The Importance of Vendor Risk Assessments

When buying a car, do you rush right out to the dealership and purchase the first car you find online? Or, do you perform your research and kick the tires, taking it for a test drive? Most of us will conduct our “due diligence” before buying a car and this includes researching the types of cars we’d like to buy, taking several test drives and checking out the mechanics of the car.  This same due diligence should be done for each of the vendors that you plan to use within your company in the form of a vendor risk assessment, regardless of their size. In fact, current vendors within your company should be reviewed every one to two years. For example, did someone review their financials? Do you know if you can get your data back if they go bankrupt? Do you know if they’re governed by laws outside of your country?

In larger companies, vendor risk assessments are typically performed by risk analysts, technology auditors, and information security folks, working in conjunction with the vendor management and procurement departments. In smaller companies, there may be a one or two person team responsible for conducting the vendor risk assessment. In many startup organizations, vendor risk assessments can be an afterthought. If you don’t perform a vendor risk assessment on your vendors today, take a look at this Risk Assessment Toolkit from the State of California’s Department of Technology, Information Security Office to get you started. There are many other sample templates and resources available online, as well. This is a great video on assessing technology vendor risk and security from Monte Ratzlaff, Security Manager, at UC Davis Health System, as he presents “Vendor Risks: Evaluating the Security of New Technology”.

At this point, some of you may think, “well, I don’t need a risk assessment on ____ vendor (insert name of vendor), they’re huge!”. Right? Wrong. I’ve worked with technology audit professionals on the review of hundreds (if not thousands) of technology vendors and yes, some of those “huge” vendors can have red flags for you and your company. Whether it’s the fact that they’re in the middle of a merger, they’re outsourcing their development team, or they don’t have enough insurance to cover you in the event of a breach, the scenarios can vary, depending upon what your company considers a risk and how that risk is categorized. If you need a tool to understand risks associated with the project you’re considering, take a look at this post by BrightHub PM, it has a lot of great info on creating a risk matrix and how to use it.

In the end, just think of a vendor risk assessment as a way to kick the tires of the prospective vendor before buying a lemon whose carburetor is going to explode once you drive it off the lot. If you’re interested in performing a proof of concept or proof of technology with the vendor once they pass the vendor risk assessment, check out a former post that I wrote on this topic and good luck!

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Make Your Next Demo a Success

product_demosVendor demonstrations or “demos” as they’re called in the industry are an important part of the technology product review phase. Unfortunately, these demos are typically despised by both business owners and vendors. Vendors don’t look forward to reciting a dry PowerPoint presentation and business owners don’t look forward to “wasting” two or more hours of their day. The funny thing is that this emotional response is what usually results in its failure. Here are a few tips for both vendors and business owners in order to make your next demo a success.

Business Owners

Prepare Ahead of Time. Prepare for the demo by collecting all of the information you’ve received from the vendor up to this point. What do you want to see in the demo? What should the vendor focus on? Reach out to the vendor ahead of time and send them your thoughts on the demo, noting what’s important for you and your stakeholders.

Ask Questions. I’ve seen many demos where business owners don’t ask any relevant questions. This is your chance to ask the vendor about their product. Prepare a list of questions before the demo if needed.

Respect the Vendor. They traveled to your site for a reason. Sure they’re salespeople and they do this all the time. However, I’ve seen business owners act very disrespectfully to vendor reps during demos. There’s no reason for that, everyone should be treated with respect.

Plan the Logistics. Make sure that the conference room is ready and that the vendors have wireless access (if needed) along with anything else required for the demo.  Reach out to the vendor ahead of time and ask them how many people will be attending. Also, think about questions like “Does the vendor need security access?”, “Do we need to serve lunch?”, or “Do we want to have coffee available?” This may seem like small potatoes now, but I’ve seen hours wasted due to poor logistical planning.

Listen. I’ve been in many demos where business owners ask the same question two or three times because they were checking their phone or weren’t paying attention. Listen so that you don’t waste your time and the time of those attending the demo.

Vendors

Arrive on Time. This is especially true if there are several vendor staff members attending the demo. There’s nothing like starting the demo and having four more vendor staff members trickle in over the course of an hour apologizing for their “late flight”. If flights are that hard to come by to get to the business owner’s site, don’t come in person, instead make it a webEx.

Disregard Pack Mentality. Don’t travel in packs unless absolutely necessary. If this can’t be avoided, let the business owner know up front that you’ll be bringing multiple colleagues.  It throws a lot of business owners off when they’re expecting two people and they end up walking into Oracle World.

Ditch the PowerPoint. Don’t spend an hour on your PowerPoint presentation, get down to brass tacks and show off your product. The PowerPoint is only going to tell your customers so much since it’s a static representation of your product. The PowerPoint presentation can be 10-15 minutes, but from there, start the demo.

Schedule Breaks. The human mind can only process so much information. On top of this, folks need to use the restroom and check their messages. Don’t hold your business owners hostage for 2 hours while you take them through the XML feeds. Schedule ten minute breaks each hour to keep everyone’s blood flowing.

Prepare Ahead of Time. Similar to the advice I gave the business owners above, schedule a discovery meeting with your internal business owner(s) before the demo to understand exactly what they want to see in the demo.

Good luck!

The Price of Innovation?

Image courtesy of Telephonica

Image courtesy of Telephonica

BMC sues ServiceNow. Cisco sues Arista. SAP / Ariba sues Coupa. Is this the ultimate price of innovation?

Start ups are built with hunger, passion and innovation. Oftentimes, they are built with the minds of those that have worked for BMC, Cisco and Ariba. But, is this wrong? In the eyes of the law, it’s wrong when your ideas infringe upon the patented or copyrighted ideas of those that came before you. However, without the experience that those employees gained from being at BMC, Cisco or Ariba, could they have built a better system? Probably not. But, I’m not here to opine on whether BMC or ServiceNow are right. I’m here to open a discussion on today’s price of innovation and the uncanny surge of enterprise companies such as BMC and Cisco suing their nimble and hungry counterparts.

Did these start ups roguely take the ideas of their former employers? Or, are the large, enterprise conglomerates just looking to take down their up and coming competitors? Here’s a great article that’s a few years old, but still relevant entitled “Patent Wars: A New Age of Competition”.

Integration: Klingons vs. Elves

Integration is largely dismissed by those interested in purchasing software these days. Quotes like “don’t worry, we’ll make it happen” or “oh, it’ll all come together in the end” are heard in meetings as everyone rushes to sign the vendor’s contracts before the end of the fiscal year. Unfortunately, six months later the same people are saying “the vendors weren’t upfront in their demos with us!” and “I don’t understand what’s so difficult about all this, why can’t they just make it work!”.

If you’ve ever integrated different systems together, you know that integration is where the rubber meets the road so to speak. From a technical perspective, I’m not a fan of bolting two (or more) different systems onto each other and forcing them to talk to one another. However, many times it has to be done and if that’s the case, it needs to be planned accordingly. The best way I can explain an integration effort is this:

System 1, a.k.a. “Worf”: A Klingon who hails from the planet Kronos. Worf has been characterized as a “swarthy humanoid”, doesn’t like cold weather and enjoys a bloody battle. Speaks Klingon.

System 2 a.k.a. “Enel”: An Elf who hails from Valinor in Middle-earth. Wise and immortal, Enel is a skilled hunter and has pledged to preserve the world. Speaks Elvish.

Worf and Enel couldn’t be more different. In fact, they’re completely different in every way imaginable. So, how the heck do you make them talk to one another? Hire an interpreter (i.e. 3rd party software tool) to assist in the language barrier? What similarities does Worf have that Enel can understand (i.e. temporary tables)? What symbol of understanding can be passed between them (i.e. Web Services or APIs)?

To ensure that the Klingons don’t invade the Elven continent of Middle-earth and destroy an ancient civilization, it’s important that you get your Supreme Council in a room (i.e. project stakeholders) along with your Trusted Advisors (i.e. IT architects, etc.) and determine the best way (or ways) for Worf and Enel to communicate with one another before you join their people together as a nation. Otherwise, prepare for Worf’s battle cruiser to enter Middle-earth airspace and it won’t be pretty.

Are You Using “Test” Data in the Cloud?

CloudSecurityKeyhole_468Yes, you read that correctly. The word test is in quotation marks, as in “is it really test data that you have in the vendor’s cloud?”. Astonishingly enough, at least 85% of financial institutions are using live data in their test environments [1]. Could this be you and are you protecting your organization against a data breach effectively?

When a cloud technology vendor makes an offhand remark like, “yeah, we can create a test environment for you and load your test data into the cloud while we work through a Non-Disclosure or Proof of Concept agreement with your legal team”, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Now, I’m not knocking the technology vendors. In fact, to them this is a natural part of the engagement. What you have to be aware of is whether your company’s test data is truly “test data” or not. For example, if you’re in the financial or healthcare sectors where a data breach could expose Personal Health Information (PHI) or Personally Identifiable Information (PII), you should understand your test data thoroughly.

Once you understand your test data, think about putting together a more robust agreement with the vendor besides a Non-Disclosure or Proof of Concept agreement. Non-Disclosure and Proof of Concept agreements typically do not contain the language to protect your company against a data breach. A Master Services Agreement or Subscription Services Agreement should be reviewed by your legal or contracts team to determine if your company will be protected while using the vendor’s cloud if there is a breach with regard to the test data.

Karen Hsu of Informatica explains that “because data stored in a cloud-based ‘sandbox’ environment for testing purposes is vulnerable, it should be masked to protect sensitive information” [2]. She recommends using an automated masking tool to assist with the protection of your data. Regardless of what tools you use, your “test” data should be understood before loading any of it into a vendor’s cloud environment.

References:

[1] Dark Reading News. (2010, March). Live Data In Test Environments Is Alive And Well — And Dangerous. Retrieved from http://www.darkreading.com/risk/live-data-in-test-environments-is-alive-and-well—-and-dangerous/d/d-id/1133220?

[2] Hsu, Karen. (2013, March). Masking Test Data in the Cloud. Retrieved from http://www.bankinfosecurity.com/interviews/masking-test-data-in-cloud-i-1822

Preventing a Cloud Data Breach

Breach-WordsMany of you reading this have not (thankfully) experienced a cloud data breach with your technology vendors. However, a cloud data breach is always on the forefront as more businesses embrace cloud technology.

What are the chances that your organization could have a cloud data breach? According to research performed by the Ponemon Institute most companies will have small data breaches rather than large data breaches [1]. Does this mean you can breathe easy? Not so fast. For those of you in the retail and public sectors, your likelihood of experiencing a data breach is higher than those of you in the transportation, communications or even financial sectors [1]. However, each sector is impacted and the average cost of managing a data breach per organization is approximately $5.9 million with the average cost spent per breached record at $201 [1]. 41% of the respondents surveyed in the Ponemon Institute’s research said that malicious or criminal attacks were responsible for their data breach and 31% said that employee negligence was the root cause [1].

With those facts in mind, how do you prevent a cloud data breach?  The Ponemon Institute’s research states that “the most profitable investments companies can make seem to be an incident response plan, a strong security posture, the involvement of business continuity management and the appointment of a CISO with enterprise-wide responsibility” [1]. In addition to this, asking potential (and current) vendors about their cloud technology is also key. This is a nice article written by Julie Lopez that focuses on the right questions businesses should ask their technology vendors.  Her article mainly focuses on health care, but makes a lot of great points that everyone should read regarding vendor management. Speed to market is critical these days and cloud technology gives organizations this benefit. However, this speed to market mentality must be tempered with a sound risk mitigation strategy in order to reduce the chances of a costly data breach.

References

[1] Ponemon Institute. (2014, May). 2014 Cost of Data Breach Study: United States. Retrieved from http://essextec.com/sites/default/files/2014%20Cost%20of%20Data%20Breach%20Study.PDF

What Happens to Bad Software?

sadThere are a lot of things that happen to bad software. Back in the early 80’s, Atari decided to bury their bad software in the New Mexico desert. Literally, bury it.

It’s not 1983, but bad software still gets buried. It gets buried in a different sense. It gets bought by another vendor and “updated”, it’s “transformed” from a server-side application to a “cloud-based platform”, and lest we forget the “let’s customize the heck out of it until it’s unrecognizable and works better” (or worse in many cases) approach.

If you’ve been in technology for any length of time, you’ve probably worked with bad software. What makes it so bad? The bugs? The worthless GUI? The endless hours of futile user acceptance testing?  To me, it seems that there’s a gradual tipping point for bad software where the project goes from “Wow, let’s buy it” to “Well, let’s see how the requirements and design phases play out” to “did they even unit test this?” to “the end users hate user acceptance testing because the bugs are so bad”.

How can bad software be fixed? Or, can it be fixed at all?  Honestly, bad software is a real challenge.  You’ve got users who are being told by their managers that they have to use it, senior managers who are trying to ensure that they’re not scalped by their CEO / CFO for purchasing bad software, and a technical team managing so many workarounds related to the bad software that there are workarounds to the workaround.

If your project is using the Waterfall software development life cycle approach, the decision to pull or somehow salvage bad software has to be made early.  Don’t attempt optimism in the case of bad software.  If it’s broken and you know it, go back to the vendor and work with them to fix it before you roll it out to your end user population.  Keep in mind that this will probably throw your project into the red and you won’t be the most popular person until you get the project back on track, but it’s worth it. Talk to your stakeholders and explain the situation, because end users shouldn’t be held responsible for unit testing a bad software product.  However, if your project is using an Agile approach, you’re usually in a better place, as the 30 day sprints are more flexible and allow iterative changes to be made to the product.

As project managers, we’re responsible for the entire project, including (unfortunately) bad software. So, come up with a game plan to work with your vendors, stakeholders and project team to ensure that you aren’t rolling out bad software. Your end users will thank you!