Thursday, November 13, 2008

Construx SW Development Executive Summit

I have started working again with Construx Software, helping us improve our software engineering practices. I was of course familiar with Steve McConnell, Construx's CEO and his books on software engineering, and I had worked with Construx at a previous company on training and mentoring our development team and development managers.

Earlier this year I attended their 10x Software Engineering course, an excellent software development management course which focuses on understanding and implementing good practices in software development, how to improve quality and team productivity. We enlisted their help on a project assessment with a partner, and Construx is scheduled to come in later this year to teach a Developer Testing Bootcamp course to the development team.
In October I also attended Construx's Software Development Executive Summit: an intimate, intense and highly-focused series of roundtable sessions and high-quality keynotes with the heads of software development and software engineering at large and small companies across North America, Europe and Asia. Like other Construx offerings, the summit was pragmatic, selective, carefully organized and very professionally run. The keynote speakers included Martin Fowler of ThoughtWorks and Ken Schwaber, the creator of Scrum, as well as Construx's CEO Steve McConnell, author of Code Complete and Rapid Development, and Matt Peloquin of Construx; and interesting case studies presented by IT executives at MSNBC and RIM.

It was a unique forum: a chance to meet and share ideas in an open, constructive and respectful environment with serious people who all had extensive experience leading software development and who were all looking for ways to improve. There were so many different stories: companies who had great success (or disappointing failures) at outsourcing (onshore and offshore); companies who were successful delivering using small, agile, results-oriented collocated teams; other companies who followed highly structured, metrics-driven SDLCs and were equally successful. The development organizations ranged in size from a handful of developers to hundreds or thousands of engineers in multiple countries. The roundtable sessions provided me the opportunity to explore problems and share ideas with experienced development managers, product managers and project managers, and thinkers like Martin Fowler. The social engagements provided excellent networking opportunities and were generally good fun, and there was no pressure from vendors or sponsors.

What key ideas did I take back from the summit?

  1. The first key to success is talent. Get the best people you can. Treat them well and support them, give them what they need. Be careful when hiring, and spend time with new hires, help them to be successful. Keep teams together as long as you can: continuity and cohesion of a team pays dividends.
  2. There is no “one way to skin a cat”: software development poses different problems to different organizations, and there are different answers to these problems. What is important is to execute, and to constantly review and improve.
  3. If you want to show value to your customers, deliver value often, deliver what is important first. It’s all about incremental delivery.
  4. In globally distributed teams, follow-the-sun works for operations, but doesn’t for development. Co-locate teams whenever possible.
  5. Develop technical leadership within your organization. Create a path for talented and ambitious technical people who do not fit or do not want to pursue the management track. Follow the lead of IBM, Microsoft and Google and offer a “distinguished engineer” career path where senior technical people are given respect, latitude and a voice in product direction.
  6. Don’t expect to save costs through outsourcing. Outsource for flexibility, to flex your organization’s delivery capability; and to gain access to talent. To outsource successfully takes a lot of discipline and management attention and supporting costs.
  7. Constantly be aware of, and beware of, technical debt. Don’t bet on “throwing one away” when you build a system. Agile methods without discipline (comprehensive reviews or pair programming, developer testing, …) gets fast results at first, but builds up a lot of technical debt that has to be addressed eventually. If you start with disciplined, good practices from the beginning you won't dig yourself as deep a hole.

This is an event I look forward to attending again in the future and will defintely recommend to my colleagues.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Software Quality and Software Security

Recently I came across a series of posts by Fortify Software arguing that that “software quality is not software security”. This position doesn’t make sense to me: security, like reliability and performance and usability and maintainability and so on must be taken into account when building a system; and it is the software quality program that makes sure that this will all be done correctly. Most software is not secure because it is not built in a high-quality way: good software is secure, as well as reliable and scalable and fast and maintainable.

Gary McGraw of Cigital, one of the thought leaders in software security, describes how to integrate software security into SDLC. In the book Software Security: Building Security In he introduces a set of touchpoints: key areas in the SDLC where security must be considered in designing and building software. The touchpoints, listed in order of effectiveness, are:

  1. code reviews, including both manual code reviews and automatic checking with static analysis tools, looking for errors in API use, inadequate validation and error handling, proper logging and specific security-related bug-patterns
  2. risk analysis in architecture and design
  3. penetration testing
  4. risk-based security testing
  5. abuse case scenario planning
  6. security included in requirements
  7. secure operations
  8. and external, expert reviews including third party security walkthroughs of architecture, design and code.

In a Computerworld interview Gary McGraw goes on to say that

“Software security relates entirely and completely to quality. You must think about security, reliability, availability, dependability — at the beginning, in the design, architecture, test and coding phases, all through the software life cycle.”

Code reviews, static analysis, risk analysis in architecture and design, risk-based testing, … all of these are necessary in building high-quality software. What is required in addition is building the team’s knowledge of software security: most programmers don’t learn much if anything about software security in school, and need to be taught about the problems and best practices and tools needed to build secure software systems, just as they need to be taught about developer testing, or high availability systems design, handling concurrency issues in massively parallel systems, and the other complex problems that need to be solved in real systems. Secure software requires:

1. Security awareness training and technical training from companies like the SANS Institute, Foundstone and Cigital. First to understand that IT security is not just about hardening infrastructure and secure operations, that a secure system requires building software in a secure way in the first place. Then training in threat modeling and defensive programming to understand the technical problems, the risks, exploits, attack patterns and common vulnerabilities such as the OWASP Top 10, and best practices, tools and other resources available to build secure software.

2. Developing and sustaining “an attack-based” approach to designing and building systems - making sure not only to check that software meets the specifications, but also checking to ensure that “bad things don’t happen”. Architectural risk analysis, abuse cases, exploratory testing, stress testing, war games, fuzzing, gorilla testing and other types of destructive testing all need to be done: not just to ensure security but also the reliability and overall quality of the system. In other words, a negative, attack-based posture should already be followed in testing and reviews, not just for security.

From Gary McGraw again in a recent podcast "How to Start a Secure Software Development Program":

"I guess the biggest difference is thinking about an attacker and pondering the attacker’s perspective while you’re building something”

To build this perspective takes management focus, time, training, mentoring on what to look for in design and code reviews; and continual reinforcement.

Evangelism on the part of software security experts and highly public IT security failures have been effective in raising awareness of the important of software security: that software needs to be designed and coded and tested with security in mind. Software security, making sure that security is considered in every step, is another important part of building good software - it's another part of the job, handled the same as reliability and performance and other hard problems in building big, real systems.

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