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How to Create a Culture of Kick-Ass DevSecOps Engineers

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Much like technology itself, the tools, techniques, and optimum processes for developing code evolve quickly. We humans have an insatiable need for more software, more features, more functionality… and we want it faster than ever before, more qualitative, and on top of that: Secure.

With an estimated 68% of organizations experiencing zero-day attacks from undisclosed/unknown vulnerabilities in 2019, this is an upward trend that we need to address as an industry by shipping secure code at a reasonable speed.

While many people and organizations are moving on from Waterfall to Agile — and not everybody is there yet, let’s be real — they are already encountering a new problem.

Development teams and their operations counterparts are still working in silos, and this is still causing headaches for development managers and their counterparts across the business. In this environment, how can small teams working in an Agile way deliver on that promise of faster deployment, and faster delivery?

The (former, and we’ll get to that in a minute) top-ranking development buzzword/methodology, DevOps, was created to merge the functions of both developers and operational teams when creating new software. Essentially, this was to help developers take ownership of putting things into production, instead of throwing it over the fence to the operations team and making it their responsibility.

They can undoubtedly ship faster — even a couple of times per day — which seems to play in the alley of Agile. However, DevOps still creates one big, mixed team of engineers and operations personnel, which may not be Agile-aligned in reality. Ultimately, we’ve worked out at this point that DevOps is more of an evolution of Agile, similar in many ways, and complementary in their difference.

The automated, continuous integration and deployment pipeline that is apparent in a functioning DevOps environment is essential to enable frequent releases, but not as sufficient at the team level – and this is where Agile steps in.

DevSecOps Engineers

Agile allows teams, especially small teams, to keep pace with these rapid releases and changing requirements, while staying on-task and collaborative. It certainly seems ideal — and the process can keep teams on track with the end goal — but it is not without its own issues.

Software created using DevOps best practice still has the potential to stumble at the first boss fight: the security team. When the code is examined by traditional/Waterfall AppSec specialists, either with tooling or complex manual review, they often find unacceptable risks and vulnerabilities which must then be fixed after the fact.

The process of retrofitting security fixes into completed apps is irksome for development managers and their already-stretched teams and is neither quick nor easy. Economically, it’s also far more expensive for the organization.

So, then, if the world is moving on past Waterfall, Agile, and now DevOps, what is the solution? And if you’re managing a team of developers (or are one yourself), what is your role in keeping pace with these changes in approach?

Development techniques are in a constant state of evolution, but thankfully, this one isn’t such a huge change. Organizations just need to put the “Sec” in “DevOps”… and so, DevSecOps was born. A primary goal of DevSecOps is to break down barriers and open collaboration between development, operations, and, last but not least, security teams.

DevSecOps has become both a software engineering tactic and a culture that advocates security automation and monitoring throughout the software development lifecycle.

This might seem like yet another organization-level process, perhaps one with “too many cooks” when it comes to a developer with a long list of features to build. However, the DevSecOps methodology opens up an opportunity for security-aware developers to really shine.

DevSecOps: A bright future for savvy developers

Why would a coder — and indeed their managers — want to get up to speed with DevSecOps?

First off, it’s good to know that it’s a brilliant move, and not just in the quest to make the world safe from costly cyberattacks. Experts say that the demand for talented cybersecurity personnel is skyrocketing with no end in sight. Those who master DevSecOps can expect a long and profitable career.

Job security for DevSecOps engineers is even more assured, because unlike traditional cybersecurity tactics like vulnerability scanning with an array of software-based tools, DevSecOps requires people who know how to implement security as they code.

As Booz, Allen, and Hamilton’s analysts noted in their blog entitled 5 Myths of Adopting DevSecOps, organizations want (and need) DevSecOps, but simply can’t buy it. They require cross-functional teams integrating technologies and collaborating during the whole software development lifecycle, and that requires skilled people, change management, and an ongoing commitment from multiple stakeholders.

DevSecOps Engineers

According to Booz, Allen, and Hamilton, companies can purchase apps and tools to help with certain aspects of DevSecOps, like release management software, “but it’s really your delivery teams that make it happen.” They are the ones driving the continual improvement offered by DevSecOps and its cultural and paradigm shift.

Organizations cannot “buy” a viable DevSecOps program; it must be built and maintained, using a range of tools, in-house knowledge, and guidance that uplifts the security culture, while also making business sense. It’s not easy, but it’s far from impossible.

How you can kick ass in the DevSecOps movement

One of the first steps on the path to becoming — or supporting the upskilling — of a DevSecOps engineer is realizing that it’s as much a culture as a set of techniques. It requires the will to implement security as part of every bit of code that you create, and the desire to proactively protect your organization by actively looking for security flaws and vulnerabilities as you code, fixing them long before they make it into production. Most DevSecOps engineers take their profession and skillset very seriously. The DevSecOps professional organization even has a manifesto stating their beliefs.

The manifesto is kind of heavy-handed, as manifestos are rarely light reading. But at the core are a few truths that all great DevSecOps engineers should learn to embrace, like:

  • Realize that the application security team is your ally. At most organizations, the AppSec specialists are at odds with developers, since they are always sending completed code back for more work. AppSec teams don’t often have much love even for developers since they can delay completed code from getting into production by introducing common security bugs. However, a smart DevSecOps engineer will realize that the security teams’ goals are ultimately the same as the developers and coders. You don’t have to be best friends, but forming a calm and collaborative work relationship is vital to success.
  • Practice and refine your secure coding techniques. If you can find ways that apps are vulnerable while they are still being built, closing those loopholes can stop future hackers. Of course, this requires both an understanding of vulnerabilities and the tools to help fix them. For developers brand new to security — even the OWASP Top 10 — the Secure Code Warrior blog pages can give insight into the most common and dangerous vulnerabilities you will encounter, as well as practical advice and challenges to test your knowledge. The most important aspect is keeping security front-of-mind, and making time for bite-sized training that helps you build on existing knowledge. It’s common for a developer’s interactions with security to be fairly unremarkable—even negative—but upskilling in security is a great career move. Also, it doesn’t have to be a chore, especially with a support network offering training, and the time to actually do it within working hours.
  • Remember: DevSecOps superstars contribute to a positive security culture at their organization. Instead of focusing on the goals of the past, like delivering apps quickly regardless of their inherent problems, it’s important to make finding and fixing vulnerabilities in developing code a top priority. Security must be seen as everyone’s job, and everyone should share in the adulation and rewards that come from deploying effective and highly secure applications each and every time.

You can help cultivate an incredible security culture at your organization by championing secure coding and security best practices from the ground up, recommending training solutions, and ensuring no coder is left behind in the all-hands-on-deck, fast-paced world of DevSecOps.

The only good code is secure and skilled, security-aware developers are vital pieces of the puzzle. The personal and professional rewards are certainly worth the effort, and with billions of personal data records compromised every year (and growing), we need you. Take your spot on the front lines and help defend against the bad guys in our digital world.

Interested in taking your first steps to a more secure future? Secure Code Warrior have lots of free resources, I would recommend starting here: “The Five-Point Tactical Guide For Secure Developers” Whitepaper.

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