Rock Beats Scissors, and People Beat Process

By Adrian Lane

My mentors in engineering management used to define their job as managing people, process, and technology. Those three realms, and how they interact, are a handy way to conceptualize organizational management responsibilities. We use process to frame how we want people to behave – trying to promote productivity, foster inter-group cooperation, and minimize mistakes. The people are the important part of the equation, and the process is there to help make them better as a group. How you set up process directly impacts productivity, arranges priority, and creates or reduces friction. Subtle adjustments to process are needed to account for individuals, group dynamics, and project specifics.

I got to thinking about this when reading Microsoft’s Simple Implementation of SDL. I commented on some of the things I liked about the process, specifically the beginning steps of (paraphrased):

  1. Educate your team on the ground rules.
  2. Figure out what you are trying to secure.
  3. Commit to gate insecure code.
  4. Figure out what’s busted.

Sounds simple, and conceptually it is, but in practice this is really hard. The technical analysis of the code is difficult, but implementing the process is a serious challenge. Getting people to change their behavior is hard enough, but with diverging company goals in the mix, it’s nearly impossible. Adding the SDL elements to your development cycle is going to cause some growing pains and probably take years. Even if you agree with all the elements, there are several practical considerations that must be addressed before you adopt the SDL – so you need more than the development team to embrace it.

The Definition of Insanity

I heard Marcus Ranum give a keynote last year at Source Boston on the Anatomy of The Security Disaster, and one of his basic points was that merely identifying a bad idea rarely adjusts behavior, and when it does it’s generally only because failure is imminent. When initial failure conditions are noticed, as much effort is spent on finger-pointing and “Slaughter of the Innocents” as on learning and adjusting from mistakes. With fundamental process re-engineering, even with a simplified SDL, progress is impossible without wider buy-in and a coordinated effort to adapt the SDL to local circumstances.To hammer this point home, let’s steal a page from Mike Rothman’s pragmatic series, and imagine a quick conversation:

CEO to shareholders: “Subsequent to the web site breach we are reacting with any and all efforts to ensure the safety of our customers and continue trouble-free 24x7 operation. We are committed to security … we have hired one of the great young minds in computer security: a talented individual who knows all about web applications and exploits. He’s really good and makes a fine addition to the team! We hired him shortly after he hacked our site.”

Project Manager to programmers: “OK guys, let’s all pull together. The clean-up required after the web site hack has set us back a bit, but I know that if we all focus on the job at hand we can get back on track. The site’s back up and most of you have access to source code control again, and our new security expert is on board! We freeze code two weeks from now, so let’s focus on the goal and …

Did you see that? The team was screwed before they started. Management’s covered as someone is now responsible for security. And project management and engineering leadership must get back on track, so they begin doing exactly what they did before, but will push for project completion harder than ever. Process adjustments? Education? Testing? Nope. The existing software process is an unending cycle. That unsecured merry-go-round is not going to stop so you can fix it before moving on. As we like to say in software development: we are swapping engines on a running car. Success is optional (and miraculous, when it happens).

Break the Process to Fix It

The Simplified SDL is great, provided you can actually follow the steps. While I have not employed this particular secure development process yet, I have created similar ones in the past. As a practical matter, to make changes of this scope, I have always had to do one of three things:

  1. Recreate the code from scratch under the new process. Old process habits die hard, and the code evaluation sometimes makes it clear a that a retrofit would require more work than a complete rewrite. This makes other executives very nervous, but has been the most efficient path from practical experience. You may not have this option.
  2. Branch off the code, with the sub-branch in maintenance while the primary branch lives on under the new process. I halted new feature development until the team had a chance to complete the first review and education steps. Much more work and more programming time (meaning more programmers committed), but better continuity of product availability, and less executive angst.
  3. Moved responsibility of the code to an entirely new team trained on security and adhering to the new process. There is a learning curve for engineers to become familiar with the old code, but weaknesses found during review tend to be glaring, and no one’s ego get hurts when you rip the expletive out of it. Also, the new engineers have no investment in the old code, so can be more objective about it.

If you don’t break out of the old process and behaviors, you will generally end up with a mixed bag of … stuff.

Skills Section

As in the first post, I assume the goal of the simplified version of the process is to make this effort more accessible and understandable for programmers. Unfortunately, it’s much tougher than that. As an example, when you interview engineering candidates and discuss their roles, their skill level is immediately obvious. The more seasoned and advanced engineers and managers talk about big picture design and architecture, they talk about tools and process, and they discuss the tradeoffs of their choices. Most newbies are not even aware of process. Here is Adrian’s handy programmer evolution chart to show what I mean:

Many programmers take years to evolve to the point where they can comprehend a secure software development lifecycle, because it is several years into their career before they even have a grasp of what a software development lifecycle really means. Sure, they will learn tactics, but it just takes a while to put all the pieces together. A security process that is either embedded or wrapped around and existing development process is additional complexity that takes more time to grasp and be comfortable with. For the first couple years, programmers are trying to learn the languages and tools they need to do their jobs. Having a grasp of the language and programming style comes with experience. Understanding other aspects of code development such as design, architecture, assurance and process takes more time.

One of a well-thought-out aspects of the SDL is appointing knowledgeable people to champion the efforts, which gets around some of the skills barrier and helps compensate for turnover. Still, getting the team educated and up to speed will take time and money.

A Tree without Water

Every CEO I have ever spoken with is all for security! Unquestioningly, they will claim they are constantly improving security. The real question is whether they will fund it. As with all engineering projects where it is politically incorrect to say ‘no’, security improvement is most often killed through inaction. If your firm will not send programming team members for education, any security process fails. If your firm will not commit the time and expense to change the development process, by including additional security testing tasks, security processes fail. If your firm will not purchase fuzzing tools or take the time for proper code review, the entire security effort will wither and die. The tendrils of the development process, and any security augmentation efforts, must extend far beyond the development organization itself.

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Adrian & Mike, 
Awesome post.  It got me thinking (Danger Will Robinson):

(1) You’re really talking Spafford

By Ron W

Great post Adrian. Though I think the requirement for senior management to “fund it” is a little limiting. In that final paragraph what you are really talking about is SUPPORT, and not just with money. They need to be willing to accept the ramifications of a security process and that means sometimes software will slip. Sometimes it’ll need to be rebuilt. It’s easy to send developers to class and to pay lip service to the security process. Much harder to keep a big customer waiting because the software doesn’t measure up from a security standpoint.

Which I suspect is what you were saying in the closing statement.

By Mike Rothman

Bravo! People ARE the X-factor is this never-ending game of cats and mice. From a process perspective, I believe focusing on the human element yields the biggest impact. It is, after all, only after a system is put into use that problems begin to arise. The only safe, secure and compliant network is one that isn’t turned on and in-use. All the others do require regular monitoring and effort. But hey, that is what pays the bills.

By smithwill

Dre - Thanks! Since I have Friday Summary duties, I see a “comment of the week”!


By Adrian Lane

This is the best blog post of 2010.

By Andre Gironda

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