CISA vs CISM – What are the Key Differences? Which One is For You?


Both CISA (Certified Information Systems Auditors) and CISM (Certified Information Security Managers) are certifications offered by the same body i.e ISACA (Information Systems Audit and Control Association). There is a lot of confusion about which is the best. Introduction of CRISC by ISACA has further complicated the decision. However, in this article we will only focus on CISA vs CISM.

Many people would recommend that you go for either of the two certifications because they consider both similar. However, this is not correct.

Key Differences Between CISA and CISM

These are two entirely different certifications with different careers paths. So, what should be your choice: CISA or CISM. Briefly speaking, CISA certification is for auditors whereas CISM is for information security managers and risk managers.

According to ISACA itself, CISM recognizes a professional who “manages, designs, oversees and assesses an enterprise’s information security.” Presently more than 32000 professionals have earned this credential.

On the other hand, CISA recognizes an audit professional’s experience to “assess IS vulnerabilities, report on compliance and institute controls within the enterprise.” Presently more than 129,000 professionals hold CISA certification.

Initially, ISACA CISA was also thought of a suitable qualification for information security manager apart from an auditor but the role of an IS auditor and IS security professionals are quite different.

CISM is not intended towards those who are information security practitioners. It is best suited for those who have grown up in the career to be at managerial positions and are making key information security management decisions.

So while being CISA certified meant for hands on information systems auditor, CISM is meant for those who manage the information security hands on professionals.

The domains’ knowledge of both the certifications is focused towards information security but there is a key difference.

CISM certified professionals are tasked with ensuring enterprise’s information security whereas CISA is meant for professionals who provide assurance about information security controls.

CISA vs CISM Job Descriptions

Job description of CISA holders often focuses towards IT auditing, controls, regulatory compliance and a lot of time audit of IT infrastructure. On the other hand, most CISM job descriptions are related to information security management, business continuity planning, disaster recovery planning, information security risk analysis and business impact analysis etc.

The Best way to understand the difference and similarities between CISA and CISM is to read the job practice areas of both the certifications as published on ISACA website. CISA has five job practice areas and CISM has four job practice areas.

There are some similarities in the content, but we must not lose sight of the fact that the key difference between CISA and CISM is that one is meant for IT audit professionals who would give opinion on IT control environment and the other is intended for managers of information security professionals. However, both the certifications position you well for risk management positions.

While both are security related fields, As a Certified Information Security Management Professional, you are more likely to be employed in positions where you would be implementing a security program development, security incident management or a risk management program, but as a Certified Information Systems Auditor you would most likely be doing tests to give an assurance on the implementation of the security environment. 

Which is Better – CISA or CISM?

It will not be appropriate to say that one is better than the other. Both have their own specific area of expertise. So, when choosing between CISA or CISM, keep in sight your main career. If you are working as a network administrator, system administrator or a professional with a similar background, then CISM is preferred for helping you become an information security manager. In that case you should compare CISM vs CISSP, which stands for Certified Informsation Systems Security Professional.

Is CISM Easier than CISSP?

Since CISSP is focused towards working professionals who would be doing practical tasks, therefore, CISSP is more detailed. On the other hand, CISM is tailored towards managers, therefore, its tilt is towards managing an information system environment.

For example, you will be learning about firewall management principles in general but in CISSP you may be actually asked detailed questions about firewall rules.
Again, no one certification is easier than the other.

But if you look at the exams content of both the certifications, you will most likely form an opinion that CISSP is for technical implementer and CISM is for managers.

You might also like to read our views on CISM vs CISSP, where we have discussed in details the key similarities and differences between the two.

It is about where are you positioned in your careers. Managers of information systems might find CISM easier but those same questions might sound complex for someone who is working as a system administrator.

And if you are already and auditor with CISA, you can showcase CISM certification as evidence of your competence. And if your main job involves information systems auditing, compliance and assurance, then CISA should be your choice certification.

Your peculiar situation may also help and it is not uncommon to cross-certify to further boost your prospects. But for choosing your first certification the above differences should guide your path and help you in choosing between the two.

There is not a lot of difference between CISA salary and CISM salary. The main question is your background and the career path you want to take. So, you may decide to CISA certified or CISM, based on your career trajectory.

If you want to know all details about CISA and CISSP, read our article on CISA vs CISSP.

Which ISACA Certification is Easiest?

It all depends on your background and interest. Your experience also plays a role in how easy you will find an exam. All these certifications by ISACA are reasonably challenging. But simultaneously, these cover very interesting content as well.

I will personally think that CISA is a little tougher than CISM because of the wider scope of exam.
But this doesn’t mean that CISM is a piece of cake. You will have to study to pass any of these ISACA certification. For CISA or CISM exam review, I highly recommend review manuals from ISACA itself to dramatically increase your chances of success.

You may like to read more about CISA Review Manual to pass the exam.

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