Ries on Gatekeepers

Eric Ries wrote the excellent book Lean Startup. In a recent interview with Firstround, he talks about how to integrate gatekeeping functions into a lean business.

There is a tremendous amount of wisdom in there, and almost all of it applies to security. The core is that the gatekeeper has compassion for the work and ambiguity of engineering, and that compassion comes from being embedded into the work.

Engineering involves starting with problem statements that are incomplete or inaccurate, and dialog about those problems leading to refinement of the understanding of both the problem and the solution. It’s hard to do that from a remote place in the organization.

This is an argument for what Ries calls embedding, which is appropriate for some gatekeeping functions. What’s more important for security is “a seat at the table.” They’re importantly different. Embedding is a matter of availability when a problem comes up where we need the voice of legal or finance. A seat at the table is that the person is invited to the meetings where the problems and solutions are being refined. That happens naturally when the person invited is a productive contributor. Many functions, from program management to test to usability have won a seat at the table, and sometimes lost it as well.

The first hurdle to a seat at the table, and the only one which is non-negotiable, is productive engagement. “We get more done because we invite Alice to our meetings.” That more might be shipping faster, it might be less rework, it might be higher quality. It is always things which matter to the organization.

The more productive the engagement, the more willing people will be to overlook soft skills issues. The famed BOFH doesn’t get a seat at the table, because as much as IT might want one, he’s abusive. Similarly, security people will often show up and say things like “one breach could sink the company,” or “your design is crap.” Hyperbole, insults, anger, all of the crassly negative emotions will cost not just Angry Bob but the whole security team their seat. These are behaviors that get drawn to the attention of management or even HR. They limit careers, and they also make it hard to give feedback. Who wants to get insulted when you’re trying to help someone? They limit teams. Who wants to work with people like that?

There are other, less crass behaviors with similar effect: not listening, not delivering on time, not taking on work that needs taking on. These soft skills will not get you to the table, but they’ll ease the journey, and most importantly, get you the feedback you may need to get there. But if you are in a gatekeeper role today, or if your security team aspires to rise to the point where you have a rope you can pull to stop the production line, the new article on gatekeepers by Mr. Ries is well worth your time.

One of the aspects of the post that’s worthwhile is providing crisp guidance, which reminds me of what Izar Tarandach talked about at Appsec 2018. (My notes, the video.)


Photo by Aryok Mateus.

One thought on “Ries on Gatekeepers”

  1. Excellent thoughts, Adam. Security at its best serves the business rather than inhibiting it, and “we’re all screwed is rarely a rallying cry.”

Comments are closed.