Dealing with compliance — it might even be a good idea

This post is an early draft of a chapter in my book,  Monolithic Transformation.

“Compliance” will be one of your top bugbears as you improve how your organization does software. As numerous organizations have been finding, however, compliance is a solvable problem. You can even improve the quality of compliance and risk management in most cases with your new processes and tools, introducing more, reliable controls than traditional approaches.

I’ve seen three approaches to dealing with compliance, often used together as a sort of maturity model:

  1. Ignore compliance, compliantly — select projects to work on that don’t need much compliance, if any. Eventually, you’ll want to work on projects that do, but this buys you time to learn by doing and building up a small series of successful projects.
  2. Minimal Viable Compliance — often, the compliance requirements you must follow have built up over years, even decades. It’s very rare that any control is removed, but it’s very frequent that they should be. Find the smallest set of controls you actually need to satisfy.
  3. Transform compliance — as you scale up your transformation efforts, like most organizations you’ll find that you have to work with auditors. Most organizations are finding that simply involving auditors in your software lifecycle from start to end not only helps you pass compliance with flying colors, but that it improves the actual compliance work.

But first, what exactly is “compliance”?

Paul tells you what compliance is.

If you’re a large organization, chances are you’ll have a set of regulations you need to comply with. These are both self- and government-imposed. In software, the point of regulations is often to govern the creation of software, how it’s managed and in run in production, and how data is handled. The point of most compliance is risk management, e.g., making sure developers deliver what was asked for, making sure they follow protocol for tracking changes and who made them, making sure the code and the infrastructure is secure, and making sure that people’s personal data is not needlessly exposed.

Compliance often takes the form of a checklist of controls and verifications that must be passed. Auditors are staff that go through the process of establishing those lists, tracking down their status in your software, and also negotiating if each control must be followed or not. The auditors are often involved before and after the process to establish the controls and then verify that they were followed. It’s rare that auditors are involved during the process, which is a huge source of wasted time, it turns out. Getting involved after your software has been created requires much compliance archaeology and, sadly, much cutting and pasting between emails and spreadsheets, paired with infinite meeting scheduling.

When you’re looking to transform your software capabilities, this traditional approaches to compliance, however, often end up hurting businesses more than helping them. As Liberty Mutual’s David Ehringer describes it

The nature of the risk affecting the business is actually quite different: the nature of that risk is, kind of, the business disrupted, the business disappearing, the business not being able to react fast enough and change fast enough. So not to say that some of those things aren’t still important, but the nature of that risk is changing.

Ehringer says that many compliance controls are still important, but there are better ways of handling them without worsening the largest risk: going out of business because innovation was too late.

Let’s look at three ways that organizations are avoiding failure by compliance.

Ignore compliance, compliantly

While just a quick fix, engineering a way to avoid compliance is a common first approach. Early on, when you’re learning a new mindset for software and build up a series of small successes, you’ll likely work on applications that require little to no compliance. These kinds of applications often contain no customer data, don’t directly drive or modify core processes, or otherwise touch anything that’d need compliance scrutiny.

These may seem disconnected from anything that matters and, thus, not worth working on. Early on, though, the ability to get moving and prove that change is possible often trumps any business value concerns. You don’t want to eat these “empty calorie” projects too much, but it’s better than being killed off at the start.

Minimal Viable Compliance

Part of what makes compliance seem like toil is that many of the controls seem irrelevant. Over the years, compliance builds up like plaque in your steak-loving arteries. The various controls may have made sense at some time — often responding to some crisis that occured because this new control wasn’t followed. At other times, the controls may simply not be relevant to the way you’re doing software.

Clearing away old compliance

When you really peer into the audit abyss, you’ll often find out that many of the tasks and time bottlenecks are caused by too much ceremony and processes no longer needed to achieve the original goals of audibility. Target’s Heather Mickman recounts her experience with just such an audit abyss clean-up in The DevOps Handbook:

As we went through the process, I wanted to better understand why the TEAP-LARB [Target’s existing governance] process took so long to get through, and I used the technique of “the five whys”…which eventually led to the question of why TEAP-LARB existed in the first place. The surprising thing was that no one knew, outside of a vague notion that we needed some sort of governance process. Many knew that there had been some sort of disaster that could never happen again years ago, but no one could remember exactly what that disaster was, either.

As Boston Scientific’s CeeCee O’Connor says, finding your path to minimal viable compliance means you’ll actually need to talk with auditors and understand the compliance needs. You’ll likely need to negotiate if various controls are needed or not, more or less proving that they’re not. When working with auditors on an application that helped people manage a chronic condition, O’Connor group first mapped out what they called “the path to production.”

Boston Scientific’s “Path to Production.”

This was a value-stream like visual that showed all of the steps and processes needed to get the application into production, including, of course compliance steps. Representing each of these as sticky notes on a wall allowed the team to quickly work with auditors to go through each step — each sticky note — and ask if it was needed. Answering such a question requires some criteria, so applying lean they team asked the question “does this process add value for the customer?”

You’re already helping compliance

This mapping and systematic approach allowed the team and auditors to negotiate the actual set controls needed to get to production. At Boston Scientific, the compliance standards had built up over 15 years, growing thick, and this process helped thin them out, speeding up the software delivery cycle.

The opportunity to work with auditors will also let you demonstrate how many of your practices are already improving compliance. For example, pair programming means that all code is continuously being reviewed by a second person and detailed test suite reports show that code is being tested. Once you understand what your auditors need, there are likely other processes that you’re following that contribute to compliance.

Discussing his work at Boston Scientific, Pivotal’s Chuck D’Antonio describes a happy coincidence between lead design and compliance. When it comes to pacemakers and other medical devices, you’re only supposed to build exactly the software needed, removing any extraneous software that might bring bugs. This requirement matches almost exactly with one of the core ideas of minimum viable products and lean: only deliver the code needed. Finding these happy coincidences, of course, requires working closely with auditors. It’ll be worth a day or two of meetings and tours to show your auditors how you do software and ask them if anything lines up already.

Case Study: “It was way beyond what we needed to even be doing.”

Operating in five US states and insuring around 15 million people, health insurance provider HCSC is up to its eyeballs in regulations and compliance. As it started to transform, HCSC initially felt like getting over the compliance hurdle would be impossible. Mark Ardito recounts how easy it actually was once auditors were satisfied with how much better a cloud-native approach was:

Turns out it’s really easy to track a story in [Pivotal] Tracker to a commit that got made in git. So I know the SHA that was in git, that was that Tracker story. And then I know the Jenkins job that pushed it out to Cloud Foundry. And guess what? I have this in the tools. There’s logs of all these things happening. So slowly, I was able to start to prove out auditability just from Jenkins logs, git SHAs, things like that. So we started to see that it became easier and easier to prove audits instead of Word documents, Excel documents — you can type anything you want in a Word document! You can’t fake a log from git and you can’t fake a log in Jenkins or Cloud Foundry.

Automation makes auditors happier and removes huge, time-sucking bottlenecks.

Transform compliance

While you may be able to avoid compliance or eliminate some controls, regulations are more likely unavoidable. Speeding up the compliance bottleneck, then, requires changing how compliance is done. Thankfully, using a build pipeline and cloud platforms provides a deep set of tools to speed up compliance. Even better, you’ll find cloud native tools and processes improve the actual quality and accuracy of compliance.

Compliance as code

Many of the controls auditors need can be satisfied by adding minor steps into your development process. For example, as Boston Scientific found, one of their auditors controls specified that a requirement had to be tracked through the development process. Instead of having to verify this after the team was code complete, they made sure to embed the story ID into each git commit, automated build, and deploy. Along these lines, the OpenControl project has put several years of effort into automating even the most complicated government compliance regimes. Chef’s InSpec project is also being used to automate compliance.

Pro-actively putting in these kinds of tracers is a common pattern form organizations that are looking to automate compliance. There’s often a small amount of scripting required to extract these tracers and present them in a human readable format, but that work is trivial in comparison to the traditional audit process.

Put compliance in the platform

Another common tactic is to put as much control enforcement into your cloud platform as possible. In a traditional approach, each application comes with its own set of infrastructure and related configuration: not only the “servers” needed, but also systems and policy for networking, data access, security settings, and so forth.

This makes your entire stack of infrastructure and software a single, unique unit that must be audited each release. This creates a huge amount of compliance work that needs to be done even for a single line of code: everything must be checked from the dirt to screen. As Raytheon’s Keith Rodwell lays out, working with auditors, you can often show them that by using the same, centralized platform for all applications you can inherit compliance from the platform. This allows you to avoid the time taken to re-audit each layer in your stack.

The US federal government’s cloud.gov platform provides a good example of baking controls into the platform. 18F, the group that built and supports cloud.gov described how their platform, based on Cloud Foundry, takes care of 269 controls for product teams:

Out of the 325 security controls required for Moderate-impact systems, cloud.gov handles 269 controls, and 41 controls are a shared responsibility (where cloud.gov provides part of the requirement, and your applications provide the rest). You only need to provide full implementations for the remaining 15 controls, such as ensuring you make data backups and using reliable DNS (Domain Name System) name servers for your websites.

Organizations that bake controls into their platforms find that they can reduce the time to pass audits from months (if not years!) to just weeks or even days. The US Air Force has had similar success with this approach, bringing security certification down from 18 months to 30 days, sometimes even just 10.

Compliance as a service

Finally, as get deeper into dealing with compliance, you might even find that you work more closely with auditors. It’s highly unlikely that they’ll become part of your product team; though that could happen in some especially compliance-driven government and military work where being compliant is a huge part of the business value. However, organizations often find that auditors are involved closely throughout their software life-cycle. Part of this is giving auditors the tools to proactively check on controls first hand.

Home Depot’s Tony McCulley suggests giving auditors access to your continuous delivery process and deployment environment. This means auditors can verify compliance questions on their own instead of asking product teams to do that work. Effectively, you’re letting auditors peer into and even help out with controls in your software. Of course, this will only works if have a well-structured, standardized platform supporting your build pipeline with good UIs that non-technical staff can access.

Making compliance better

There have obviously been culture shocks. What is more interesting though is that the teams that tend to have the worst culture shock are not those typical teams that you might think of, audit or compliance. In fact, if you’re able to successfully communicate to them what you’re doing, DevOps and all of the associated practices seem like common sense. [Auditors] say, ‘Why weren’t we doing this before?’” — Manuel Edwards, E*TRADE, Jan 2016

The net result of all these efforts to speed up compliance often improves the quality of compliance itself:

  1. Understanding and working with auditors gives the product team the chance to write software that more genuinely matches compliance needs.
  2. The traceability of requirements, authorization, and automated test reports give auditors much more of the raw materials needed to verify compliance.
  3. Automating compliance reporting and baking controls into the platform creates much more accurate audits and can give so called “controls” actual, programmatic control to enforce regulations.

As with any discussion that includes the word “automation,” some people take all of this to mean that auditors are no longer needed. That is, we can get rid of their jobs. This sentiment then gets stacked up into the eternal “they” antipattern: “well, they won’t change, so we can’t improve anything around here.

But, also as with any discussion that includes to word “automation,” things are not so clear. What all of these compliance optimizations point to is how much waste and extra work there is in the current approach to compliance.

This often means auditors working overtime, on the weekend, and over holidays. If you can improve the tools auditors use you don’t need to get rid of them. Instead, as we can do with previously overworked developers, you end up getting more value out of each auditor and, at the same time, they can go home on-time. As with developers, happy auditors mean a happier business.

This post is an early draft of a chapter in my book,  Monolithic Transformation.

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