Five Principles For Building a Secure Product

August 30, 2021

Vanta CEO, Christina Cacioppo, recently spoke at the Startup Grind 2021 Global Conference. Here’s your session recap on SOC 2 and how to build a secure product.

Vanta’s history with SOC 2

After working on Dropbox Paper, Christina realized that large companies wanted tangible proof of product security. This is a huge blocker for many startups selling to enterprises. Vanta makes it easy for startups to get and stay SOC 2 certified.

What is a SOC 2?

SOC 2 is a standard created by the American Institute of CPAs that looks at your overall security posture and evaluates it against a standardized framework. You can customize your SOC 2 prior to an audit to reflect the processes that you have in place. An auditor then looks at the evidence that you provide them and validates that your listed practices are correct and implemented. We recommend startups to proactively obtain an SOC 2. This report shows your prospects and customers that your company takes security seriously.

Two main reasons companies are getting SOC 2 certified are to hold them accountable to high security standards and to protect their customers' data. SOC 2 is a standard, streamlined, way of communicating security practices to new and existing customers.

At the time of this session, Vanta had helped 800 companies prepare for their SOC 2 audit. Roughly six months later, Vanta now has over 1600 customers. Despite doubling the size of the business, Christina’s five key security principles have remained the same.

Principle 1: Start doing things early, even if you don’t do them perfectly

Establish strong security practices from the very beginning. It’s critical to track who at your company has access to what. This will give you a single location to store all of your key information on where to offboard or deactivate employee access when people leave or shift roles. Track everything, even if it's not perfect. It can be anything from a basic spreadsheet to a developed software like Github.

Christina’s main takeaway is that “You don’t want to wait for an audit to start thinking about your security practices. Starting early may slow you down a bit now but will ultimately help you scale later and if you set your processes up correctly, can save your engineering team time in the long run.”

Principle 2: Codify as much as you can (yes, literally in code)

Document your practices in code wherever possible. Whether this be security logging or change management, the more you set aspects like this in code, the easier it is to see approval patterns, hence also giving the benefit of hindsight when something goes wrong. There are good reasons outside of security to do this too.

Examples of where you can codify your practices now include:

  • Infrastructure: You can manage infrastructure through Terraform, CloudFormation, or any other Infrastructure as Code tools.
  • Testing: Defining a CI/CD pipeline, creating unit or integration tests where it makes sense and having testing descriptions written in PR’s can help your whole team stay on the same page.
  • Personnel access: Create IAM policies in AWS or any cloud infrastructure provider you use. You should version these to see what changes have been made overtime.  

Principle 3: Track people as well as you track things

Many companies are already tracking a lot of the ‘things’ that are expected in a SOC 2 audit which is a great first step. Where most startups are lacking is in their people management. As with all security practices, starting these practices earlier makes it a lot easier when you grow.

Some steps you should take to track your people:

  • Set up single sign-on wherever possible: This helps you move toward a good access control policy. If you're using single sign-on, you often also get multi-factor authentication for free.
  • Access review: Review which employees have access to which system periodically and write everything down to maintain a secure record. This ensures that you can remove access to these tools when people leave the company.
  • Assign admins: Within systems like GitHub, you should assign ‘super admins.’ Not everyone needs to be a super admin and it should be clearly labelled and documented.

Principle 4: Centralize and assign ownership

Fragmentation is the enemy of compliance (and your sanity), making it critical to centralize processes as much as possible and then assign ownership. We advise using single sign-on providers, and centralizing deploy systems, vendor tracking, password managers, and mobile device management on one platform wherever possible. These practices will maintain security and organization. Christina advises companies to “default to prescriptiveness. Be communicative and directly tell your employees what the standard is, and make sure they follow it.”

Assign ownership to individuals, instilling a culture of accountability and a focus on security. This is also the best way to ensure that a task is completed by a specified deadline. The directly responsible person or deadline may change but someone is directly held accountable for projects this way. This has to come from the top and start from the beginning.

Principle 5: Think about demonstrating your security with a SOC 2

Get SOC 2 certified and show it off! SOC 2 certification proactively displays your commitment to security. Many customers seek out this certification — differentiating you from your competition. Vanta provides customers with a badge to prove that they are SOC 2 compliant. Consider creating a blog post or social media announcement publicizing your SOC 2 report and utilize this credential in your sales and marketing efforts.

Vanta makes it easy for startups to get and stay SOC 2 certified. We’ll customize security procedures based on your needs and ensure that your SOC 2 is right for your customers. Let’s get started!

Watch Christina Cacioppo’s full session, Before SOC 2: 5 Principles for Building a Secure Product, from the Startup Grind conference.  

“Vanta's expert team helped analyze our compliance requirements and shared what was needed to complete a SAQ-D. Because of this, we accelerated our timelines, saved hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in costs.”

Klas Hesselman
Co-founder  |  Flow Networks
Vanta automates security compliance.
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