Five questions with: Vincent Bénony (Hopper Disassembler)

In recent years, we have seen an increase of micro software-house building amazing security software and actively contributing to re-define how we do security. Personal projects quickly turning into powerful tools used by thousands of people to improve the security of many systems around the world. We live in exciting time, where a small team can build things that are going to shape the future of infosec. At NibbleSec, we support and celebrate those successes.

Today, we asked Vincent Bénony to talk about his experience with the Hopper Disassembler:

Q: Hi Vincent, would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself? How did you get into programming and security?

A: Hi! This is a long story...I started programming when I was very young, with the Oric Atmos (if any of you remember this computer). Back then, I was 7 and I’m not sure that I understood what I was doing. I continued on the Amiga, where I really discovered the assembly language with the Motorola 68000. By the way, these were my very first steps with reverse engineering. Like many other guys at that time, I started looking at the anti-copy schemes of games. Each time, it was a really fun challenge. Then, I moved to the demo scene and continued coding small demos. Naturally, I chose to study computer science at the university where, later on, I defended my PhD in the field of cryptography. That was the time when I got back to security and reverse engineering.

Q: When did you realize that Hopper was something more than a personal project? How did this happen?

A: I started working on Hopper as a hobby project, as I was not able to afford the price of an IDA license. At that time, I realized that I didn’t need to have such a powerful tool, and that only a few of IDA's features were really useful to me. Being a OS X user, I really don’t like the look-and-feel of most Qt applications as they're just a raw transposition of Windows versions; they feel like aliens in my OS, and most of the UX habits cannot be transposed to these UIs. Qt is a great toolkit - I love it, and I use it for the Linux version of Hopper - but I really think that each version has to be customized for the targeted OS… So, I decided to write a very little program to do interactive disassembly. And the project started to grow. It was developed at night, after my daily job, and when my children were sleeping :) And then, the Mac App Store was announced… It changed many things. A friend of mine - Hello Sebastien B. :) - told me that I should try to see if there are people interested in such an application on the Mac App Store. I really doubted at first, but I tried anyway… and then… a miracle. I rapidly encountered many people who were interested in the idea of a lightweight alternative of IDA for OS X. The project started to require a lot of time. I received a lot of very positive feedbacks from users, hence I had to make a choice between my job and Hopper…I decided that I had to take my chance. Today, I'm always amused when I look at the very first screenshots of Hopper. It helps me to measure the amount of work that has been done :)

Q: As a micro software company, what are the problems and opportunities?

A: Problems are multiple. First, the development of the software by itself represents only a small part of my day-to-day job. Commercializing a software is not just producing code. I have to deal with many things like the website, users support, legal aspects (accounting, taxes…), and even things that may sound anecdotical, but which take me a lot of time like drawing icons :) - btw, I’m clearly not a designer. That being said, this is only a matter of organization. And I’m always pleased to see that there are so many positive feedbacks! This is something that pushes me beyond my limits. I always try to communicate as much as I can about the software and its development. Many times, people are talking about the project on medias like Twitter, which is a really great tool to help me reaching out potentially interested people. Security conferences are also something that I’m trying to follow as much as I can. For instance, I'm trying to go to every conference in France: I’m almost sure to meet people who use this kind of software, and their feedback is always a great value! Most of the features that were added to Hopper v3 are things that were discussed with people I met in conferences like NoSuchCon in Paris.

Q: Being a one-person software company, how do you track and prioritize new features and bugs? Which software development model are you following? In other words, how do you make sure that you're working on something relevant?

A: I’m an academic person, hence, I was not really at ease with software development methods used by real companies. I don’t know how it works outside France, but the studies I followed were purely about the theoretical aspects of computer science and nothing else. I have a coherent vision of what I would like to reach with Hopper. I always read all messages that I receive from my customers and I write all ideas that are compatible with the initial view I had for my software on my todo list. I’m always trying to avoid mutating Hopper into something that pretends to fit the needs of everyone; I want it to be lightweight, and coherent. Once I filtered the features that I want to implement, I usually start with the most visible part, implementing bogus functional parts. This is a good way to have a rapid visual feedback. If the feature still makes sense according to my usual workflow, it is kept. I really need to see the progress on a feature, and starting with the visual parts helps me a lot! Another thing, I strongly believe that the only way to write something coherent is to be the first client of your software. I use Hopper a lot, for many things, even debugging Hopper itself :)

Q: What would you recommend to people starting or maintaing a security tool? Which business model would you recommend to turn a personal project into a sustainable source of income?

A: I'm not sure whether my very little experience in the field is really relevant. Evaluating simple things, like the product price, the targeted audience, and so on, is very difficult but it's something that needs to be done. After that, I really love to simulate things: I wrote tons of Python scripts to simulate the viability of my company for the next 10 years (with a lot of pessimistic hypothesis, to avoid future problems). If Hopper will continue to be a stable project is too soon to say, but I did my best to avoid jumps into the wild, with a no clear view on what I want to achieve. Anyway, deciding to work full-time on Hopper was one of the best thing that I've ever done: working on something stimulating is really awesome! Sometimes exhausting, but really awesome :)