Debug Like a BossShould CEOs discuss software defects?
You wake up, and probably check your smartphone immediately. Chances are you already have smart devices at home; like light bulbs, you turn on and off from the same smartphone. You often check traffic and estimated time arrivals of your commute by using an app or online service. Software aids plenty of operations while you drive, like braking and accelerating (even if you’re not aware). No matter the job, work has to cross over digital boundaries. Also, to see your friends or family, a piece of software might be in the midst. Much of the time, consciously or not, our lives develop over software grounds.
Figure 1. Software is eating the world by Gerd Leonhard. Source flickr
Corporations have brought us software. They now depend heavily on coding
for sustainability and to keep competitiveness. Organizations of all
sorts are becoming more like tech companies focused on specific
services. The shift is more clear in some industries like banking: no
bank would survive without information technology.
IT spending keeps
growing across the
You probably have read that “software is eating the world”, a sentence
by Marc Andreessen —Netscape founder and venture capitalist—, written
in an op-ed back in 2011. It has already eaten nearly everything.
Why bugs and vulnerabilities should be CEO’s top of mind
With software so pervasively present, corporations should consider putting more attention on theirs at a strategic level. A recent Harvard Business Review piece written by Nicholas Bowen suggests that fixing software defects should be a CEO’s priority. We can’t agree more. Some global cases support this view.
In 2003, there was a massive blackout in North
covering several states in the US and Canada. More than 50 million
people were left with no electricity for two days or more. An
investigation found a race
condition was present in
Unix-based system (
XA/21), which stalled a critical process. Last
year, a software defect caused two fatal incidents in two brand-new
Boeing 737 MAX. The press coverage was massive. The bug affected a
critical alarm for captains, inhibiting timely maneuvering. Business
confirmed the airplane manufacturer knew the defect for around a year.
Bowen’s article draws upon two similar cases. One tells about how
Toyota settled a lawsuit in USD 1.1 billion by a sudden acceleration
in one of its models, which caused deaths. Again, it was a software bug.
In line with this type of defect, the National Highway Safety
Administration reported that only one car manufacturer recalled 80.000
vehicles in 2016 due to software defects. The other case is Microsoft,
which in the nineties experienced spectacular growth, so much that the
share of software defects and vulnerabilities among operative systems
around those years was higher for Windows. Do you remember the “blue
How much do other of these escapes —defects and weaknesses— cost to corporations? More importantly, how much do they cost to society? Vulnerabilities are rising and probably will keep growing. Organizations can find a competitive advantage in paying more attention to software quality, deployment, functionality, and security. Making sure testing efforts are performed with high standards should be more prominent in C-level discussions about product and service development and delivery.
Figure 2. Electronics related recalls from 2007 to 2016. Source Alixpartners.
What can be done about this?
Bowen suggests that asking simple questions can cause a turnaround by making an organization proactive with software quality management. CEOs could ask, “what criteria was used to determine when the product was ready to be shipped?” attempting to capture attention to quality processes. Moreover, executives should ask for the defect status months after releasing a software product, seeking to prevent significant size events, like car or airplane crashes. In the case of an incident, executives could ask, “how did the software get released with that type of bug?”
These questions are important but aren’t enough. An effective quality
management system should be in place, and not every
CEO is in a
position to assess that. At
Fluid Attacks, we have blended robust
technology, automation, and the best hacking skills in the market to
address security quality issues in the whole software development
lifecycle. Our hacking tests
covers from static code analysis to attacks (controlled, of course) to
production environments. We centralize every security hole in our Attack
Surface Manager (
ASM). And along with processes and technology, our
Criteria act as unifying
chain; a criteria to classify findings so customers can quickly identify
and decide where to start fixing defects. We also test the effectiveness
of fixes and break the build every time software doesn’t follow those
Will you ask those questions to your team? We can help by giving them to
you without even asking. Everything would be available at our
covering from very technical to strategic levels. Bowens propose a
2x2 matrix to assess how an organization is performing based on
quality awareness and response to bugs.
Fluid Attacks can help you
moving towards the upper-right.
Figure 3. Bowens performance matrix. Source .
But, do not just ask for bug reports
In emergency rooms, medical staff has to make quick decisions under uncertainty, with tight time frames and sometimes without clear how-to’s to keep people alive in extreme conditions. Some researchers have found a positive correlation between the number of mistakes made by teams and their results. This is counterintuitive: more mistakes, better results. Best-performing groups show a riskier behavior (hence the errors), but these teams also share more among themselves about those risks and mistakes. In turn, they find better results from these interactions, allowing more experimentation, and achieving incremental improvements. Why? Psychological safety.
Psychological safety, coined by professor Amy Edmonson, is a state where people aren’t afraid to speak up when needed and to accept their mistakes. Teams feel psychologically safe when they expect no retaliation from sharing uncomfortable yet essential matters to their peers and managers, like pointing out something that might endanger a project just before it is launched. Trust and openness are key.
Bowen’s related his own experience at IBM when software defects were
VP was commissioned to revert the trend and he had a motto:
“be forthright, and I’ll be forthcoming”. To make software defects and
security weaknesses chief for high leadership, companies have to create
a safe environment so technical teams aren’t hesitant to reveal what is
or might be wrong. If people think speaking out would threaten them,
they will be dangerously silent. Some incidents, like Boeing’s, seem to
reveal an effort to cover things up. In Volkswagen’s gas emission
scandal, people who bravely spoke up were fired.
We hope you have enjoyed this post, and we look forward to hearing from you. Do get in touch with us!