Infosec conferences – client side vs server side

Because infosec has cured cancer, ended poverty and created a utopian paradise that the villain in Demolistion Man could only dream of – the industry often finds itself trying to fix the really big issues via twitter and other social media platforms as well as within the hallways of conferences as to what is wrong with the infosec conference scene.

A few suggestions have been thrown out about what can be done to remedy the problem and what the ideal number and style of infosec conferences look like.

Haroon Meer gave a very good talk (as always) during his 44con keynote last year.

The infinitely quotable Grugq posted a thought-dump on the issue and most recently, Rob Fuller commented on the role alcohol plays within the infosec conference scene which caused a firestorm of opinions to rain down from all sides.

Of course, those aren’t the only opinions in this space – we often also get the chance to grab some popcorn and witness some absolutely mind-blowingly epic micro-movements which generate dialogue that Simon Pegg would be proud to have penned himself. Examples include

  • • Banning of booth babes
  • • Expensive ticket prices
  • • Not enough free caffeine
  • • Too much free caffeine
  • • Vendor parties
  • • My talk not getting accepted

Not to belittle some of these issue, I mean I know how cranky I get without caffeine, but the problem is that these are what I’d say are, “server side” issues that primarily are up to conference organizers to address and resolve. Average attendees have little say or influence in how conferences are run – so what can you, as an average attendee do in order to maximise your chances of having a fruitful and useful experience?

It’s like me complaining that the luggage allowance on flights isn’t enough, or that there isn’t enough legroom in economy. Sure they are valid complaints that need the U.N. to get involved, but these can only be fixed by the airlines and not by the passengers. On the other hand, you can make your flight a much more pleasant experience by simply investing in luggage bags which meet the airlines dimensions and a bottle of sleeping pills.

Until a couple of years ago I wasn’t a regular conference goer. However, in my job as an international analyst, my job revolves around me going to quite a few conferences. At first it sounded like the ideal job, but my boss did warn me it would take all the fun out of going to cons… and she was right. So, I’ve adopted a bunch of activities that try to make cons a better experience for me.  In other words, these are some of the ‘client-side’ changes I’ve made.

1. Book early

There’s something quite heroic about booking a last minute flight, not knowing if you’re going to get to the airport, sharing tweets with the world letting them know how you like to live dangerously and always on the edge. In reality though, few things worse than booking late to find all the nearby and good quality hotels have been taken leaving you across town in a seedy part of town. Sure, it may allow you to experience some of the local culture, but I prefer to conserve as much energy as possible – it’s a marathon and nothing is worse than my short legs having to carry me halfway across town to walk all day at a conference.

Less walking, less tiredness = more happier conference goer.

2. Know what you want

I think this is one of the most important questions one has to ask themselves before attending a conference. For the longest time I’d simply attend a conference just for the sake of it, or because everyone else seemed to be going – or simply to get a day out of the office. Maybe you want to catch up with friends, maybe it’s to attend some talks, or workshops, or get freebies? It’ll help form your actions over the course of the days.

If you’re a technical security person and you’re looking for technical security talks – just look up who is talking and about what. If you want to meet all the vendors, check out who is sponsoring and exhibiting. It’s half as difficult as some people make it out to be… unless you intentionally want to go to a vendor-run conference and then complain that most of the talks were about that vendors product.

If you don’t know what you want, or think the conference won’t provide for you what you want other than a week out of the office … then maybe it’s best to not go.

3. Plan in advance

It’s easy to be blinded by the crowds, the vendors, the noise and invites to after-parties and dinners. It’s easy to find yourself caught up in a tidal wave of rushing from one event to another before you realise you’ve only had 3 hours sleep in 5 days.

It’s far easier to spend a few hours a week or two beforehand seeing which sessions or parties you want to attend. It’s also a great time to scour the social media platforms to see who is attending and taking the opportunity to reach out to contacts both old and new and arranging time slots to meet up. Personally I keep all my work meetings during the work day to meet with the vendors – but I keep breakfasts and dinners free to meet up with individual or small groups of peers on a more social basis.

Sidenote: Don’t always believe the hype or hysteria. I’ve been told some cons are supposed to be awful or great but my personal experiences have proven otherwise. For new cons, I try to plan generally and without prejudice.

4. Make the connections

For the first few conferences I attended I probably didn’t take full advantage of the fact that I’d  bump into and be introduced to new people. If you’re slightly introverted this can be a daunting experience… I’m not sure I’m the best person to say how to overcome it as I usually fall into that category myself. One of the easiest ways would probably be to find Jayson Street, ask for an awkward hug picture with him and then hang around as he introduces you to everyone in attendance.

In seriousness though, most people who you know can introduce you to people they know. Also if you know two people and think they don’t know each other – just make the connection for them. A simple, ‘do you guys know each other?’ usually suffices.

Don’t forget business cards or other identifiers if you want people to be able to contact you easily afterwards. Scribbling your twitter handle on your pass is also a good idea.

5. Follow up

This is more of a sub-section to the earlier point, but things happen so fast at conferences I usually can’t remember every person I met in detail. I keep all business cards I collect in one place and try to follow up afterwards with connections whether it’s just to connect, remind people how nice it was to meet with them or just to share those research we discussed late one night in the hotel lobby.

6. You’re never off duty

This is one of my personal quirks – but despite the sociable atmosphere and the fact that there can be a lot of really interesting people around. These are still industry peers – and it’s not to say I’m not myself, but I am wary of the fact that the person I’m engaged in a heated debate with or the girl towards whom I made an inappropriate comment could have been my next boss, or may be best friends with my boss. If not today, then in a couple of years time.

It’s a small fishbowl of an industry – bad news travels fast and it’s never a good idea to engage in activity that could have negative repercussions.

7. Give feedback

Conference organizers, speakers, presenters, staff …  everyone loves feedback. Well as long as it’s not done in a whinging tone on twitter 140 characters at a time.

If you can tell a speaker what you thought of their talk, you can do so in person while the iron is hot, drop an email to them later, use the official evaluation forms or even phone them up for a chat. Chris Jon Riley wrote a nice post on the art of giving feedback way back in Sept 2012.

8. Review

One the smoke settles, teary goodbyes have been said and I’m back on a plane, train or automobile I take time to reflect upon the meaning of life and conferences. Did I enter the conference a boy and emerge a man? Did I learn anything new? Did I meet anyone cool? How much free swag is in my bag and how many free meals did I consume? These are all important questions and help form decisions for the next con, or indeed whether I want to return to this one again.

9. Create content

Information security is a knowledge industry and so creating content is a natural part of it – whether that be speaking at a conference, blogging, podcasting, writing papers etc. A conference is a great time to gather content from sessions and conversations to share with others. A lot of people like to live tweet events as they are happening. Others like Xavier Mertens write some excellent conference posts – which sum up not just the talks, but the overall atmosphere and mood of the con.

Which I suppose is why I still enjoy the video I created in Vegas video in 2013 that covered Blackhat, Defcon and BsidesLV.