Getting Ahead of the Security Poverty Line 7: Increasing Security Value over Time

Andy Ellis elaborates here on the methods to prioritize security tasks within organizations and thus maintain high security value in the long-term perspective.

As security professionals, we have a lot on our plates, we have a lot of things to do. How many people here juggle? If you try to learn to juggle, you start with one ball. You take one ball and you throw it from one hand to the other hand. And you do that for a while, until you can learn to throw the ball from one hand to another hand. And then you take two balls: put one ball in each hand, and you throw one ball, and before the other ball gets here, you’ve got to throw it across and catch it. And you do this for a while until you learn what that’s like. And then you’ll take three balls; two in one hand, one in the other; throw one ball, get this ball out of the way, get this ball out of the way, get this ball out of the way…Juggling three balls is pretty easy, almost anybody can do it.

Which one is ultimately easier: juggling 5 or 17 balls?

Which one is ultimately easier: juggling 5 or 17 balls?

So, if I give you three things to do, you’re going to be able to juggle those three things. Those three things could be any tasks that you have at hand.

Now, what if I give you five balls to juggle? How easy is that? Is it easier or harder than if I give you seventeen? Which one are you going to be more successful at? The answer that probably jumps into everybody’s head is five, and nobody wants to say it because they know it’s a trick question, because that’s wrong – the answer is seventeen. Because if I give you five things to juggle, you’re now below the security poverty line and you think you can do it, so you will try, and you will fail.

If I give you seventeen, if you’re smart you put fourteen of them down. And now you’re juggling three balls. You failed at fourteen, but you succeeded at three, which is better than you would have gotten with five. And that’s an important lesson: how do we figure out what are the things that we’re going to fail at anyway? Put them off to the future. It’s a very hard thing; our brains don’t want to deal with that, because we know what that risk is.

But if you’re just going to fail, fix something now. Fix something that will give you scalability into the future. 10 years ago I had to do this. Akamai got caught by the dot-com bubble; we laid off 29% of our employees in one day. And that was only one of our reefs; we went through several of them, it was very ugly. We were a 1200 person company; by the time we came out of the bubble we were 500.

I lost half of my security team; in fact, that was the first management thing I got to do. I got put in charge of our security team, there were five of us as peers, I got put in charge of it, and the first thing I got told to do is let two of them go. How do you even make a good decision like that? And then what do you do?

You want to provide more value tomorrow than you’re providing today.

So, we went through this period that we called the ‘lifeboat exercise’. The boat sank, now we’re on a lifeboat, and we’re trying to bail water as fast as we can. We’re taking a lot of risk, and we knew it, because we were losing money quarter after quarter, and there was a very good chance we didn’t have a business at the other end of it. So, what could we do? This is what we did: we dropped the balls intentionally. We said: “This problem is for the future.”

We implemented our own GRC system; I always laugh when people come and try to sell me GRC, because I built it myself. It’s simple: GRC is a spreadsheet. Take a spreadsheet and write down everything you’re casting forward to the future so that you don’t forget it and so that in the future you can go look at that and say: “What are the problems that I have to deal with?”

Measuring security value

Measuring security value

So, coming back to how to measure security value – the values about resources, times, capabilities – the goal of any security program should be to increase your value over time. If you are not doing that, you’re doing something wrong. You want to provide more value tomorrow than you’re providing today.

However, if you’re below the security poverty line, you probably only think about value in terms of resources: how do I get more time, how do I get more money? This is not a good goal, because if your capabilities are low, people aren’t going to give you more time or more money. In fact, if they view you as an operational entity, by definition you get fewer resources over time. Operational groups are supposed to get more efficient; therefore they need less resources. That’s in everybody’s heads.

Create technical surplus in order to maintain due security value

Create technical surplus in order to maintain due security value

If you want to run a good security program, your goal is to create technical surplus: increase your capabilities year after year so that you’re doing more with your resources; figure out how next year with the same amount of resources you will provide more value. I’m not saying: do more with less; even if it sounds like that. I’m actually saying: make yourself more. Make each person smarter year after year. Make each person better able to do their tasks. If your tasks are not effective, stop doing them, go do something else. Do things that provide value to your business; the money will follow.

So, I talked about how a year ago I had eleven people, and we gave five of them to the CIO organization. I’m assuming everybody can do math; that leaves me with six people, right? I have seventeen now, because the organization said: “Well, you’re much more effective, your capabilities are great, here’s more problems for you to go deal with, here are some people to deal with those problems.”

The problems they tended to give came in chunks that you needed three people to solve, and they gave me two people. The organization will never give you enough people to solve your problem; what they were relying on was our proven ability to make those people more effective, to give them better capabilities. They were right, we’re still very busy, I’d love to have more people. But what we focused on is not getting more people, it’s being more capable.

Read previous: Getting Ahead of the Security Poverty Line 6: Third-Party Security Reviews

Read next: Getting Ahead of the Security Poverty Line 8: Questions and Answers

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