Security champions versus coaches: Why every development team needs both

  • Sponsor content by Matias Madou, co-founder of Secure Code Warrior

THE words “champion” and “coach” are finding increasing relevance outside of the sporting realm, and they carry a powerful presence in most contexts. There are life coaches, wellness coaches, empathy coaches, and “champions” who are being crowned in many organisations, titles like “safety champion” or “vibe champion” are becoming more mainstream and integrated into the spirit and culture of the business. When the going gets tough, who wouldn’t want a coach or a champion in their corner?

Institutions within the cyber security industry have a long history of utilising champions in the pursuit of spreading the good word about security at the development level, and upholding higher standards of software security. BSIMM calls them the Satellite group, while OpenSAMM and Axway are among the pioneering groups supporting security champions as a concept and formalised program. These initiatives intersect with and support one of the main objectives of the DevSecOps movement, which is a commitment to share responsibility for security across teams and functions, from the very beginning of the software development process.

Many companies who are kicking goals in their cyber security approach have implemented an official security champion program, bestowing key security responsibilities - everything from liaising between teams and general cheerleading, to overseeing best practices - on to individuals who show aptitude and passion for such a role.

However, it has been rather evident that the role of the “security champion” is changing, and a forward-thinking company can reach new heights of scalable security best practices with an expanded team, with key enthusiasts supporting different, yet equally important functions.

We’re redefining and duplicating the security champion to really make an impact in a future-proof security program. Are you ready to build your next Dream Team?

Every great team stands behind an inspirational coach.

When you think about Lionel Messi, Michael Jordan, and Serena Williams, typically only the most diehard fans would be able to recite facts about their coaches, however, it is that close pillar of support honing their natural skills, talent, and drive towards their goals that breeds the immense success we see in the spotlight.

Nobody expects developers to win a grand slam or score a goal for Argentina, heck, nobody should even expect that developers will be security experts (after all, they signed up to create cool features, not take deep dives into security), but a great security “coach” is their true champion on the team.

A developer-side security champion is far more aligned to what we would recognise as the fundamentals of a coach. They are passionate about security, know their stuff, and are a key point of contact when a developer has a security issue to solve. They have the hands-on know-how to help them correct the problem and learn from their mistakes, while also making sure the team is aligned with core security best practices and values.

Will the AppSec champion please stand up?

An AppSec-side champion is an oft-missing piece of the security program puzzle. They are absolutely vital for the success of a development team, and as the bridge between C-level and executive staff and the developers, can actively advocate for them and help enable them with the tools they need to make a positive impact on vulnerability reduction, software safety, and customer trust and satisfaction.

A great AppSec champion is recognised as a security leader within the business, and they should have a big role in training the security coaches directly, with the end goal of forging better outcomes and relations between the teams, all in the aid of a common goal: kick-ass, watertight secure code.

Summoning your supercoach.

Champions and great coaches go hand-in-hand, and together, they create magic. Existing security champion programs do tend to focus on the developer, but as we have identified, the real championing should be on the AppSec side, leaving the most passionate, security-aware developers to help achieve secure coding greatness under the hood, uplifting the rest of the team.

Discovering the ideal coach is still a similar process to the traditional champion: the best coach is not simply the person who is “best” at security. The individual who happens to be amazing at coding securely and churning out high-quality, fortified code, may have zero interest in taking on an extracurricular role, or perhaps they aren’t particularly excited by security despite their aptitude.

Instead, your coach might be uncovered if you look for someone who:

  • Takes a keen interest in cyber security, from the hands-on coding through to staying up-to-date on the latest incidents, tools, and cool developments

  • Has decent interpersonal skills; they enjoy helping others, feeling like the go-to person (or resident expert) and are approachable team players

  • Can be proactive in developer-side advocacy; they know what is needed to help the team, and can work with their AppSec liaison (their champion) to have needs met so that mutual security outcomes can be achieved.

Incentivise the coach position; whoever you choose will have to take on more responsibility, and their workload will need to be assessed accordingly. While personal interest and career progression will factor into a potential coach’s motivation, it’s good practice to see where else they can be rewarded for kicking goals. Can they be sent to an awesome conference? Can they get some extra leave? Can courses and certifications be funded for them? Time and money spent now on securing the SDLC from the start saves much more later in the cycle - or worse, if a vulnerability is discovered live - and a good coach will keep awareness high. Find a way to provide meaningful rewards.

Your next-level security champion program.

Ultimately, as an industry, we must do more to support developers, and win them over to the dark security side, in so much as motivating them to see that quality code is secure code. It’s difficult to care about something when the time and effort to educate and enable success hasn’t happened, and sadly, that tends to be the case with education in secure coding. Relevant, hands-on upskilling, in conjunction with a peer coach and AppSec advocate, really is the triple-hit needed to bolster the development team to unleash their defensive power.

About Matias Madou and Secure Code Warrior:

Matias Madou, Ph.D. is a security expert, researcher, and CTO and co-founder of Secure Code Warrior. When he is away from his desk, he serves as an instructor for advanced application security training courses and regularly speaks at global conferences including RSA Conference, Black Hat, DefCon, BSIMM, OWASP AppSec, and BruCon.
Secure Code Warrior makes secure coding a positive and engaging experience for developers as they increase their software security skills. Our flagship Learning Platform delivers relevant skills-based pathways for developers to write secure code at speed; while intelligent and contextual developer tools fix common security bugs in real-time.

Matias Madou: Relevant, hands-on upskilling, in conjunction with a peer coach and AppSec advocate, really is the triple-hit needed to bolster the development team to unleash their defensive power.