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The OWASP Board “Ivory Tower” Dilemma

I have been an active member of the OWASP community in some form since 2007.  I've been the OWASP Austin Chapter Leader, served as the Chair of the Global Chapters Committee, and, most recently, was elected (and re-elected) to the OWASP Board of Directors.  In the past, I have heard a number of people in our community compare the Board to an "Ivory Tower".  They would say that they were unapproachable and preferred to let others do the work while they pulled the strings of the Foundation from behind the scenes.  I think there may be some truth to that statement, but I told myself when I ran for the Board that I wouldn't be like that.  I want people to feel like I am out there actively trying to solve the problems of our community.  Case in point, in my 23 months on the OWASP Board, I have proposed more Bylaw changes and new policies than anybody else.

As I continue to try to be a man of action, I find that I am often one of the first Board members on the scene in times of crisis.  On multiple occasions I've shunned the historical "Ivory Tower" approach to managing the organization and dove head in to the situation at hand.  My assumption has been that I was elected because I have an opinion, not in spite of it.  In each case I've tried to present a clear and concise analysis of my view of the situation.  I've tried to offer up suggestions on next steps or provide data points that others may not have been aware of.  Being such a diverse community has many strengths, however, one weakness is that it is difficult to drive to a consensus on anything.  It really doesn't matter what side of the issue you are on, it always seems like some will agree with you and others will not.  Frequently, what begins as an intended friendly and spirited debate, ends with somebody feeling marginalized because a decision was made that they did not agree with.  It's sad when this happens, but is inevitable when you mix passionate people with issues that do not have binary answers.

This leads me back to the "Ivory Tower" dilemma.  If my desire is to actively be a part of the community, then I place myself directly in a position of potential conflict when I speak.  I'm not allowed to speak as Josh, the community member, because the perception is that I am always speaking with my Board member hat on.  And I have a strong feeling that this perception of Board members speaking authoritatively is what leads a person on the other side to feel marginalized.  Definitely not intended, at least on my part, but that's what I've started to gather from some of the feedback that I've received.  So if that's the case, then I begin to wonder if the situation would have been better off had I held my tongue and refrained from jumping into the discussion in order to let our community continue to fight it out or to let another Board member, our Executive Director, or somebody else communicate the Board's analysis and actions.  But, if I do that, aren't I now perpetuating the stereotype of the OWASP Board being an "Ivory Tower"?

I'm not sure that there is a right or wrong answer here and nobody said that being a Board member would be easy, but I can't say that I ever expected to need to give up my personal voice with the community (the one that likely got me elected to the Board in the first place) in order to serve the Board.  That said, it genuinely saddens me when an extremely valued OWASP volunteer feels the need to leave in order to make a point.  It is a huge loss for the OWASP Foundation and one that I, regrettably, played a role in provoking.  I don't apologize for my stance on the issue that was being debated.  I feel that we should all be allowed to have an opinion and I still support the actions of the Board thus far.  That said, if I could take back my words, crawl back into that "Ivory Tower", and let someone else do the talking in this particular situation, I'm sorry to say that I would.

Johanna, I'm sorry that it turned out this way.  You may not believe it, but I sincerely respect and appreciate what you have done for the OWASP Foundation more than words can express.  You have brought order where there was chaos and a dedication to the cause that was matched only by your intellect.  I feel that we don't have to always agree on a vision in order for me to appreciate your perspective.  I regret that I never conveyed that to you before now.  I'm sorry.


My First Six Months as an OWASP Board Member

When I first put my name in the hat for the OWASP elections in the fall of 2013, I thought I knew what I was signing up for.  I thought that my seven year history with the organization in a number of different roles (Chapter Leader, Chapter Committee Chair, AppSecUSA Chair) had me well prepared for the duties of an OWASP Board member.  I told my wife that it wouldn't be a big deal, mostly something that I could do in my spare time while at work, and that it would feel good to be able to make a difference on a bigger scale than I'd done to date.  I ran for the Board on a platform of wanting to support the growth of the OWASP chapters around the world and wanting to drive visibility, and ultimately buy-in, back to the community.  I told myself that as passionate as I was with these things as a community member, it was time to either put up or shut up.

Here I am, six months later, as an elected member of the OWASP Board of Directors and I can honestly say that no prior experience could have prepared me for this.  It's not a good thing or a bad thing, it's just very different than I expected.  As a community member, I remember being at the AppSecUSA conferences and struggling with how to introduce myself to these "famous" OWASP Board Members.  I was a just a chapter leader struggling to come up with ideas to engage the Austin security community while these guys were literally trying to change the world.  They were the figurative "Rock Stars" of my little security world.  Needless to say, I see things a bit differently now, but it's probably not what you think.

When I look at my fellow Board members, I do still see those "Rock Stars".  I can't even begin to tell you how much I look up to guys like Jim Manico for literally spending every day of his life trying to make the world more secure.  I constantly have to tell myself that even though I don't consider myself a security rock star, the community saw something in me and put me on the Board for a reason and I continue to hold myself responsible for executing on the platform that I laid out in my election materials.  But what I've come to realize now, that I didn't realize before my election, is that even though it feels the other way around, it's really the community, not the Board that holds the power in OWASP.

When I look back at the discussions that we've had as a Board over the past six months, other than setting strategic goals, the vast majority of our meetings have focused on operational and governance issues.  Through this process, I have come to the realization that while extremely important to keeping OWASP, as a non-profit organization, afloat, this isn't the kind of exciting world-wide impact stuff I thought I had signed up for.  As an example, my first two months as a Board member were spent in large part re-investigating a situation that a previous Board had closed the books on long ago.  In the process of trying to help the individual involved, I was twice accused by that individual (and acquitted) of violating OWASP's Code of Ethics.  Talk about gratitude.  Since then, it seems like it's been putting out one small fire after another.  More recently, I've spent many hours working with the Board and the Executive Director to grapple with an employee who resigned from the organization only to have members of our community question whether we, as an organization, did enough to keep them here, without knowing all of the details.  It blows my mind how the Board can have unanimous support for an item, feel confident that it's in the best interest of the organization, and still be called into question as to whether we are somehow being underhanded in our decisions.  It's like we sometimes forget that the Board is made up of seven people, from all over the world, with vastly different beliefs, desires, and even visions for OWASP.  If you can get that many people, that diverse, on the same page, then there's something to be said for that.

So, I guess in a nutshell what I'm saying is that while I feel that it's quite the privilege to be serving on the OWASP Board alongside some of the people I respect most in this industry, there is definitely a part of me that feels like the stuff that OWASP does that has the most profound impact on global security isn't what we do on the Board, but rather, what the community does in our Chapters and Projects.  The Board is there to support you, the community.  To create the policies to make you successful.  To provide the staff to make your lives easier so that you can spend your time doing things that accomplish OWASP's mission.  In addition, I want to dispel any notion that the Board is some sort of an Ivory Tower.  There should never be an "us vs them" mentality at OWASP because the Board is made up of people who have been, and in many cases still are, in the trenches right alongside the community.  The Board, to put it simply, is just a group of Chapter Leaders, Project Leaders, and other members of our community who, like me, decided that it was time to put up or shut up.  People who, for whatever reason, the community elected as our leaders to evangelize the OWASP mission and make the community that we hold near and dear to our hearts successful.  To think that anyone would volunteer to be a Board member only to destroy our community is absurd.  While I may not necessarily agree with everything my fellow Board members say or do, I have never questioned their loyalty to OWASP and I hope you don't either.

With all of the above having been said, I feel that it's also important to say that being an OWASP Board member is also an amazing opportunity to be a catalyst for change.  Over the past six months the Board has stepped up to the task of driving visibility and control back to our community.  We've instituted a new polling system that the Board have used to take the pulse of the community on key issues.  Michael has taken on the responsibility of weekly calls with the community in order to keep them informed of key issues and allow them to provide feedback.  And we are currently working on bringing back the committees under a new structure that will encourage participation and empower our leaders to take action.  OWASP even won the SC Magazine Editor's Choice Award at this year's RSA Conference.  Regardless of how you've felt about OWASP in the past, I feel quite strongly that the future for OWASP is so bright we're going to need a good pair of shades.

So, I'll end this post very similar to how it began.  The OWASP Foundation is currently accepting nominations for the OWASP Board of Directors.  If you've ever felt passionate about Information Security or felt like you have big ideas to make OWASP a better community, then now is the perfect time to throw your hat into the ring as I did.  I can't promise that it'll make you a security rock star.  I can't even promise that the work is glamorous.  And my experience, thus far, has been that it's been countless hours of volunteer work with little appreciation for what gets done.  But, what I can promise, is that OWASP is making the world a better place and the Board plays a vital role in making that happen.  You, too, can be a catalyst for change.