Regulatory Reality

Jan 15 2010   6:05AM GMT

The best part of audit (yes, I mean audit)

David Schneier David Schneier Profile: David Schneier

A recent jobs survey released last week indicated that less than 50% of the work force is satisfied with their job. Me, I’m a lucky guy as I genuinely like what I do for a living. It’s funny in a way because over the first decade or so of my career, I held people like me in very low regard; I just didn’t much care for or respect auditors.

One of the key considerations in sorting through the irony that’s my place in this world is that I’m nothing like the auditors I used to deal with in my application development days on Wall Street. What I audit, how I examine related controls and activities and review supporting evidence is heavily biased by my first-hand knowledge of the IT infrastructure. I understand technology and how it’s used, and so when I’m conducting fieldwork, I’m able to see things from a blended perspective. Most of the auditors I dealt with understood audit way better than they understood technology and so they’d ask question after question, not really knowing if the answers made sense, only if they matched expected results. For me, if the answer doesn’t make sense or is the wrong one, I immediately switch gears and seek out compensating controls because they’re often there if you know where to look.

Audit is heavy on my mind this week because I’m in the process of wrapping up a report for a client about the exit meeting. It’s interesting how the names and faces change from engagement to engagement but the script rarely varies. You’d think it would get old or boring but curiously it never does. The client never likes to see anything negative in print and it usually sets off a flurry of activity from report issuance to the first review meeting. There are almost always a series of requests to move things around, change the way things are worded and occasionally to reevaluate ratings. And I can’t recall a single audit where additional evidence wasn’t submitted for review after the initial draft was distributed to offset findings – artifacts that often have that “new car” sort of smell. But that’s actually a good thing and I’ll explain why.

An auditor’s job is to find control gaps and weaknesses. I’ve often compared what we do to fishing: You cast your line, see what you can catch, and keep at it until you either fill up your basket or have exhausted all available time and resources. Sometimes the bounty is rich and sometimes not so much. But there are always things to catch (I’ve never been shut out yet) even in the very best managed IT shops. The payout for the auditor is to identify legitimate issues that resonate with client. You want for those who own the controls to understand what the issues are and take swift action to remediate. I know some auditors take offense to after-the-fact evidence being provided because they perceive it as if though it’s implied that they missed something. Not me. When the client comes back quickly with viable solutions to make the findings go away, I consider that a bonus even if they didn’t exist a week earlier. That means that real risk is being further mitigated and managed and that’s the only reason to ever conduct an audit, in my opinion.

The client I’m working with, as it turns out, has fast become a favorite of mine. They’ve made great strides over the past year or so in enhancing their security posture and have gone a very long way towards putting in place effective controls to protect themselves, which ultimately results in their better protecting their customers. They take this sort of thing very seriously and as such, they have earned my respect. So when they come back to me with newly available information to offset findings in the draft report I’m happy to factor that into my findings. I did my job, they did theirs and in the end, the world is a little more secure.

So I guess I’m a minority on a couple of fronts: I’m more than satisfied with my job and I’m an IT auditor who genuinely understands the technology infrastructure. So much for there being strength in numbers.

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