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Make Developers the Driver of Software Security Excellence

Those who are wrangling code every day could fuel a genuinely transformational approach to security — if they are adequately upskilled.

Matias Madou

January 30, 2023

4 Min Read
An older white woman and Black man learn and discuss the use of technology in a retraining course in the classroom.
Source: Milan Ilic via Alamy Stock Photo

As businesses navigate the ebb and flow of growth, innovation, and digital transformation, it's only natural that some areas remain in a holding pattern. This often happens to an organization's cybersecurity program, especially as security leaders fight to stay one step ahead of new threats, vulnerabilities, and technological developments that increase risk exposure.

Unfortunately, many businesses are falling behind in their cybersecurity strategies and existing infrastructure. The power of skilled people is often missed in a functioning defensive program. It's time we assess the viable quick wins that are right in front of us and use the human resources we already have in-house.

Sustainable Cybersecurity Is a Process

It is easy for the public to assume that every business has a robust cybersecurity program and that protection is just a matter of selecting the right software and activating it like a force field to stop threat actors in their tracks. With 2022 being one of the worst years on record for cyber incidents — including the entire Costa Rican government being held for ransom — many security professionals can only wish it were that simple.

While many industries — especially in the financial sector — are compliance-driven and bound by increasingly complex regulatory frameworks that demand strict security measures, the reality is that most organizations are lacking in cyber resilience. More than half of large companies worldwide are not effective in stopping cyberattacks, nor are they finding and fixing exploited vulnerabilities quickly.

Even organizations considered advanced — with a defined, mature program encompassing a best practice triple threat of people, processes, and technologies — can struggle to keep up with the fast-paced demands of the threat landscape. One critical area in which many companies fall short is role-based security awareness, especially for the development team. While every person in an organization must understand the role they play in reducing the attack surface, those who are wrangling code day in, day out could be in the driver's seat of a genuinely transformational approach to security ... if only they were adequately upskilled.

A holistic, defensive security program demands continuous improvement, and it requires careful attention to laying solid foundations. If those foundations are predominantly tools-based, chances are good that maturity levels are lower than security leaders are banking on. A study by the Ponemon Institute revealed that 53% of enterprises were not confident that their security tech stack could effectively stop breaches. With human error a leading cause of successful cyberattacks on companies great and small, leaving developers out of a strategic security uplift is playing with fire.

Developers Drive Software Security Excellence

The uncomfortable truth surrounding cyberattacks is that, in almost every instance, attackers are at a distinct advantage over their target enterprises, no matter where they are in their security maturity journeys. Attackers have the time, tools, and motivation to meticulously scan for any weakness to exploit, dedicating themselves to breaking through and reaching pay dirt.

Organizations, on the other hand, are juggling business and customer needs, and while they can't afford the immense risk of a show stopping cyberattack, it is not practical for business operations to slow to a crawl in order to accommodate an abundance of security controls that may end up obstructing performance. This is where security-skilled developers represent an X factor in cyber defense outcomes.

Traditionally, developers have not been enabled to share the responsibility for security in a meaningful way. This can and must change. Organizations can create viable upskilling pathways for the development cohort, but they need to select education options that deliver relevant course material in ways that make sense in their world. At a minimum, information should be conveyed in the languages and frameworks developers actively use. It should also address the vulnerabilities they are most likely to encounter in their codebases.

When courses are structured with the developer's workflow in mind, there is a far greater likelihood that the poor coding patterns that perpetuate common vulnerabilities and misconfigurations can be replaced with good, safe patterns that significantly increase software quality over time. Low-quality software has cost the United States $2.41 trillion this year alone, and this can only be remedied by breaking the cycle of errors that sustain risky technical debt.

It takes an organization-wide commitment to create a more positive, holistic security program — one that harnesses the people power required to make a difference in people-driven issues. And if staying out of tomorrow's headlines is essential, it's certainly worth the effort.

About the Author(s)

Matias Madou

Co-Founder & CTO, Secure Code Warrior

Matias Madou is a researcher and developer with more than 15 years of hands-on software security experience. He has developed solutions for companies such as Fortify Software and his own company, Sensei Security. Over his career, Matias has led multiple application security research projects which have led to commercial products and boasts over 10 patents under his belt. When he is away from his desk, Matias has served as an instructor for advanced application security training courses and regularly speaks at global conferences, including RSA Conference, Black Hat, DEF CON, BSIMM, OWASP AppSec, and BruCon.

Matias holds a Ph.D. in Computer Engineering from Ghent University, where he studied application security through program obfuscation to hide the inner workings of an application.

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