How do we talk to business?

How many times have you tried to get buyin for a security idea at work, or with a client, only to have them say “no”. Even though you knew it was really important, they still made the wrong decision.

We’ve all seen this more times than we can count. We usually walk away grumbling about how sorry they’ll be someday. Some of them will be, some won’t. The reason is always the same though:

You’re bad at talking to the business world

You can easily make the argument that money is a big motivator for a business. For some it’s the only motivator. Businesses want save money, prevent problems, be competitive, and stay off the front page for bad news. The business folks don’t care about technical details as much as they worry about running their business. They don’t worry about which TLS library is the best. They want to know how something is going to make their lives easier (or harder).

If we can’t frame our arguments in this context, we have no argument we’re really just wasting time.


Making their lives easier

We need to answer the question, how can security make lives easier? Don’t answer too quickly, it’s complicated.
Everything has tradeoffs. If we add a security product or process, what’s going to be neglected? If we purchase a security solution, what aren’t we purchasing with those funds? Some businesses would compare these choices to buying food or tires. If you’re hungry, you can’t eat tires.
We actually have two problems to solve.
  1. Is this problem actually important
  2. How can I show the value
Is something important is always tricky. When you’re a security person, lots of things seem important but aren’t really. Let’s say inside your corporate network someone wants to disable their firewall. Is that important? It could be. Is missing payroll because of the firewall more important? Yes.
First you have to decide how important is the thing you have in mind. I generally ponder if I’d be willing to get fired over this. If the answer is “no”, it’s probably not very important. We’ll talk about how to determine what’s important in the future (it’s really hard to do).
Let’s assume we have something that is important.

Now how do we bring this to the people in charge?

Historically I would write extremely long emails or talk to people at length about how smart I am and how great my idea is. This never works.

You should write up a business proposal. Lay out the costs, benefits, requirements, features, all of it. This is the sort of thing business people like to see. It’s possible you may even figure out what you’re proposing is a terrible idea before you even get it in front of someone who can write a check. Think for a minute what happens when you develop a reputation for only showing up with good well documented ideas? Right.

Here’s how this usually works. Someone has an idea, then it gets debated for days or weeks. It’s not uncommon to spend more time actually discussing an idea than it is to implement the thing. By writing down what’s going on, there is no ambiguity, there’s no misunderstanding, there’s no pointless discussion about ketchup.

I actually did this a while back. There was discussion about a feature, it had lasted for weeks, nobody had a good answer and the general idea kept going back and forth. I wrote up a proper business proposal and it actually changed my mind, it was a HORRIBLE idea (I was in favor of it before that). I spent literally less than a single work day and cast in stone our decision. In about 6 hours I managed to negate hundreds of hours of debate. It was awesome.

The language of the business is one of requirements, costs, and benefits. It’s not about outsmarting anyone or seeing who knows the biggest word. There’s still plenty of nuance here, but for now if you’re looking to make the most splash, you need to learn how to write a business plan. I’ll leave how you do this as an exercise to the reader, there are plenty of examples.

Join the conversation, hit me up on twitter, I’m @joshbressers

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