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'Make Your Bed' and Other Life Lessons for Security

Follow this advice from a famous military commanders' commencement speech and watch your infosec team soar.

In his 2014 commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin, Admiral William Harry McRaven stated:

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed. … If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. And by the end of the day, that one task completed, will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter. If you can't do the little things right, you'll never be able to do the big things right. And if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made, that you made. And a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.

The beginning of Admiral McRaven's speech teaches us an important lesson that we can apply to the world of information security. What do I mean by this? In our field, there are little things that we need to do day-in and day-out. We may not think of these tasks as particularly relevant or critical, and in fact, we may even dread doing them. Nonetheless, each of them is an important, fundamental, and essential part of a successful information security program.

What are some of these tasks? There are many of them, but here are the five fundamental information security tasks that I believe make great information security teams.

Task 1: Process
It may seem silly at times to follow a rigid process. It may be easier just to take care of or fix something when need be, rather than go through the formalities required by process. Nonetheless, following processes is important. Processes exist to ensure compliance with policy, to raise the quality and consistency of work, to reduce subjectivity, to lessen the likelihood of error, and to document and coordinate different work functions. While it may seem cumbersome at times, following processes improves a security organization's effectiveness.

Task 2: Documentation
To say that most security professionals don't enjoy documenting their work would be an understatement. Nevertheless, there is a strong need to document work, organizational knowledge, policies, processes, procedures, incidents, and other important details. This helps an organization with continuity when resources take time off, leave the organization, or transfer to other positions. Documentation also helps reduce the time required to perform work tasks — time often spent trying to understand what, exactly, needs to be done and how. Beyond that, documenting incidents and investigations well not only aids analysis, it also serves as an excellent resource when executives, customers, partners, auditors, or regulators come asking for evidence.

Task 3: Procedures
Properly following procedures is tough enough and writing them out in detail is even harder. Even so, it is worth your investment in time and money to have a reliable, thorough set of procedures that will ensures consistency across different work functions. Documented procedures also allow different team members to cross-train in different roles and job functions, and they provide back-up in instances where someone is ill, takes time off, transfers to another department, or leaves the company.

Task 4: Metrics
Every security organization knows that metrics are necessary to succeed, but few actually do the work to make them happen. When done properly, metrics allow us to objectively measure and monitor risk. When risk rises to an unacceptable level in one or more areas, it can be mitigated, and metrics can also be used to measure the effectiveness of that mitigation. High-quality metrics are one of the most effective tools we have in security to keep an eye on our secure posture.

Why, then, is it so difficult for so many organizations to effectively leverage them? Mainly because metrics require a tremendous amount of attention to detail. First, key risks must be enumerated and identified. Next, objective models must be developed to enable the assessment and measurement of risk. Acceptable ranges for those models must also be developed, along with procedures to handle instances where risk falls outside those acceptable ranges, followed by a process to regularly produce and report high-fidelity metrics. Lastly, these metrics must be continually adjusted and updated as the changing environment and threat landscape necessitate.

Task 5: Plan
To you, a security manager, it may be obvious what you need to do. You know what processes need improving, what technology needs repurposing or replacing, what staff needs retraining, or what program areas need a closer look. It's important to document these issues, along with why you need to do them and how you intend to do it. This, in turn, will help you measure and report progress and increased maturity. Planning also has the side benefit of making it easier for yourself and others to understand and recall the circumstances under which a decision was made, as well as to adjust course in a logical, rational way as necessary.

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