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Do Small Companies Need Fractional AppSec Teams Akin to Virtual CISOs?

Zatik takes a fractional approach to AppSec leadership to help small firms access the expertise they need to build secure-by-design software.

4 Min Read
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One of the fundamental principles of secure-by-design software development is that organizations need to account for security concerns right out of the gate. It's built into the way the applications are designed, architected, and coded. The trouble for small companies that build software is that it can be really hard for them to access and pay for the kind of application security expertise necessary to fold that kind of accountability into the engineering or DevOps process. And so small companies build and ship their software — oftentimes innovative applications upon which their whole business model is based — without much consideration for security.

By the time a startup has "grown up" and built its business big enough to feasibly hire some application security professionals, secure-by-design has already gone out the window. The software stack has already accumulated a ton of security technical debt. That new AppSec team is behind the eight ball before they even start. And without expensive refactoring, oftentimes all they can do is bolt on security controls or apply Band-Aids to security problems that may run very deep.

It's an age-old problem, and one that's simply not practical to get all preachy about to small business owners or small dev teams.

"Experienced application security people are in short supply, and they're getting hoovered up by the big companies, by the Microsofts, Amazons, Apples, and Googles of the world, and if you are a smaller company, you're just not competing on that playing field," explains Kymberlee Price, who has led product security and AppSec teams, worked as a security researcher, and run red team and incident response operations for the likes of Microsoft, Amazon, and Bugcrowd.

Price has been around the block enough to recognize that not only are best-in-class product security pros and security-aware developers still the "unicorns" of the software engineering market, but also that most small businesses aren't big enough to even have enough work to keep one of them busy for very long.

"They don't need a unicorn full time. They need a unicorn maybe for a quarter to set some strategy, and then they need 10% of a unicorn for the rest of the year," she says.

Sharing the Unicorns

This is the underlying problem Price hopes to alleviate with her new consulting firm, Zatik. Together with co-founder Jon Callas, another security luminary known for founding PGP and Silent Circle, Price hopes to level the software security playing field for startups and small businesses. Zatik is a fractional security consulting firm that helps companies tap into that small percentage of unicorn-level AppSec expertise that they need to get a security program up and running. It's built in the same mold as a virtual CISO (vCISOs), with a slightly different focus.

"We love virtual CISOs. But they're frequently enterprise-focused and compliance-focused. And we're more looking at, how do you build your product securely by design, the DevOps pipeline, CI/CD, security controls, and things like that," Price explains. "So it's a really nice complement to that fractional model."

For some companies, if they're early enough in their arc, they may need the full package of building out an entire cybersecurity program — something she and Callas are equipped to help them navigate.

"Our sweet spot really is securing the developer experience, but we can help them look at their tech stack, make some recommendations, and make some introductions to other partners," says Price.

She says that she and Callas currently run the company themselves, but they plan on adding more staff as Zatik scales and also leaning on a network of partners to provide additional expertise in areas as necessary for their clients.

"I mean, I can't help you secure your product if you have no employee access control," Price says. "So we wouldn't turn our nose up at other areas."

Ultimately, the goal is to help smaller companies develop that security-by-design ethos from the outset. Price sees that not only as a great business opportunity, but a way to move the needle on security across the tech world.

"One of the things I love about the kind of small companies we're talking to is we're getting in early in their maturity cycle," she says. "So as they're growing, they're growing with a secure-by-design platform where the engineers they're hiring and managing understand that this is 'just how we do it.' Of course we have branch protection, of course we do these things because it was there from day one, versus the security team showing up later and demanding that they have to change things."

About the Author(s)

Ericka Chickowski, Contributing Writer

Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.

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