CISA vs CISM – Key Differences and Which Certification to Get

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. The introduction of CRISC by ISACA has further complicated the decision. However, this article will only focus on CISA vs CISM.

Many would recommend that you go for either of the two certifications because they consider both similar. However, this is not correct. There are significant differecnes between CISA and CISM which we will discuss below:

Critical Differences Between CISA and CISM

Here are key differences when comparing CISA vs CISM.

Focus area – Auditing vs Information Security Management

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

ISACA defines CISM certification as a professional who “manages, designs, oversees, and assesses an enterprise’s information security.” Presently, more than 32000 cybersecurity professionals have earned this credential.

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

Both deal with Information Security But With Different focus

CISM is a purely information security management certification. CISA is a certification that has its biggest domain deal with information security. Even other domains also directly or indirectly deal with information security. But the critical difference is that CISA is concerned with evaluation of information security controls whereas CISM is focused on implementation of these controls.

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

CISM certification is not intended for those who are cyber security practitioners. It is best suited for those who have grown up in the career to be in managerial positions and make critical information security management decisions.

So, while CISA certification is meant for hands-on information systems auditors, CISM is intended for those who manage information security, hands-on professionals.

The domain’s knowledge of both certifications is focused on cybersecurity, but there is a crucial difference.

CISM-certified professionals ensure an enterprise’s cybersecurity, whereas CISA is meant for professionals who assess and provide assurance on information security controls.

Comparison of CISA and CISM Exam Domains

A quick comparison of CISM and CISA exam domains will also help understand the overlaps and differences between CISA and CISM. 

Below are the five CISM exam domains that you will be tested against:

  1. Information security governance
  2. Information Security Risk Management
  3. Information Security Program
  4. Incident management

Now, in comparison, the domains or job practice areas of the CISA exam are as under:

  1. Information systems auditing process
  2. Governance and management of IT
  3. Information Systems Acquisition, Development, and Implementation
  4. Information Systems Operations and Business Resilience
  5. Protection of information assets

A quick comparison would immediately help you understand that CISM domains focus on managing information security, whereas CISA domains are more technical and target auditors. 

CISA vs CISM Job Descriptions

Job description of CISA holders often focuses on 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, business impact analysis, etc.

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

The content has some similarities, but we must not lose sight of the vital difference between CISA and CISM. That one is meant for IT audit professionals who would give opinions on the IT control environment, and the other is intended for managers of information security professionals. However, both certifications position you well for risk management positions.

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

Which is Better – CISA or CISM?

While comparing CISA vs CISM, it is not appropriate to say that one is better than the other. Both have their specific area of expertise. So, when choosing between CISA or CISM, keep in sight your primary career.

For anyone related to an auditing career, CISA is the better choice. However, looking for a career as a security architect with CISA will not be prudent. In that case, you should seek cybersecurity certification like CISM or CISSP.

CISA professionals are primarily working in the auditing profession, which may be internal audit or external audit.

But they also work in related professions like systems development and consultancy.

Suppose you work as a network administrator, system administrator, or professional with a similar background. In that case, CISM certification is preferred to help you become a certified information security manager or a security analyst. In that case, you should compare CISM vs. CISSP, which stands for Certified Information Systems Security Professional.

It would not be fair if you wanted to judge whether CISA or CISM is better because both are respected certifications and are targeted at different streams of professional paths.

Is CISM Easier than CISSP?

Both CISM and CISSP are security certifications and can kickstart your cybersecurity career. However, the content of CISM is managerial level and might be easier for someone at the managerial level security management. Since CISSP certification is focused on working professionals doing practical tasks, the CISSP exam is more technical and challenging from a technical point of view.

On the other hand, CISM is tailored toward managers. Therefore, its tilt is toward managing an information system environment. The expected knowledge is also from a manager’s perspective, not a hardcore cybersecurity implementer.

Though it is understood that CISM-certified managers are responsible for erecting information security management systems, they are not expected to have implementation-level knowledge. Their knowledge is likely to be of a managerial level and more strategic.

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

But suppose you look at the exam content of both certifications. In that case, you will most likely believe that CISSP certification is for technical implementers and CISM is for managers responsible for improving governance and management of information assets.

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

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

And if you are already an 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 particular situation may also help, and it is not uncommon to cross-certify to boost your prospects further. But for choosing your first cyber security certification, the above differences should guide your path and help you choose between the two.

CISA vs CISM Salary

There is not much difference between the CISA salary and the CISM salary. The main question is about your background and the career path you want to take. So, you may decide to become CISA certified or CISM based on your career trajectory. Have a look at CISA salary expectations here. 

According to data at PayScale, a CISM may expect to earn between $52,402 to $243,610. A CISA-certified professional may have a salary of $52,459 to $122,326.

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

Which ISACA Certification is the Easiest – CISA or CISM?

It depends on several factors, but apparently, CISM certification is easier than CISA. I will personally think that the CISA exam is a little more challenging than CISM because of the broader scope of the exam. While CISM focuses entirely on information security, CISA is a blend of security and auditing. And we know that auditing itself is a technical profession. The questions related to auditing appear to be easier but are challenging for someone not from a finance or auditing background.

But this doesn’t mean that CISM is a piece of cake. You will have to study to pass any of these ISACA certifications. For CISA or CISM exam review, I highly recommend reviewing manuals from ISACA to increase your chances of success dramatically.

When talking about cisa vs cism difficulty, to start with, no certification exam is the easiest if you try to ace it without preparation. It all depends on your background and interests. Your experience also affects how easily you will find an exam.

All these certifications by ISACA are reasonably challenging and will test not only your academic knowledge but also your practical understanding of the concepts in a practical environment. But simultaneously, these cover exciting content as well.

How long should you study for CISA Exam?

For people with a history in audits or IT security, the optimal preparation period for the CISA exam is around four and six months for those just starting. If you want to pass the test, you must practice every day, even if it’s just reviewing the syllabus. You can start practicing now because the exam usually takes place within three months of applying.

You need to know what questions will be asked during the exam, and you should review each topic thoroughly. In addition, you should familiarize yourself with the exam format and ensure you understand each section’s objectives.

Should you do CISM or CISA?

The brief answer is that if you are presently working in auditing fields and look to your career progressing in controls assessment, audit, and assessing business systems powered by information technology, your priority should be a CISA certification. 

However, suppose you see your career as an information security manager or in information security, consulting, security controls design, and implementation. In that case, CISM should be your choice of certification. 

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