Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Developers just don’t go to security conferences

OWASP has just announced their 2010 US Appsec conference. It looks like an interesting opportunity to explore the state of the art in software security. Last year, some of the leaders of this conference were concerned about how few software developers showed up for the sessions. I expect the same will happen this year: the audience will be made up of a self-referencing group of security specialists and consultants, and a handful of developers and managers who are looking to understand more about software security. And that, I think, is as it should be.

Travel and education budgets are tight. Developers and managers need to choose carefully where to spend their company’s money and time – or their own. Where can they get the most information for their own work, where can they meet people who will help them solve problems or move their careers forward?

Security experts like Jeremiah Grossman are right: developers don’t understand security, they aren’t taking ownership for building secure software, it’s not important to them.

What’s important to software developers? Delivery: if we don’t deliver, we fail. Check out the major software development conferences, the events that attract senior developers, architects, development managers, test managers, project managers. They are all about delivery, how to deliver faster, better, cheaper: Agile methods, understanding Lean/Kanban principles applied to software development, leadership and collaboration and communication and effecting organizational change, managing distributed teams and global development, getting requirements right, getting design right, tracking whether the project is on target, metrics, continuous integration, continuous delivery, continuous deployment, TDD and BDD, refactoring and improving code quality, improving the user experience, newer and better development platforms and languages and tooling.

With the notable exception of the recent NFJS UberConf, there isn’t any serious coverage of secure software development, secure SDLCs, software security problems at software development conferences. The question shouldn’t be why there are so few developers attending a software security conference. The question should be why there is so little coverage of software security at software development conferences and in the other places where developers and managers get their information: in the development-focused books and blogs and seminars.

Building Bridges

I’ve posted before about my concern about the gap between the software development and software security communities. But there is a way forward. Around 10 years ago, the development and testing community were far apart in values and goals; testing was inefficient and was seen as “somebody else’s problem”. But Agile development made it important for developers to test early and often, made it important for developers to understand testing and code quality, to find better and more efficient ways to test. Testing is cool now – and more than that, it’s expected. Developers look to professional testers for help in improving their own testing, and to find bugs that they don’t understand how to find, through exploratory testing and integration testing and more advanced testing techniques. The development community is taking responsibility for testing their own work, for the quality of their work. And I believe that software development, and software, are both better for it.

But software security is still “somebody else’s problem”. This needs to change. The solution isn’t to try to entice developers to attend security conferences. It's not to force certification in secure development through SANS or ISC. It’s not passive attempts to “infect” development managers with vague ideas about being "Rugged" that are supposed to somehow change how developers build software. And holding software producers liable for their mistakes, while clearly showing the frustration of security specialists, and while making for a provocative sound bite, is not likely to happen either.

The solution is to make secure software development a problem for software developers, a problem that we need to solve ourselves. Engage leaders in the wider software development community: the people who spend their lives thinking about and writing about better ways to build better software; the people who help shape the values and priorities of the development community; the people who help developers and managers decide where to spend time and effort and money. And help them to understand the problems and how serious these problems are, convince them that they need to be involved, convince them that we need to include security in software development, and ask them to help convince the rest of us.

Engage people like Steve McConnell, and Martin Fowler, and Kent Beck, Uncle Bob Martin, Michael Feathers, the NFJS uber geeks, Joel Spolsky and Mike Atwood, Scrum advocates like Mike Cohn and Ken Schwaber, Lean evangelists like Tom and Mary Poppendieck, David Anderson on Kanban, agile project managers like Johanna Rothman, and leaders from the software testing community like James Bach and Jonathan Kohl. And ask them who else they think should be engaged because they’ll know better who can make a difference.

Invite them to come in and work with the best of the software security community, to understand the challenges and issues in building secure software, ask them to consider how to “Build Security In” to software development. And with their help, maybe we will see software security problems owned by the people responsible for building software, and those problems solved with the help and guidance of experts in the security community in a supportive and collaborative way. Otherwise I am afraid that we will continue to see the communities drift apart, the gap between our priorities growing ever wider. And software, and software development, will not be the better for it.
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