTIA. With that foundation, you can apply for a security-related position and get some much-needed hands-on experience in the IT arena.

If you've been working in IT security for a year or two, consider pursuing the (ISC)2 Systems Security Certified Professional (SSCP) credential. Although it's not an official prerequisite, the SSCP is considered a precursor of sorts to the CISSP, covering many of the same topic domains. In theory, achieving the SSCP can also lead to the kind of security position needed to fulfill the CISSP work experience requirement.

Beyond the CISSP

It seems that go-getters are always looking for a way to move on or up. Once you get your CISSP, you might be interested in specializing in architecture, engineering or management, perhaps for another boost in pay. The (ISC)2 program offers concentrations in those areas for CISSP credential holders, called ISSAP, ISSEP and ISSMP, respectively.

Considering that cloud computing and virtualization security has become extremely important in the IT space over the last few years, there's one more advanced-level (ISC)2 certification to consider: the Certified Cloud Security Professional, or CCSP. This certification, formed in cooperation between (ISC)2 and the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA), aims at folks who procure, secure and manage cloud infrastructures or who purchase cloud services. The CCSP requires five years of relevant on-the-job experience, but you can use the CISSP to substitute for the entire requirement.

Be sure that a CISSP is the route you want to take, and that you can complete the credential, before embarking on this long and expensive journey. However, if you set realistic certification targets, and manage your time wisely, you can't help but succeed in this hot sector of the IT job market.

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