Jim Bird

About Jim Bird

Jim is an experienced CTO, software development manager and project manager, who has worked on high-performance, high-reliability mission-critical systems for many years, as well as building software development tools. His current interests include scaling Lean and Agile software development methodologies, software security and software assurance.

Building security into a development team

Getting application developers to understand and take responsibility for software security is difficult. Bootstrapping an Appsec program requires that you get the team up to speed quickly on security risks and what problems they need to look for, how to find and fix and prevent these problems, what tools to use, and convince them that they need to take security seriously. One way to do this is to train everyone on the development team on software security.
But at RSA 2011, Caleb Sima’s presentation Don’t Teach Developers Security challenged the idea that training application developers on software security will make a meaningful difference. He points out (rightly) that you can’t teach most developers anything useful about secure software development in a few hours (which as much Appsec training as most developers will get anyways). At best training like this is a long-term investment that will only pay off with reinforcement and experience – the first step on a long road.
Most developers (he suggests as many as 90 out of 100) won’t take a strong interest in software security regardless. They are there to build stuff, that’s what they get paid for, that’s what they care about and that’s what they do best. Customers love them and managers (like me) love them too because they deliver, and that’s what we want them spending their time doing. We don’t want or need them to become AppSec experts. Only a few senior, experienced developers will “get” software security and understand or care about all of the details, and in most cases this is enough. The rest of the team can focus on writing good defensive code and using the right frameworks and libraries properly.
Caleb Sima recommends starting an Appsec program by working with QA. Get an application security assessment: a pen test or a scan to identify security vulnerabilities in the app. Identify the top 2 security issues found. Then train the test team on these issues, what they look like, how to test for them, what tools to use. It’s not practical to expect a software tester to become a pen testing expert, but they can definitely learn how to effectively test for specific security issues. When they find security problems they enter them as bugs like any other bug, and then it’s up to development to fix the bugs.
Get some wins this way first. Then extend security into the development team. Assign one person as a security controller for each application: a senior developer who understands the code and who has the technical skills and experience to take on security problems. Give them extra Appsec training and the chance to play a leadership role. It’s their job to assess technical risks for security issues. They decide on what tools the team will use to test for security problems, recommend libraries and frameworks for the team to use, and help the rest of the team to write secure code.
What worked for us
Looking back on what worked for our Appsec program, we learned similar lessons and took some of the same steps.
While we were still in startup, I asked one of our senior developers to run an internal security assessment and make sure that our app was built in a secure way. I gave him extra time to learn about secure development and Appsec, and gave him a chance to take on a leadership role for the team. When we brought expert consultants in to do additional assessments (a secure design review and code review and pen testing) he took the lead on working with them and made sure that he understood what they were doing and what they found and what we needed to do about it. He selected a static analysis tool and got people to use it. He ensured that our framework code was secure and used properly, and he reviewed the rest of the team’s code for security and reliability problems. Security wasn’t his entire job, but it was an important part of what he did. When he eventually left the team, another senior developer took on this role.
Most development teams have at least 1 developer who the rest of the team respects and looks to for help on how to use the language and platform correctly. Someone who cares about how to write good code and who is willing to help others with tough coding problems and troubleshooting. Who handles the heavy lifting on frameworks or performance engineering work. This is the developer that you need to take on your core security work. Someone who likes to learn about technical stuff and who picks new things up quickly, who understands and likes hard technical stuff (like crypto and session management), who makes sure that things get done right.
Without knowing it we ended up following a model similar to Adobe’s “security ninja” program, although on a micro-scale. Most developers on the team are white belts or yellow belts with some training in secure software development and defensive programming. Our security lead is the black belt, with deeper technical experience and extra training and responsibility for leading software security for the application. Although we depended on external consultants for the initial assessments and to help us lay out a secure development roadmap, we have been able to take responsibility for secure development into the development team. Security is a part of what they do and how they design and build software today.
This model works and it scales. If as a manager you look at security as an important and fundamental technical problem that needs to be solved (rather than a pain-in-the-ass that needs to be gotten over), then you will find that your senior technical people will take it seriously. And if your best technical people take security seriously, then the rest of the team will too.
Related Whitepaper:

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