Tonight at the IT Pro Toronto we did a pre-launch
of the Infrastructure 2010 project.
Have you ever been in a position where you just don’t have a clear grasp of a concept
or design? It’s not fun. As a result, CIPS
Toronto, IT Pro Toronto, and TorontoSQL banded
together to create a massive event to help make things a little more clear.
To give you a clearer understanding of how corporate networks work. Perhaps
to explain why some decisions are made, and why in retrospect, some are bad decisions.
Infrastructure 2010 is about teaching you everything there is to know about a state-of-the-art,
best practices compliant, corporate intranet. We will build, from the ground
up, an entire infrastructure. We will teach you how to build, from the ground
up, an entire infrastructure.
Sessions are minimum 300 level, and content-rich. Therefore:
Well, maybe. (P.S. if you work for Microsoft, pretend you didn’t see that picture)
The other day I had the opportunity to take part in an interesting meeting with Microsoft.
The discussion was security, and the meeting members were 20 or so IT Pro’s, developers,
and managers from various Fortune 500 companies in the GTA. It was not a sales call.
Throughout the day, Microsofties Rob Labbe and Mohammad Akif went into significant
detail about the current threat landscape facing all technology vendors and departments.
There was one point that was paramount. Security is not all about technology.
Security is about the policies implemented at the human level. Blinky-lighted devices
look cool, but in the end, they will not likely add value to protecting your network.
Here in lies the problem. Not too many people realize this -- hence the purpose of
Towards the end of the meeting, as we were all letting the presentations sink in,
I asked a relatively simple question:
What resources are out there for new/young people entering the security field?
The response was pretty much exactly what I was (unfortunately) expecting: notta.
Security it seems is mostly a self-taught topic. Yes there are some programs at schools
out there, but they tend to be academic – naturally. By this I mean that there is
no fluidity in discussion. It’s as if you are studying a snapshot of the IT landscape
that was taken 18 months ago. Most security experts will tell you the landscape changes
daily, if not multiple times a day. Therefore we need to keep up on the changes in
security, and any teacher will tell you, it’s impossible in an academic situation.
Keeping up to date with security is a manual process. You follow blogs, you subscribe
to newsgroups and mailing lists, your company gets hacked by a new form of attack,
etc., and in the end you have a reasonable idea of what is out there yesterday. And
you know what? This is just the attack vectors! You need to follow a whole new set
of blogs and mailing lists to understand how to mitigate such attacks. That sucks.
Another issue is the ramp up to being able to follow daily updates. Security is tough
when starting out. It involves so many different processes at so many different levels
of the application interactions that eyes glaze over at the thought of learning the
ins and outs of security.
So here we have two core problems with security:
Security changes daily – it’s hard to keep up
It’s scary when you are new at this
Let’s start by addressing the second issue. Security is a scary topic, but let’s breaks
it down into its core components.
Security is about keeping data away from those who shouldn’t see it
Security is about keeping data available for those who need to see it
At its core, security is simple. It starts getting tricky when you jump into the semantics
of how to implement the core. So let’s address this too.
A properly working system will do what you intended it to do at a systematic level:
calculate numbers, view customer information, launch a missile, etc. This is a fundamental
tenant of application development. Security is about understanding the unintended
consequences of what a user can do with that system.
These consequences are of the like:
Cross Site Scripting attacks
Cross Site Forgery attacks
Buffer overflow attacks
Breaking encryption schemes
Once you understand that these types of attacks can exist, everything is just semantics
from this point on. These semantics are along the line of figuring out best practices
for system designs, and that’s really just a matter of studying.
Security is about understanding that anything is possible. Once you understand attacks
can happen, you learn how they can happen. Then you learn how to prevent them from
happening. To use a phrase I really hate using, security is about thinking outside
Most developers do the least amount of work possible to build an application. I am
terribly guilty of this. In doing so however, there is a very high likelihood that
I didn’t consider what else can be done with the same code. Making this consideration
is (again, lame phrase) thinking outside the box.
It is in following this consideration that I can develop a secure system.
At the end of the day however, I am a lazy developer. I will still do as little
work as possible to get the system working, and frankly, this is not conducive to
creating a secure system.
The only way to really make this work is to implement security policies that force
certain considerations to be made. Each system is different, and each organization
is different. There is no single policy that will cover the scope of all systems
for all organizations, but a policy is simple.
A policy is a rule that must be followed, and in this case, we are talking about a
development rule. This can include requiring certain types of tests while developing,
or following a specific development model like the Security Development Lifecycle.
It is with these policies that we can govern the creation of secure systems.
Policies create an organization-level standard. Standards are the backbone of
These standards fall under the category of semantics, mentioned earlier. Given
that, I propose an idea for learning security.
Understand the core ideology of security – mentioned above
Understand that policies drive security
Jump head first into the semantics starting with security models
The downside is that you will never understand everything there is to know about security.
No one will.
Perhaps its not that flawed of an idea.
I hated school. Technically, I’m still enrolled in college. Bachelors
of Business Management. Blech. I figured at least with business, I would
learn something useful later in life. I chose against Comp. Sci. for a few reasons.
One being that I know a couple PhD’s that know nothing about building applications
in the real world.
In Comp. Sci., you learn how to build data structures, and how to make Mandelbrot
Set’s process faster. In business, you learn why people buy stuff.
Or more appropriately, you learn how to get people to buy your stuff.
Seeing as I learned (taught myself?) about things like linked-lists and pointers while
in grade 10-ish, and wrote/re-wrote/re-re-wrote Mandelbrot Set builders as a final
project in grade 11, I think I can safely say I would be bored as all hell in University.
Not to mention all the theory. Comp. Sci. is all about theory. Maybe 10%
is actually coding. F-that.
Business is inherently hands-on.
I like hands-on. It’s tangible.
The only problem I had was finding resources. My programming teachers were pretty
cool, and were always willing to help me on algorithms that confused me, as well as
extra-curricular programs when something just wasn’t jiving. But I had cool
teachers. Not everyone is as lucky as I was. And with the teachers, they
weren’t thinking in C# or ASP.NET everyday like I tended to do. Trying to ask
them why something trivial like
didn’t compile was kinda painful. I usually got a response along the lines of
“what’s the colon for?”. I always felt funny trying to explain the quasi-xml
structure of ASP.NET to teachers. This left me in a lame position of needing
to find help. Forums are great, but separating the wheat from the chaff is a
waste of time. Enter stackoverflow.com (4
years late, mind you) and you get answers quickly. I like it. I use it
all the time. I’d like to think that those who are willing to look for resources
will find the site fairly easily. However, there is another site out there that
not too many people know about. It’s the Microsoft
Student Experience site. Yeah yeah, brain wash them early. I drank
the kool-aid early.
Part of the website is dedicated to the DreamSpark program.
Free, fully-licensed Microsoft products. Nuff said.
The other half of the site is dedicated to students. Good thing, given the name.
Not just students studying software development either. All students.
It provides tangible resources for students. Stories, tutorials, and templates
look to be the main content. It’s all surprisingly good stuff too. It
ranges from school studies to general life, to post-school life.
These resources may help those students who are struggling with school – at any level.
There are students out there with lots of potential. Let’s not see it go to
In my previous post, I started
talking about using Microsoft technologies over PHP and open source technologies.
There were a couple reasons why I chose to make the move. First, from a development
perspective, everything was object oriented. PHP was just getting started with
OOP at the time, and it wasn’t all that friendly. Second, development time was
generally cut in at least half, because of the built in controls of ASP.NET.
Third, the end result was a more rich application experience for the same reason.
The final reason comes down to the data aspect.
Pulling data from a database in PHP wasn’t easy to do. The built in support
was for MySQL, with very little, if next to nothing for SQL Server. In a lot
of cases that isn’t always a bad thing. MySQL is free. You can’t argue
with that. however, MySQL wasn’t what you would call ACID compliant. Defined,
MySQL did not have the characteristics of being Atomic, Consistent, Isolated,
and Durable. Essentially, when data goes missing, there is nothing you can do
about it. SQL Server on the other hand is very ACID compliant. This is
something you want. Period.
Once .NET 2.0 was released, a whole new paradigm came into play for data in a web
application. It was easy to access! No more, or at least next to very
little boiler plate coding was necessary for data access now. Talk about a selling
point. Especially when the developer in question is 16 going on 17.
Now that I didn’t need to worry about data access code, I could start working on figuring
out SQL. At the time t-SQL scared the crap out of me. My brain just couldn’t
work around datasets. The idea of working with multiple pieces of data at once
was foreign. I understood single valued iterations. A for loop made sense
to me. SELECTs and JOINs confused me. Mind you, I didn’t start Statistics
in math until the following year. Did SQL help with statistics, or did statistics
help me finally figure out SQL? It’s a chicken and the egg paradox.
So here I am, 17 years old, understanding multiple languages, building dozens of applications,
and attending developer conferences all the while managing my education in High School.
Sweet. I have 3 years until the next release of Visual Studio comes out.
It was here that I figured I should probably start paying more attention in school.
It’s not so much that I wasn’t paying attention, it’s just that I didn’t care enough.
I put in just enough effort to skate through classes with a passing mark. It
was also at this point in time that I made an interesting supposition.
Experts tend to agree that people who are programming geniuses are also good at math
and critical thinking or reasoning. Not one or the other, but both. Now
I’m not saying I’m a programming genius, but I suck at math. It was just never
in the cards. But, according to all those High School exams and the psychological
profiling they gather from them, my Critical Thinking and Reasoning skills are excellent.
Top 10% in Canada according to the exam results. My math skills sit around top
20-30% depending on the type.
Neurologists place this type of thinking in the left hemisphere of the brain.
The left brain is associated with verbal, logical, and analytical thinking. It excels
in naming and categorizing things, symbolic abstraction, speech, reading, writing,
arithmetic. Those who live in the left brain are very linear. Perfect
for a software developer.
The supposition I made had more to do with the Pre-Frontal Cortex of the brain.
It does a lot of work, some of which is planning complex cognitive behaviors.
Behaviors like making a list, calculating numbers, abstracting thoughts, etc.
It plans out the processes our brains use to get things done. This is true for
both sides of the brain. So, suppose you are left brain-oriented. You
are predisposed to be good at development. Now, suppose your Pre-Frontal Cortex
is very well developed, more so than the average person. It could be reasoned
that part of being a programming genius is having a well developed Pre-Frontal Cortex.
So why does this make us want to program? Find out in Part
When I saw this comic a couple weeks ago, it hit a chord just right with me.
Except of course it was PHP, and grade 9. The funny thing was, I started writing
programs way back when I was in grade 5. I tried to start learning development
when I was in grade 3. Let me tell you, there are certain subtleties to programming
that don’t quite become apparent to a 9 year old.
10 PRINT “Steve is Awesome!”
20 GOTO 10
While QBasic was fun to play with, I gave up on that when I found a book on Visual
Basic in Grade 5. I vaguely remember it being Visual Basic 5 too. I could
be wrong. It was a little more than 10 years ago – you do the math. The
problem I found with VB was that it didn’t feel all that intuitive from a language
perspective to me. I could never find it to flow properly. But at the
time, that’s all I had to go on. So I gave up on development for a while and
tried my hand at HTML. Once again, certain things just aren’t apparent at certain
ages. When I first tried HTML, I started in notepad. Shortly thereafter
I ended in notepad. Maybe sports would be more fun? Nah… Enter FrontPage
a few months later.
After finally getting the hang of FrontPage, I built some amazing (read: ugly) sites.
All-in-all they weren’t bad for an 11 year old.
Once middle school rolled around, I tried my hand at the other sciences and found
out I really enjoyed biology. Being the semi-OCD-like person I am, I put all
my attention into biology and medicine, with a curiosity for chemistry. I knew way too
much for my own good.
Now I have to mention that all of this is taking place in beautiful Southern California.
I was born and raised there for 14 years. At the end of Grade 8, my parents
decided to move to Canada. Don’t ask - long story. And at that time, I
was still into the life sciences. In my next
post, I’ll continue on with my story.