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 certification is for information security managers and risk managers with focus on cyber security.

According to ISACA itself, CISM certification recognizes 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 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 certification is not intended towards those who are cyber 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 certification is 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 cybersecurity but there is a key difference.

CISM certified professionals are tasked with ensuring enterprise’s cybersecurity 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 cybersecurity related fields, As a Certified Information Security Management Professional, you are more likely to be employed in positions where you would be implementing an information 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 cybersecurity environment.

Which is Better – CISA or CISM?

While comparing CISA vs 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.

For anyone that is related to auditing career, CISA is the obvious choice. CISA professionals are mostly working in the auditing profession which may be internal audit or external audit. But they are also working in other related professions like systems development and consultancy. However, it will not be prudent to look for a career as a security architect with CISA. In that case, you should be looking for cybersecurity certification like CISM or CISSP.

If you are working as a network administrator, system administrator or a professional with a similar background, then CISM certification is preferred for helping 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.

If you would want to pass a judgement whether CISA or CISM is better, it would not be fair because both are respected certifications and targeted at different streams of professional paths.

Is CISM Easier than CISSP?

Both CISM and CISSP are security certifications and can really kickstart your cybersecurity career. Since CISSP certification is focused towards working professionals who would be doing practical tasks, therefore, CISSP exam is more detailed.

On the other hand, CISM is tailored towards managers, therefore, its tilt is towards managing an information system environment. The expected knowledge is also from a managers’ perspective and not from 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 expected to be of a managerial level and more of a strategic nature.

For example, you will be learning about firewall management principles in general but in CISSP certification 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 certification is for technical implementer and CISM is for managers that will be responsible for improving governance and management of information assets.

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

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 cyber security certification the above differences should guide your path and help you in choosing between the two.

CISA vs CISM Salary

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 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. In comparison a CISA certified professional may have a salary in the range 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?

To start with no certification exam is the easiest if you try to ace it without preparation. 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 and will not only test your academic knowledge but also your practical understanding of the concepts in practical environment. But simultaneously, these cover very interesting content as well.

I will personally think that CISA exam is a little tougher than CISM because of the wider scope of exam. While CISM is entirely focused on information security, CISA is a lend of security and auditing. And we know that auditing itself is a technical profession. In fact, the questions related to auditing appear to be easier but are actually tough for someone that is not coming 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 review manuals from ISACA itself to dramatically increase your chances of success.

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