BSides SF 2023: New Apps, Good Snacks: Effective Threat Modeling for New Territory

This is the blog post version of my other BSides SF 2023 talk. Yes, I’m tired. Video to come. Slides are here.

Threat modeling is all about approaching a new product, system, or situation and evaluating it with fresh eyes. Dev and product teams get immersed enough in what they’re building that excitement and familiarity can both make it hard to identify potential risk. Enter the security team!

Thing, security folks can get used to things too. If, for instance, you find yourself reviewing similar features over and over again, incremental changes to the same feature, or otherwise getting too accustomed to the state of things, it can become harder to stay sharp and see what’s in front of you.

We’re going to walk through a situation and explore how to push against that feeling, pull back beginner’s mind, and continue to offer useful advice for the teams that depend on us.

What’s threat modeling?

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I like to describe threat modeling as the application of structured thinking to my own natural paranoia. That sounds flip, but I mean it: something I have in common with a lot of people who do this kind of work is that I naturally imagine worst-case scenarios, things that can break, and other potential problems. It makes me great to travel with and has contributed to my long, loyal streak as a stellar therapy client. It also means that I love threat modeling.

There are lots of formal threat modeling frameworks. If you haven’t explored this before, I suggest looking up STRIDE, PASTA, and MITRE ATT&CK. (Cybersecurity loves an acronym. If you didn’t know, now you know.) There is no one perfect framework, and cybersecurity also loves to argue, so everyone has their own opinion on what’s good and bad. My feeling on it is that if it works for you, it’s great. If the people you need to evaluate risk for understand what you create by applying the framework to their situation, it’s great. If anyone acts rude to you about your choice of framework, send them to me, and I will deal with them.

For my work as a security partner on a product security team, I don’t use anything as structured as that, instead just moving from part to part and looking at design choices and possibilities. If I worked somewhere more formal or had to talk to engineers and product folks less happy about working with me, I might reach for a more structured tool. Instead, I work less formally, and the fictional exercise we’re about to embark on reflects that.

Also useful to know: my security practice (and that of my company, which is why I work there) is more about suggesting and guiding rather than issuing stern dictates. I point out risk, offer mitigations, and record unmitigated risk for our own records. It’s a consultative role, which you’ll see reflected in how I talk about the threat modeling we’re about to walk through.

This is reflected in a structure I use sometimes for my advice: do, try, and consider. Recommendations labeled do are the closest we get to saying you must do this. We want the teams to take them very seriously. Try is a little less serious: give this a shot, please, and see if it works. Consider just tells them something that we think could be useful to them. Keep this idea or principle in mind; it may satisfy something you need in the future. I won’t use this for all the recommendations to come, but it pops up sometimes, and maybe you’ll find it useful too.

Welcome to SnackTracker product security!

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It’s a lovely morning in the snack loyalty startup, and you are a horrible wonderful product security engineer. We work for SnackTracker, which has had a popular app for several years—but they’re ready to go bigger.

They want to go from their mobile and web apps to partner with fine snack shops across a carefully selected test region to offer in-person check-ins and bonuses to snack fiends who already enjoy using the SnackTracker app to track snacks they’ve eaten, wish list snacks they long to try, and find new snacks and places to buy them. Our product team envisions a tablet where users can log snacks in person for those wish lists and get big rewards by checking into businesses, including during special events.

We’ve previously expanded some of our existing features, but it’s been a while since we’ve had something that’s this much of a departure, so we want to do this right.

Up until now, there have been two kinds of users: shop owners and snack fiends. Shop owners need to see customer details, snack trends and reviews, and receive and cash out loyalty points. Snack fiends need to see their account details and point balances, learn about events and new snacks, enter and update their snack preferences, and adjust communication details.

Both user types logged into the same mobile and web apps, and any differences in authorization were connected to the user type, which affected what was displayed after login.

Up until now, all threat modeling and security guidance were done in this previous context. We could make certain assumptions:

  • Users would enter their full username and password to log in, and only one to two users would ever use a single device.
  • Authentication with MFA wasn’t a hard sell, because those snack points are popular and because we ruthlessly bribed incentivized adoption by offering bonus points for MFA setup.
  • Sessions could be valid for a month for snack fiends if they checked that they were on a private device. For shop owners, because there’s a transactional element that translates to real money and because their devices were in the middle of their shops, sessions would end after a minute of inactivity, much like a credit card or bank app.
  • Snack fiends did not need to log out after using the app, and we didn’t need to log them out often.

This will all change with the dawn of SnackAdder. (Product likes Rowan Atkinson, and frankly we can’t blame them.)

The in-person team is psyched about the tie-in opportunities here. They know they want a simpler way for users to check in that doesn’t involve using the long, complex, unique passwords that obviously our superior users use without fault. They also think having people use MFA to log into a device they don’t own for a simple interaction will be a hard sell, particularly as the users will likely only interact with the SnackAdder device for a minute at a time.

The user types and authorized operations associated will change too. The snack fiends want to log snacks and get rewards. The shop owners want a way to say “this device is connected to this business and location” without having more work to do or a new thing to worry about.

Our goal: offer actionable security advice to a product team that’s excited to move fast, protects our users and their data—and keep this team happy to work with security in the future.

Our guidance until now

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It’s useful to know the history when dealing with a team. This team is new to SnackTracker, but it includes engineers and product folks who are on teams we’ve worked with before. Past context matters when you’re working with the same engineers across time, because you get the chance to either give them deeper knowledge when bringing up something familiar again or to point out that something is new and may contrast with things they already know.

What have we told these engineers previously when consulting on mobile and web app features of the past?

  • The usual guidance around encryption: in transit and at rest, please, and use an encryption cipher that’s still considered a good industry standard. When we say that, we provide a link to part of our security guidance library, which includes a page about what’s considered good enough now. We update these pages as needed or every six months, whichever comes first.
  • Authentication works similarly: our advice has been to use our company’s go-to recommended authentication methods, which is overseen by another team. Typically, we advise against too much improvisation around both encryption ciphers and authentication.
  • For authorization, we have established user types and permissions. We also strongly recommend that authorization is enforced in code, so that certain operations are dependent on a permissions check rather than “we just don’t show the admin panel link in the navigation for snack fiends.”
  • For user IDs, and all other kinds of IDs, we recommend using UUIDs rather than anything sequential that can be enumerated or otherwise brute forced.
  • We have a list of suggested and preferred software libraries and mandate use of Dependabot in our repos.

We also offer guidance around privacy. While this is often more of a legal concern, we have a good relationship with the SnackTracker legal team, which means product security can offer some guidance around good data practices with respect to the laws of various states and countries. We like to do better than that, though, and also promote a philosophy of not asking for any data that isn’t strictly necessary for users to use the app. Do we care about someone’s gender if they just want a snack? I hope not! If we don’t need it, we don’t ask, and we don’t store it. We also advise our teams to have a data retention policy. Also, no one in marketing has ever argued with us about this, because this is my story, and I can pretend it’s the better world I believe we’re capable of having.

Which brings us to the future: let’s offer some guidance for SnackAdder.

Threat modeling and new horizons

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Let’s look over this new system, using some of the perspectives we’ve used in the past.

Data use and collection

We always want to ask what data is being collected in a product or feature, where it’s going, where it’s being stored, how it’s being stored, and what else might happen to it. Is it staying entirely within servers we control? Does it need to be send to a third party? Is it being appropriately treated considering its sensitivity?

In the case of SnackAdder, the product team is proposing collecting both less data than our existing product does and more. Because the tablet will only log check-ins and snack preferences, a lot of personal data isn’t even on the table. However, location-based check-isn are something we’ve discussed before. Being vehement defenders of our snack fiends, we’ve previously decided as a company not to collect location data from personal devices—slippery slopes and all. However, this device will be connected to a location, and use of it means users consent specifically to connecting this location to their account. Because of this, we offer a warning to treat this data carefully (including, ideally, a timeline for expiring it off a snack fiend’s account) but say that going forward with check-ins is fine to do, particularly as it isn’t mandatory for logging a snack to a wish list.

Authentication in the wild

We know the team wants to use a different kind of authentication than we find usual at SnackTracker, and so possibly the biggest challenge of this threat model is figuring out what we want to recommend. Being inventive is great; being inventive in bad or unhelpful ways, reinventing mistakes others have already learned from, is not.

The team wants to do something other than requiring the user to enter their username, password, and potentially MFA OTP too, all while a line might be forming behind them to interact with our incredibly popular app’s new interface. Fortunately, the team’s already done some research, and we get to walk through their proposed options.

A PIN has familiarity on its side from its frequent use in ATMs and phones, but it has the downsides of being forgotten and having much lower entropy than a proper password, even if we require six or eight numbers instead of just four. Discussing it within security, we also feel a little queasy having a second credential for the same account, which might confuse users in a way that has security implications. This could work, but we have reservations, so let’s look at what else the team has come up with.

The next option is what I call second-screen authentication. Despite its common use in signing into streaming services, I haven’t found a single consistent term for it. (If you have one, let me know.) It’s a different version of the increasingly common method of web app login where you enter your phone number or email and receive an OTP to enter to log in. In our case, one device provides a code, and we enter it into another device with an authenticated session in order to link our activity in the first device to our account. What the team envisions is entering your SnackTracker user ID into the tablet, which will generate a code that you enter on your phone. This is certainly less fiddly than the first method, but it’s still a little involved and has the additional risk of there not being strong phone signal or wifi in the snack shop. Still, this has potential.

Finally, the team proposes logging in via a QR code generated on the user’s device via the SnackTracker app. If you wanted, they add hopefully, it could be dynamic and regenerate periodically, or every time even! (They really want this project to get moving.) This lets the user log in fast without typing anything in.

We like this option, particularly since we plan on providing additional guidance on sanitizing input, with a special dive into what can be concealed in a QR code.

Authorization in a new context

We realize quickly that there are several ways to achieve what the team is requesting. The admin needs to be able to connect the tablet to the store’s account in order to claim the ability for snack fiends to check in. The snack fiends need to be able to scan snacks and check in. Allowing just partial permissions for a user on a new device, though, gets interesting.

New use of a role can be simpler than creating or changing a role and its permissions, though. It’s always a good idea to get allies early if you’re making changes like this, because a fairly settled product can make it tough to alter this stuff. It can be too rigid, which means having to do difficult persuading and possibly equally difficult technical work, particularly if your codebase is older and has gotten a little brittle. Possibly worse still is when it’s too easy to change these features, because that can result in bloated, unfocused sets of permissions where the difference between two user types might not matter anymore. Think of it as the chaos katamari. Either way, we need to approach this carefully.

The admin needs to log into the tablet, but we don’t want any other admin features accessible. We think about this and realize a useful mental model is to think of it less like “a known user type does a new thing in a new way” and more like a third-party integration, like when you scope a personal access token on GitHub. Your account has a bunch of permissions, but the token may just have one.

The snack fiend role needs to be approached differently too. We suggest limiting the actions a snack fiend can take on the tablet to updating: adding a snack to the wish list, doing a check-in. No deletions, no account details. And on personal devices, we’ve allowed long sessions for snack fiends; for this, we recommend a session lasting either 30 seconds or for one operation, whichever comes first.

The admin sessions need to change too. We know from product research that we can’t rely on a shop owner being physically in the store every day, which means we can’t expect them to create a new check-in tablet session daily. We compromise and give a try-level recommendation of two-week sessions, offering to discuss it further if they find this is too restrictive for our pilot group. We add a do-level recommendation too: admins need to be able to invalidate their SnackAdder sessions in case someone does a runner with the tablet.

Do snack shops have IT?

From product research, we have a sense of how snack shop owners are used to using SnackTracker in their stores: a counter-mounted tablet next to their point of sale, where they can log user purchases for loyalty points when snack fiends request it. What we don’t know is who maintains that device.

Many small businesses don’t have a dedicated tech or IT person. Instead, in a way you may be very familiar with, it might be delegated to “tech-savvy” friend or relative, or anyone who’s willing to read instructions and troubleshoot. All this is to say that we can’t expect a ton of available effort to be put into setting this tablet up, and some additional guidance may engender a lot of good will.

“Just spitballing: what if we manufactured the tablets ourselves???”

Product enthusiasm is a gift, and occasionally we need to rein that gift in a little. The team saved this one for last: they’ve been thinking about tie-in potential for creating the check-in SnackAdder devices and selling or leasing them to snack shop owners. On the plus side, they say, this means we’ve have total control over the device and what’s on it.

It’s true, and this can be really helpful in a security context. However, it would require hiring for skills we haven’t had to seek before in order to do it safely and effectively, which is pretty concerning. Our initial thought is no, followed by oh wow no, and the emerging do-level recommendation is the kind that I’d escalate in security management to make sure there aren’t any diverging feelings, because a single product security engineer or team saying, “Hello, we’d really prefer you didn’t go into a completely new area of business” is a large statement and one that’s best delivered with backing and solidarity. Fortunately, we find that the powers that be also don’t want to get into proprietary touchscreen interfaces, despite the potential for immersion and branding.

The team takes this well, thank goodness, and instead we suggest that the team consider offering security guidance to shop owners who will be using and maintaining a new device in very new circumstances. Suggesting updates and sending along security advisories could be worth our while, particularly as we expect some secondhand device use in the mix.

Awesome! Job well done, all. Let’s look at how to relay those findings.

Don’t kill the messenger

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We want to preserve our existing good relationship with these product and engineering allies. Along with delivering a thorough, well-structured report, here are some ways to make that work better.

Clear recommendations

I mean the kind of clarity that it takes a few drafts to get to. We want it concise, easy to understand, and ruthlessly clear. Spend some time on it, and if you feel uncertain about whether you managed it, ask someone else (especially someone like who you’re trying to reach) to look it over and give an opinion.

Ground recommendations in security principles

This is useful because it means our recommendations are more solid, but it also ensures greater consistency across time and gives teams the chance to learn what backs our suggestions. After a few reviews, some teams may begin to guess what you’ll consider an issue and will fix things before you get a chance to see them.

Share the knowledge

We don’t want exhaustive further reading to be required to understand or implement most of our recommendations, but sharing sources can be really powerful, especially for people who are interested in security. Having useful further reading is one thing that led me into security engineering, and I like leaving that path for others.

Show up

I know, I’m suggesting you go to more meetings, but not all of them. This is a powerful tool if you think your recommendations may not be taken as you mean them, if you’re not confident that your approach is right for the team, or if you’ve gotten any sense of uncertainty from the team. If things feel shaky, don’t rely on third-party interpretations. Your recs may be clear, but sometimes there’s nothing like the clarity of you presenting them yourself and being present to answer questions.

Position yourself as a security ally

It’s useful to remind people periodically that security’s advice is made with the intention of making the product team’s life better and protecting our users too. I like to mention that they’re the ones who will receive the 3 AM phone call that something’s gone terribly wrong. I will be happy to help too, of course, but I may not come online until west coast business hours. Better still is to avoid the crisis altogether.

Seek feedback and mean it

We can’t grow, and we can’t know that our recommendations are doing what we intend, without asking for feedback. If you ask more than once and in different ways—survey, formal feedback request, verbally—people will eventually believe that you really really want to know and will be more likely to tell you. This is a gift; express thanks accordingly.


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  • Push against complacency and cultivate beginner’s mind, even if you keep seeing similar features over and over.
  • Think creatively to explain new things well; I like using metaphors until I can see the person really gets it.
  • Reduce complex technical ideas to key guidelines, with no noise.
  • Encourage ambitious technical work rather than penalizing it with heavier overhead (and make it clear that you share priorities with product and engineering—we all want to make something cool!).
  • Ask how you can do better next time, and mean it!

BSides SF 2023: No Adversaries: Getting Users on Your Side for Tough Transformations

This is the blog post version of my talk with Amy Martin, Project Manager, SF Digital Services, on April 22, 2023, at BSides San Francisco. Video to come. Slides are here.

Every security initiative has two sides. One is purely technical: we need to prevent abusive emails from getting into company inboxes with a product, or we need a code scanner built into CI/CD to look for common insecure patterns in new pull requests. All of these, even those that seem purely like a matter of automation once they’re set up, also have a second side: the people involved.

We’ve both dealt with the human side of implementing security-related processes. Breanne has grappled with it as a site reliability engineer working to refine IAM roles and as a security engineer creating and refining processes around evaluating and approving Chrome extensions and GitHub Actions. Amy has encountered it while pushing technical advances needed to get ahead of software EOL dates and standardize CMS usage among teams who depended on stability to do their jobs. Both of us have learned the value of creating change through policy and process without making everyone hate you.

To that end, we’re using the term users a little differently than usual. Often, this refers to end users, people using your company’s product, the public, or anyone on the outside who needs what we create. What we’re discussing here certainly affects them too, but our focus here is on internal users: partners within our organization, people who depend on our work to get their work done, and people who need to buy into what we’re doing in order to make a better, more secure experience for them and everyone else. Without them, no security transformation will ever truly work.

Two failures, and hope

In January 2022, Amy left her public library job and joined the Delivery team at San Francisco Digital Services. They needed to move about 80 websites off their Drupal 7 platform and onto, the City’s unified and accessible website, in advance of the planned end of life of Drupal 7. That was meant to be in November 2022 and did not happen, but that’s another story.

When Amy started at Digital Services in January, about a third of these departments didn’t know yet that they had to move their website by November, and many of them liked their current, government-speak oriented websites just fine. is built for usability and accessibility, and plain language is key—not government speak. Every site they moved required content redesign, and Department staff had to be trained to do the work

How can government Digital Service staff convince civil servants and other agencies to embrace digital transformation in the face of a big unwanted project?

The short answer is that they only did part of that. They moved the websites before their deadline, and they got people started on building user-centered websites and writing in plain language. However, most did not continue that work. Some of them even got rid of the content that we made for them and pasted their old content back in.

Although they met our goal of moving the websites by the deadline, they found that they had fallen short of setting government agencies up for future success with user-centered websites

Breanne’s story is from a few jobs ago, before security engineering, when she was an SRE with an interest in security. The company saw its first rash of phishing attempts: texts and emails posing as executive staff, asking for sadly normal things: Google Play gift cards and other easily sold gift cards, urging the recipients to please move quickly, because the gift cards were needed now now now.

Breanne and a colleague teamed up to write both a presentation and written training to let people know what these attempts looked like and to establish company norms around communication so that it would be clearer to everyone what legitimate company communication looked like.

The company had fewer than 100 people then, so it made more sense to write a single version of the training that would serve both the engineering department and other staff, including sales and marketing. The distinction here is less to do with who is or isn’t “technical” and whose jobs depend on answering unknown numbers and replying to texts and emails from strangers.

How could two engineers write a workable, concise anti-phishing guide for everyone? How can it go wrong? In our case: not everyone is experienced at writing precise, well-grounded documentation about a complex subject for a varied audience. In our case, they got the job done, but they bumped into some of the limitations of trying to write something about a very specific topic that’s meant to be for everyone.

How can a project’s start doom it?

It’s good to start as you mean to end, which means that thinking of what makes a project like this successful from the start goes a long way toward ensuring its success. So what gets baked into a project plan that can doom it to failure?

Maybe your planning doesn’t entirely account for reality. Maybe your engagement doesn’t account for the real needs limitations and motivations of your users
Or maybe it’s meteor from space or other things outside our control. (This probably felt way less possible before March 2020. Now it’s a pretty good idea to write “large scale crisis” into every risk plan.)

We can’t control everything, but we can control some things. What can we do?

Remember that your partners are users too. Keeping this in mind prevents a lot of issues. Like with end users, it’s worth your time to get to know your internal users’ motivations, limitations, and wants, as well as their hard NOs: things they absolutely will not tolerate.

Seek the similarities. See what behaviors, preferences, and common experiences make groups of users start to cohere in your interactions with them. If your team is having trouble wrapping their heads around this, consider using a lightweight version of personas. Rather than the more involved versions used in marketing and UX, we don’t need to know anyone’s educational level, income, or other demographic information, though it’s not unlikely that some of these divisions will fall neatly between job titles or departments. Instead, look at what’s going to affect your plans:

  • What tools are they familiar with? What tools that you’re asking them to use might they not have encountered before?
  • Do they work with security a little or often? If they hear from security via a direct message or an email, will their first thought be that they’re in trouble?
  • Are they amenable to change or resistant? If they’re resistant, why? (This is a really important question to answer.)
  • What motivates them? What’s their definition of professional success?

Avoid stereotypes or unhelpful guesses. Making them too artificial or overly specific is also more likely to harm than help. If it’s just you and a colleague working on this project, it can be plenty to discuss the groups you’re seeing form and plan based on that. However, if you’re doing a longer project or perhaps a larger body of work, you may wish to write them down to share, shape, and reference.

Encountering resistance? Slow down. When you’re starting to roll out your initiative, you may encounter resistance. If the resistance is starting to threaten the velocity or the success of what you’re trying to do, tap the brake and regroup. Form a new hypothesis or think of another strategy—and then seek feedback from the group that wasn’t feeling served before. This is extremely important to do, because we can’t afford to guess in these situations. Fortunately, when you deputize people, they often want to step up and help. If I think someone will be reluctant, I tell them that they hold a key to my success that I can’t under any circumstances produce myself. It’s important to mean this when you say it, but fortunately, it’s completely true, so that shouldn’t be hard.

Make it easy for people to do what you want. Breanne talked about this in her BSides SF talk on documentation last year. Some of the same tactics apply here too: bribery is a legitimate option to overcome some objects. Everyone likes stickers and snacks. However, we can do a little better than that too.

Don’t make users wade through extra reading, video, or other hurdles to do the important thing. Make what you need them to do succinct, clear, and as easy to do as possible. Clear instructions help a lot, as do easy contacts to ask for help. Have the critical stuff up front if you’re asking people to take in information. Executive summaries, a block of text or page or two at the front of a longer document, make sure that busy people have an easier time learning what they need. In longer trainings, the occasional tl;dr block can let people with different attention spans hopscotch through without missing the critical stuff.

This is also a great time to think again of accessibility. (Although it’s always a great time to think about accessibility.) It’s the right thing to do and often legally mandated, but it has one more useful effect, which is that it makes it easier to reach different kinds of learners too. Breanne can hear a video but vastly prefers reading, so a video with transcription reaches those with hearing difficulties as well as those who just like reading, those who can’t turn the sound on, and those who just need to CMD-F or CTRL-F to find the one detail they need to do their job.

This is also a good time for another look back, because history can teach us something. Previous efforts may not be perfect, but they may contain practices and approaches that people are already used to, which means they won’t have to do extra work to learn what you’re doing. It may serve your project well to add additional steps and methods of outreach, but if part of the old approach is getting you a good amount of the way there, it’s likely worth keeping. Security doesn’t have the luxury of perfection a lot of the time, but we can do an 80 percent job in several different ways and achieve something closer to it than we would otherwise.

When you’re asking about the history of projects at your organization, make it clear that you actually want to hear real opinions and that there won’t be retaliation or sore feelings if someone confesses a negative opinion about something that came before.

If all else fails, come back to bribery: security skills look good on resumes, even if the person doesn’t work in security. Try getting people on your side to help them master something important or lucrative. This creates allies.

Okay, but why do we need to think about this at all?

Why do we need to think about this? Aren’t people used to security initiatives and communication around them being subpar or even extremely disruptive? Security is important, and shouldn’t that be enough?

Yes, but—people are part of the system too, and if you’re looking to change the system in an effective and lasting way, you need to work the people part of it too. Both people and the non-people part of systems work better if you give them what they need.

People will not adopt the changes you recommend if you don’t make it easy, explain it well, and make the preferred behavior the easy path. Technical motivations have human implications. It’s just true, and until we reach the robot-controlled singularity, this is just how it’s going to be. We have to adapt.

No matter how brilliant your new security solution, clever process, or other big idea is, it will not work as well as you want it to unless people are on your side. Worse still, you might get a false sense of success as people initially go through the motions of doing what you wanted… only to revert to old habits the next time work gets stressful. We’re looking for something more robust than superficial change.

Once more: how do projects fail?

Projects fail if you don’t get buy-in. This doesn’t need to be unanimous support and a company pep rally celebrating how great your project is. It can be as simple as sending a series of emails ahead of time letting people know what’s coming, when changes will happen, and what they need to do. A little consideration goes a long way.

Projects fail when large, disruptive projects, even ones for the benefit of security, are pushed into being without considering how they affect the people who depend on efficiency or otherwise prefer the previous system for good reason. If people are reluctant, we need to know why and to address that.

Possibly worst of all, projects fail when they’re rotted from the inside by contempt for users and other affected parties by those in power. All of your future efforts will be diminished if the people you’re supposed to be serving can tell you think you’re smarter than them, better than them, or a greater authority on their own lives. People hate this and remember it, and you will face increased friction forever if you get up to this kind of thing. So don’t.

How can we fix this?

Unless you’re Ben Affleck and company, we can’t stop a meteor on a collision course with earth, but there are other levers we can pull to make our projects go smoothly.

Going back to story time: Breanne’s anti-phishing presentation had some things to learn. It couldn’t be too long: people are busy. It needed a short, memorable set of guidelines. It needed to relate causes to effects: “If we don’t present a unified front in not answering phishing texts and looking more carefully at emails, we’ll keep getting hit, and that will have an effect on the business.” It needed to be informed by technical needs but without including too much jargon, because most people who needed anti-phishing guidelines didn’t need to know about how spam emails sneak by Gmail’s spam-targeting AI. Technical curiosity is worth indulging, but it was better as a leave-behind piece for those who want it, leaving the rest of the audience free to go back to their regular work.

Amy’s migration is still a work in progress. A lot of their work in 2023 has been around evolving practices and platforms to help their users experience digital transformation. Here are some of their guidelines for that work:

Consider accessibility and cultural differences.
Amy is working on the accessibility of the artifacts she creates and becoming more flexible with the formats and platforms she puts them into. City government is a Microsoft house, and it’s not her team’s preferred set of tools, but many of their users are wary of anything else or simply aren’t allowed to use other products.

Emphasize common ground.
Amy’s background is outside of tech. When she talks with users, she leads with her government background, which allows her to show users their similarities. She makes it a point to visibly not understand things and ask questions, to normalize those behaviors to make others more comfortable.

Say things the easy way.
On, they write in plain language, but it can be hard to remember to do that with their users too. If what you need to say is written down, put it into and try to lower the reading level using their suggestions.

Avoid tech jargon and business jargon.
When you need to introduce a technical term, level-set by saying “do you already know the word ____?” Give them a chance to say yes or no, then explain it if they don’t.

Use nonjudgmental language.
Rather than calling something “bad” or another derogatory word, explain the pros and cons. Try to be precise about what you’re pointing out so that you are not expressing judgment. That goes tenfold for anything that your user currently uses or wants.

Speak at a comfortable pace for your audience.
Watch for facial expressions that look worried, like wrinkled foreheads: that could mean people are concentrating hard to keep up with you.

Maintain neutral facial expressions.
Amy does not laugh and does not smile when people ask tech questions. Every question is valid, and every question, especially a very basic or exceptionally strange question, gives you information about what that person needs to know from you.

We sometimes think a smile will be reassuring, but consider that even a reassuring smile can convey “I know the answer and you do not”. As we mentioned earlier, you do not want to give even the appearance of thinking of yourself as smarter than the other person, because that is extremely sensitive and it will be clocked.

Listen actively.
Repeat back what you’re hearing. Paraphrase, but not with tech jargon, because that will sound like you’re correcting them.

Celebrate mastery.
The first time Amy ever felt confident, good, and proud when using a tech tool was in an intermediate Excel class. Amy is not an Excel master, but “confident, good, and proud” is the feeling of mastery. When Amy sees a user experiencing a feeling of mastery, she parties with them, no matter how small a thing it’s for. Amy saw a user feeling mastery because she learned the keyboard shortcut for paste. They celebrated her success as a team, and they’re still a team.

Question your assumptions about your users.
A little humility truly does go a long way. When you don’t understand what your users are doing or why they want what they want, you could try the five whys, because asking why five times can lead you to the real problem.
Example: a tech product that library bought, failed to adopt, and canceled within a year.

  • Why did we fail to adopt the product? Staff never made it part of their workflow.
  • Why was that? They had trouble training and onboarding everyone.
  • Why was that? Rolling out new software to busy front-line staff is very hard, and they did not set aside enough of everyone’s time to make the training stick.
  • Why was that? The software wasn’t seen as enough of a priority to take people away from public service.
  • And why was that? Well, one person in leadership signed a contract for the software despite every other person saying it wasn’t a good fit for the library.

Answer: lack of buy-in.

Try it out and find a version of it that works for you. Sometimes it’s a good tool to use when you find yourself feeling annoyed by the users you’re meant to be serving.

Ask like a librarian: use reference interviews.
Amy was a librarian for 17 years and wants to teach you about reference interviews. When you go to a library and say can you help me find a book, that is the beginning of your reference interview. In this interaction, a trained librarian is assessing:

  • The words you chose
  • Whether there was hesitation in your voice
  • Your body language
  • Tone
  • The way you approached them
  • What else you are holding in your hands 
  • And more

A secret of reference interviews: the cover isn’t blue. Amy has been surprised, in the tech world, by how literally people take requests from users. There’s a librarian adage about “the book with the blue cover.” Asking for things inaccurately is expected behavior. Not because people are lying or not smart, but because this is the way human brains work: imprecisely. 

A good reference interview helps a person form their question. Try tangential lines of questioning. When you’re looking for the book with the blue cover, it’s tempting to keep asking about the cover. Is there a picture? Light blue or dark blue? 

Don’t bother. The cover is irrelevant. 

Ask questions about something else. When did you read the book? In the 70s? Last year? Was it a book you were assigned in school? Did you get it at a Scholastic book fair? Was the main character an animal or a person? Amy uses a mix of broad and specific questions to try to snag on some detail that triggers a new, meaningful memory. The same technique can work for zeroing in on product requirements. 

Learn user vocabulary and motivations.
Every question is valid. A question might sound silly to you, but it is not silly to the person asking. If you are a knowledge authority figure, chances are they had to screw up their courage to ask you.

Keep a neutral facial expression.
We won’t tell you not to smile, but remember that a smile can read as condescending.

Get to know their vocabulary, and use it.
People often adapt their language in ways they assume make sense to us when they ask questions. They use vocabulary they’ve heard people in our position use. They focus on a detail that’s related to what they want because they associate that detail with techy people.

A common example of this in tech is a user who insists on a particular feature, but has an inaccurate understanding of what it does. They know what outcome they want, but ask for a thing that won’t get them that outcome. Why? Because they are trying to communicate the outcome to you in what they assume is your language. Repeating what users said and paraphrasing, in addition to being good active listening, gives them a chance to edit and refine their ask. Listen to the vocabulary your partners use and use it too.

Be wary of contempt.
If you work with anyone who expresses contempt for your user, be very wary of them. All users are beautiful, but some are harder to reach. If you don’t like working with users and find yourself disdainful of their needs, consider that in your career path. You have more than one kind of user and they are all important.

Tie directives to outcomes your users value.
They may not be the same outcomes you value! Find common fears and desires among the users you’re meant to serve and appeal to them, ideally leaning more on the desires than the fears. It’s better to only reference the scarier things (“If we don’t complete this initiative, we’ll have our government certification pulled, and we will all be unemployed”) only with people who know you well. Instead, try invoking more immediate stakes. Breanne likes “I don’t want you to get a phone call at 3 AM if something goes wrong, because everyone understands that.


  • Work to understand actual motivations behind resistance.
  • Learn to speak the user’s language: vocabulary, accessibility, and technological knowledge.
  • No dictates without relating them to your user’s actual needs and priorities.
  • Try reference interview secrets to understand the bigger picture.
  • Helping people to master something important/lucrative will get them on your side.

Further reading

Diana Initiative 2022: How to Become a Security Partner (and Why You Should)

Hey, Diana Initiative attendees and other interested parties! This is the blog post component of a talk I did on 11 August 2022 at the Diana Initiative in Las Vegas.

I wrote in greater detail about my specific security partner job as part of the product security team at Gusto here.

I compiled some security partner job descriptions here. As I am still getting LinkedIn updates on the search for “security partner,” I may add more to this doc in the future, though that will be dependent on LinkedIn sending me an actual security partner job someday, which has yet to happen.

There are chapters in Reinventing Cybersecurity from two security partners. It’s a free download, and I’m really proud of both my contribution to this book and the project as a whole. You can also order it for an amazingly low price from Amazon.

My BSides SF talk video is here, and a written version is here. This is not a talk specifically about security partnership, but what I talk about in it comes up in my job every day.

Netflix has written about security partner work, and both part one and part two are well worth reading.

And if you have further questions about security partner roles or anything else I covered in this presentation (slides here), come say hello to me on Twitter, and I’ll answer all the questions I can.

Writing for Work: Team Structure for Great Good

In the past, my posts for various jobs have generally been the result of some curiosity, in the vein of what’s the deal with PATH, the program that formats man pages is HOW old, and what does good password hygiene look like. (Yes, I blogged in my previous life as a content strategist; no, I’m not digging those up right now. Have at it if you want.) My first post for my new job at Nylas (well, newish – I’ve been here almost eight months now) is the result of some longer study, which makes sense. One of the reasons I sought a new job was project longevity and continuity. Working as a consultant exposed me to so many new ideas and situations, but I wanted to see what I’d learn once I got to stay put for a while.

I won’t say every day has been easy, but I will say that I’m really pleased with what I’ve been doing. I get to point at a new program and essentially say “I WANT IT,” and then it’s mine. (It’s helpful when GIMME intersects with your manager’s need to delegate.) Oh, you want Elasticsearch, Breanne? HERE YOU GO. No regrets! I’ve dug deep into the weirdness of AWS IAM, moved a ton of stuff into Terraform and set our style guidelines for what good Terraform looks like, made my first EU AWS resources, learned some Ansible, got to apply Python to systems management with Boto, weirded out with Bash, and gotten better acquainted with monitoring. I’m chuffed.

A thing I gave the team in return is structure. In my work post, for obvious reasons, I didn’t go deeply into what I had previously learned that was useful here. However… what I’d previously learned was incredibly useful here. I became fatigued from new situation after new situation, but it was incredibly gratifying to get to use those same skills to make a comfortable, regular set of meetings and other expectations that I actually got to benefit from in the long term. It felt good to start good sprint planning, standups, and retros for clients, but it felt amazing to make them with myself and my ongoing teammates as the beneficiaries of this stuff. And do you know, I was pretty good at it after going through the process several times before. Fortunately, I worked with people who trusted me – and, perhaps even more important, made it clear that this was not exclusively my job and would not be solely my responsibility as time marched on. It is not extremely surprising, I think, that after setting all of this up and spreading responsibility across the team… I’m backing off the glue work for a bit, because the structure is in place for me to computer more exclusively. I’m very excited.

It also pleases me that this is all essentially another kind of automation. I love automating infra stuff – fully automated deploys and regular checks on systems and updating spreadsheets and all of the boring stuff that computers can do better than we can. What I wanted here was essentially automation in interactions, a regular cadence of events that freed us from having to reinvent structure unnecessarily, so we all had set expectations and were free to focus on the things we actually care about, that do require human interaction and innovation. I’m happy to say that it worked.

I wrote this post in part because I was proud of what I did and wanted to say so publicly. However, I also wrote it because I know the problems I had – meetings without set structure, unclear expectations between teams, irregular schedules that cause more confusion than they cure – are very common, and I hope this post helps even one other person set themselves free from another agendaless meeting, to remember that there’s something better on the other side. I’ll see you there, timer in hand, politely reminding everyone that lunch is soon, and we’d best wrap it up.