Random Acts of Architecture

Tales of an architect trying to bring order to the chaos that is modern information technology.

Category Archives: Op-Ed

Theresa May vs Encryption vs Solutions

Theresa MayTheresa May’s speech in response to the recent terrorist attacks in London have, once again, mentioned cracking down on cyberspace “to prevent terrorist and extremist planning” and “this ideology the safe space it needs to breed.” World leaders, including Australia’s prime minister Malcolm Turnbull supported her, saying US social media companies should assist by “providing access to encrypted communications.”

Cory Doctorow and others make valid points about how impractical and difficult these dictates are to implement. Politicians mistakenly assume that weakened encryption or backdoors would only be available to authorized law enforcement and underestimate how interdependent the global software industry is.

However, presenting this as a binary argument is a “sucker’s choice”. Law enforcement is likely concerned because it cannot access potential evidence they have a legal right to see. While same laws arguably impinge personal freedoms, is it technology’s or technologists’ role to police governments?

Meanwhile, modern cryptography protecting data cannot also allow law enforcement access without weakening it. Consequently, technologists lambast politicians as ignorant and motivated by populism, not unreasonable considering Brexit and similar recent political events.

As technologists, we know what technology can and, more relevantly, cannot do. While it defines short term options, our current technology does not limit options in the long term. The technology industry needs to use the intelligence and inventiveness it prides itself on to solve both problems.

I do not know what forms these solutions will take. However, I look to technologies like homomorphic encryption or YouTube’s automated ability to scan it’s nearly uncountable number of videos for copyright infringements. There is certainly challenge, profit and prestige to be found.

The threat of criminal or terrorist action is not new. Mobile phones, social media and other phenomena of the digital age grant them the same protections as everyone else. Dismissing solutions from the ignorant does not mean the underlying problems go away. If the technology industry does not solve them, politicians may soon do it for them and, as Cory Doctorow and others point out, this will be the real tragedy.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/number10gov/32793567693

Floundering in Alphabet Soup Part I

Alphabet SoupThe IT industry is swamped by certifications. Every conceivable three-, four- or five-letter acronym seems to mean something. However, everyone can recount a story of someone certified but clueless. In a world where answers are often a quick Internet search away, are certifications still relevant?

Certifications aim to show someone knows something or can do something, like configure a device or follow a process. Condensing a complex product, process or industry into a test is hard. Schools and universities, dedicated to learning with larger budgets, have been grappling with this for some time and even multi-year degrees are not always good predictors of competence.

Knowledge atrophies and conditions change. While some certifications require periodic certification or ongoing training to keep candidates current, there is no way to guarantee someone maintains or improves their skill and their knowledge is current.

Certifications risk devaluing experience. For example, the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE, now Solutions Expert) boot camps of the 1990s saw many inexperienced candidates spoon fed the minimum information to pass then unleashed on an industry expecting people more capable. Why hire someone experienced when you can hire a newly minted MCSE at a fraction of the price?

Certifications are no longer the only way to demonstrate competence. Speaking opportunities at user groups, social networks and blogging are open to anyone. Online training websites like Coursera or Pluralsight provide similar or identical material to common certifications at no or minimal cost. For a more specific example, a software developer that wants to demonstrate competency in a library or programming language can contribute to open source software or answer questions on Stack Overflow.

Many candidates complain about excessive certification costs, particularly for not-for-profit certification bodies. Certifications are expensive to create and administer, particularly minimizing cheating, and to market, because an unknown certification is wasted.

Does that mean certifications are dead? No. Certifications continue to have the same benefits they always had.

Certifications give you credibility. While saying you know something is easy, becoming certified is a known, third-party verified benchmark. Harder, time-consuming and/or hands-on ones like the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) or Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP) especially so. They are good personal development goals.

Certifications make you more marketable. Many employers look to them as shortcuts for skills. Hiring someone certified decreases risk. Couple with experience or aptitude, they may lead to increased pay or new positions. They can even be a personal brand. For example, putting a certification next to your name on LinkedIn immediately tells the viewer your career focus.

Certifications open new networking opportunities. Certifications identify people with common interests or solving similar problems. Meetups, conferences and training courses target these. Some give discounts to certification holders, too.

Certifications tend to give rounded and broadly applicable knowledge, including different technologies, business areas or perspectives. They usually reference authoritative information and cover best practice, albeit sometimes abstracted or out of date. This can be harder to Google for because it requires domain knowledge.

Certifications benefit certifying authorities, too. From a vendor’s perspective, certification programs ensure product users are competent by requiring partners and resellers to have certified staff. Periodic recertification or certification expiry forces users to be up to date and creates recurring revenue.

The existence of certifications indicates a product’s or market’s maturity. They can help standardize, unify or legitimize a fragmented or new discipline. Certifications are as much a marketing tool as technical.

They allow vendors to identify and communicate directly with the user base. Vendors often know their customers (who is paying for the software) but not the people using it.

Certifications are not going away and are still relevant for the same reasons they always have been. They can still be a differentiator and misconstrued. They are still useful to vendors but expensive. However, the real question is how the current alphabet soup needs to evolve and still be relevant in the constantly changing IT landscape, particularly for areas like software development with a poor certification track record. That is something for the next blog post.

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/people/bean/. Usage under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Rebranding Corporate Politics

politicsThe term “corporate politics” conjures up images of sycophantic, self-serving behavior like boot-licking and backstabbing. However, to some IT professionals’ chagrin, we work with humans as much as computers. Dismissing humans is dismissing part of the job.

The best way to “play” corporate politics is solve big problems by doing things you enjoy and excel at.

“Big problems” means problems faced not just by your team but by your boss’s boss, your boss’s boss’s boss and so on. If you don’t know what they are, ask (easier than it sounds). Otherwise, attend all hands meetings, read industry literature or look at your leaders’ social network posts, particularly internal ones.

This is not just for those wanting promotions into management. Individual contributors still want better benefits and higher profile or challenging projects. These come easiest to those known to be providing value and not the strict meritocracy some IT professionals think they work in.

Start by solving small problems as side projects. Choose something impacting more than your own team and minimize others’ extra work. Build up to bigger problems once you have demonstrated ability and credibility.

You need not be the leader. Assisting others making an effort can be just as effective. You can own part of it or bask in the halo effect. If not, recognize those that are. This creates a culture of recognition that may recognize you in the future.

While some IT professionals solve big problems everyday, communicating and evangelizing their work “feels” wrong. This what salespeople do, not IT professionals. Many also think their work is not interesting.

Being successful requires people knowing what you do. This may be as simple as a short elevator chat, a brown bag talk or a post on the corporate social network. It also helps get early feedback and build a like-minded team. Others will be interested if you are working on the right things.

What about the potentially less savory aspects of corporate politics like work social events, sharing common interests with management, supporting corporate charities and so on? These are as much an art as a science. Focus on common goals and building trust, internally and externally. People like to deal with people at their level and contact builds familiarity.

However, this is no substitute for solving big problems. If you are delivering value, interactions with senior decision makers and IT professionals with similar goals should occur naturally. Build on that.

Be aware that problems change over time. Problems get solved by others. The market changes. Competitors come and go. Understanding organizational goals is an ongoing process.

Also realize decision makers are human. They make mistakes. They want to emphasize their achievements and not their failures, just like software developers’ fundamental attribute error bias for their own code and against others’.

However, if your organization makes decisions regularly on “political” grounds, leave. Culture is rarely changed from the ground up and many organizations are looking for good IT staff.

Ignoring the worse case scenario and IT professionals’ bias against self evangelism, the biggest problem with “corporate politics” is actually its name. The concepts behind “agile” and “technical debt” came into common usage once the correct metaphor was found. Corporate politics needs rebranding from something avoided to a tool that IT professionals use to advance themselves. It badly needs a dose of optimism and open mindedness.

Image credit: http://thebluediamondgallery.com/p/politics.html. Usage under CC BY-SA 3.0.

InfoSec: Not just for hackers

everybody-needs-a-hackerI recently read Troy Hunt’s blog post on careers in information security. Troy makes good points about information security as a potential career and the benefits of certifications like the Certified Ethical Hacker. Hackers are getting increasingly sophisticated, requiring specific knowledge to counter, and cryptography is hard. We need more information security specialists.

However, one criticism of the post, indeed the information security industry, is its implication hacking is the sole information security career path. This binary viewpoint – you are either a security person or not and there is only one “true” information security professional – does more harm than good.

Hacking is technology focused. However, security’s scope is not just technical. Information security needs people that can articulate security issue impact, potential solutions and their cost in terms non-security people can understand. This requires expertise and credibility in multiple disciplines from individual contributor level to management to boardrooms.

Security solutions are not just technical. We live in societies governed by laws. These can be standardized government security requirements as FedRAMP or IRAP. These can be contractual obligations like PCI-DSS, covering credit card transactions. These can hold organizations accountable, like mandatory breach disclosure legislation, or protect or privacy, like the European Union’s Data Protection laws. Effective legislation requires knowledge of both law and information security and the political nous to get it enacted.

We are also surrounded by financial systems. Financial systems to punish those with weak security and reward those with good security will only evolve if we (consumers and investors) value security more. Cyber insurance has potential. Cryptographic technologies like bitcoin and block chain algorithms are threatening to disrupt the financial sectors. Information security has and will continue to impact finance.

The list goes on. Law enforcement needs to identify, store and present cybercrime evidence to juries and prosecute under new and changing laws. Hospitals and doctors want to take advantage of electronic health records..

The security technology focus drives people away non-technology people. In a world crying out for diversity and collaboration, the last thing information security needs is people focusing solely inward on their own craft, reinforcing stereotypes of shady basement dwellers, and not on systems security enables.

Bringing this back to software, many organizations contract or hire in information security experts. Unfortunately, the OWASP Top 10 changed little from 2010 to 2013 and some say is unlikely to change in the 2016 call for data. According to the Microsoft Security Intelligence Report, around half of serious, industry wide problems are from applications. Developers make the same mistakes again and again.

Education is one solution – security literate developers will avoid or fix security issues themselves. A better solution is tools and libraries that are not vulnerable in the first place, moving security from being reactive to proactive. For example, using an Object-Relational Mapping library or parameterized queries instead of string substitution for writing SQL.

Unfortunately, security people often lack skills to contribute to development and design beyond security. While information security touches many areas, information security expertise is not development (or networking or architecture or DevOps) expertise.

Information security needs different perspectives to succeed. As Corey House, a Puralsight author like Troy Hunt says in his course Becoming an Outlier, one route to career success is specialization. Information security is a specialization for everyone to consider, not just hackers.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/adulau/8442476626

Systems > Goals

systems-over-goals

It is the time of year when people evaluate their previous year’s goals and plan for the next. It is the time when New Year’s resolutions are made. It is also the time where people lament ones they failed to keep.

Setting goals is beneficial. They are how we demonstrate commitment and achievement. They motivate us to better ourselves.

Take learning a new skill, like a programming language or library. This requires acquiring tools, reading or watching tutorials and/or working with teachers then practicing the new skill until proficiency is reached.

People approach goals in different ways. For example, learning the basics of a new programming language can be crammed into a weekend, fitting into our “busy” lives and short-term focus.

This may be sufficient if the need is urgent. However, this is not possible with larger or sustained goals.

A few years ago I realized I needed to lose weight. Superficial attempts at exercise or the occasional healthy meal were insufficient. I needed a sustainable system not just reach an arbitrary weight target.

First, I had to want to lose weight. There is a difference between imagining oneself attaining the goal and the often underestimated effort required to achieve it. For example, in his book “The Element”, Ken Robinson compliments a keyboard player saying he’d love to play the keyboard that well. The keyboard player disagrees:

“You mean you like the idea of playing keyboards. If you’d love to play them, you’d be doing it.”

Second, I had to create a system that would make me succeed: “No excuses!” My schedule was unpredictable so gym memberships and other organized activities were out. I had always enjoyed running so I purchased a treadmill. Diet was solved by subscribing to a calorie- and portion-controlled food delivery service. I enjoyed running and the food so it became almost harder not to follow the plan.

Third, I had to make time to exercise and the discipline to stick to the diet. My unpredictable schedule meant a exercise a regular times was not possible. I fell back to priorities: other things had to fit around exercise like Stephen Covey’s big rocks analogy.

Fourth, I weighed myself morning and night to track progress. Many weight loss programs recommend weighing less frequently but, as long as the downward trend continued, the raw measurements were less important than the accountability – the scales were always there looking back at me and never lied.

Yes, I occasionally ate too much or missed a run or three but I just picked myself up and resumed. Patience and persistence conquered the dreaded weight plateaus.

I eventually reached my target weight and celebrated my success. I lost a quarter of my body weight over eight months.

More importantly, I developed habits for keeping my weight down and increasing fitness. Reaching my target had become both inevitable and irrelevant. I kept going afterwards. A year later I ran a sub 96 minute half marathon. During lunchtime at work. For fun.

Without realizing it, I stumbled upon thinking about achieving as systems or habits, like in Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” or Scott Adam’s “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big”. Goals are only milestones. Systems or habits allow you to achieve them.

I now look at goals differently. First, is the goal important enough to change my habits? I cannot do everything. I try to pick what I will fail at or others will do it for me.

Second, do I want the goal enough to change my habits? I try to separate what I want from what others want. Failing that, I look for sources of fun or rewards for doing so. Motivation is half the battle.

The Potential of Cosmos: Containers

cosmos-potential

Cosmos is an operating system construction kit in development since 2006. At first glance, it appeals to the “Internet of Things” (IoT) crowd. One could control home automation or run a Raspberry Pi or Arduino in C#. Cosmos is also interesting technically, as Scott Hanselman describes. .Net languages are rarely used for lower level programming and this project is an interesting case study.

However, there is a whole other angle to consider – a competitor to containers. Containers, single-application virtual machines, provide the hardware independence of virtual machines but are smaller and use an operating system’s existing isolation and switching mechanisms instead of a hypervisor.

If Cosmos or a system built on it supports a reasonable set of APIs, such as an early version of .Net Standard, these could be run like containers. The components and functionality would be minimal, reducing the surface area of attack and the need for patching. They could be smaller than scratch containers because they are a single binary.

A Cosmos container, for want of a better term, could run on bare metal for maximum performance. It could also run as a “pico virtual machine”, needing only a few MB of RAM and storage, to minimize costs.

Of course, there is more to containers than just the image format and hosting engine. Docker, the most common container engine, has a whole ecosystem of orchestration, management and monitoring tools. Many of these are open source and have high contribution rates, so adding Cosmos container support is not unreasonable.

Supporting Cosmos containers directly on hardware may require hypervisor changes, meaning existing IaaS vendors would not initially support it. That said, Amazon does support Arduino as a cloud platform. Cosmos containers could also run in a “serverless” compute service like AWS Lambda.

Of course, the Cosmos team have spent a long time bringing their original vision to fruition and this is a significant change in direction. However, we live in a world of potential where software is changing so quickly and is often open for anyone to build on.

 

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