One of the concepts I use in my Pragmatic CSO material is a Day in the Life of a CISO. There are lots of firefighting and other assorted activities. I usually get a big laugh when I get to the part about groveling to the CIO and CFO for budget. Yes, I call it like I see it. But after seeing a post on budgeting by Ed Moyle from before Thanksgiving, I think it’s time to dig a bit deeper.

Remember the budget is pretty critical to your success (or failure) in security. This job is hard enough with sufficient resources and funding. Without them, you’ve got no shot. So becoming a budget ninja is one of the key skills to climb the security career ladder. Ed makes a number of good points about spending transparency and measuring effectiveness. Basically trying to show senior management what you spend money on and how well it’s working. I agree with all of those sentiments.

And I’m being a bit sarcastic (go figure), when I talk about groveling for budget. You need to ask, but in a way that provides a chance of success. And the most useful tool I’ve seen used for this in practice is the idea of scenarios. Basically when building up your architecture, project plans, and other assorted strategies for the coming year, think about breaking up those ideas into (at least) three scenarios:

  1. Low bar: This is the stuff you absolutely need – in order to have any shot at protecting your critical information, or meeting your compliance mandate, or the like. To understand where this bar is, think about a scenario where you would quit because you don’t have enough resources/funding to have any shot, and a significant issue becomes a certainty. That is your low bar.
  2. High bar: This is what you need to really do the job. Not to 100% certainty – don’t be silly. But enough to have a good feeling that you’ll be able to get the job done.
  3. Real bar: This is somewhere in the middle and what you hope to be the most likely scenario.

To be clear, how much funding you get to do security is out of your control. It’s a business issue. You are competing with not just IT projects, but all projects, for that resource allocation. And if you think it’s a slam dunk to build a case for a new perimeter security infrastructure, as opposed to a new machine that can streamline manufacturing, think again. Even if you know your project is the right thing to do, it may not be as clear to someone with lots of folks all groveling for their own pet projects.

The scenarios help you explain the risks of not doing something, and provide a more tangible idea of the costs, than a long project list which means nothing to a non-security person.

Scenario Risks

Group your projects into scenarios, and model a specific type of attack that would be protected. For example, in your low bar scenario, just make the case that you’ve got no shot to meet compliance mandate X without that funding. Then explain the possible ramifications of not being compliant (fines, brand damage, breaches, etc.). This must be done in a dispassionate way. You are presenting just the facts, like Joe Friday. The burden is on the business managers to weigh the risk of not meeting (funding) the low bar.

When presenting the high bar, you can discuss some of the emerging attacks that you’d be able to either block or more likely detect faster to mitigate damage. Get as specific as you can, use real examples of your applications and the impact of those going down. But be careful to manage expectations. Even if you reach the high bar of funding (which typically only happens after a breach), you still may have problems, so don’t bet your firstborn or anything.

The real bar provides a good mixture of protection and compliance. Or at least it should. Truth be told, this is our hopeful scenario, so make it realistic and plausible. Make it clear what you can’t do (relative to the high bar) and what you can do (compared to the low bar). And more importantly the potential risks/losses of each decision. Not in an annualized loss expectancy way, but in a we’ll lose this kind of data way.

The key here is to rely on contrast to help the bean counters understand what you need and why. The low bar is really the bare minimum. Make that clear. The high bar is a wish list, and in reality most wishes don’t come true. The real bar is where you want to get to, so use some creativity to make the cases push your desired outcome.

Don’t Take It Personally

Above all else, when dealing with budgeting, you can’t take it personally. Every executive team must balance strategic investments and risks and decide what is the best way to allocate the limited resources of the organization. Sometimes you win the battle, sometimes you lose. As long as you get to the low bar, that’s what you get. If you don’t get to the low bar, then maybe you should take it personally. Either you made a crappy case, you have no credibility, or the powers that be have decided (in their infinite wisdom) that they are willing to accept the risks of not hitting the low bar.

That doesn’t mean you have to accept those risks. Remember, you are the one who will be thrown out of the car (at high speed), if things go south. So if you don’t reach the low bar, it make be time to look for another gig. And do it aggressively and proactively. You don’t want to be circulating your resume while your organization is cleaning up a high profile breach.

Photo credits: “spare change towards weed + starbucks 🙂 long live bank of america” originally uploaded by sandcastlematt