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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

We're not dead yet...

It has been a while since I posted to my blog. I've been fairly busy moving into my new home. I'm in now and the computer is set up. So it is time to blog again...

We have been hiring people to work in my department, Software Quality Assurance. Because our software products are development and system administrator tools, our QA staff needs to know how to program and how to validate the information our tools are providing; do you know AIX, HP-UX, Solaris, Linux (Redhat and SuSE) and Windows? Can you confirm the Disk I/O, Process, Thread, NIC, etc. information is correct? Can you write a multithread application which is guaranteed to deadlock so our tools will detect the deadlock? Can you write a J2EE application that exercises all J2EE technologies (EJB, JDBC, Servlets, JSPs, RMI, JNDI, etc.)?

These are the sort of skills the QA staff at my company possess. We interview a lot of people. Most don't have a clue about the basics. No one (myself included) had all the knowledge necessary to do the job well. So how do we do it? An ability to learn and find answers.

As we hire people, some work out but many more don't make it through the probation period; we either terminate them or they quit. I've been trying to put my finger on what the survives have that the others don't and I think I figured it out. Those who survive have a hacker mentality. One guy I hired, Jerry, found this magazine and thought it would be right up my alley. It was called alt.2600.

It has been over a decade since I hung out in alt.2600. When I saw the magazine I thought I'd point Jerry to the alt.2600 newsgroup. I was surprised to find out it was gone. I checked to see if the archives were there and there was no hint of alt.2600. If you google "alt 2600" you will find the FAQ and references to the newsgroup but the newsgroup itself is gone. The last time the FAQ was updated was April 2004.

The magazine made me realize though that hackers think differently. Case in point, when Kryponite locks came out they were advertised as impossible to cut with bolt cutters. I knew someone who took 4 foot bolt cutters and tried. He bent the bolt cuts. I looked at the lock and realized the locking mechanism overlapped the Kryponite bar by 2mm. A swift whack at this point with a 2 pound hammer and the the lock popped open. Most people looked at the ad and tried to figure out how to cut the bar (the ads indicated the bar was uncuttable). I stepped back and thought, the problem is not cutting the bar. This is narrow thinking. The real problem is removing the lock from what it held. Cutting the bar was only one way to do this.

Hackers get into web sites by looking for the weak points. They don't let the requirements lead them. The login web page only lets me enter limited information; don't use the login web page. Create your own web page and set the FORM action to point to the other web site. Design your FORM so you can send more information. Do something you know will fail just to see if there is useful information in the error message. The more you can reveal about the technology the more you can determine the weak point.

When I test a piece of software I'm looking for the weak point. This ability to see things form a different point of view lets me find the bugs the developer did not see.

Is being a hacker a dying art?