Attending Conferences

In the 5 years that I have been working in InfoSec, I have been to a few dozen conferences across the east coast and across the country. I have attended every conference I have been able to as I feel I get a lot out of visiting them especially the first time I go to each event. Many people have been to more conferences then me, but here is my list of what I have visited so far:

Shmoocon Washington, DC
BSidesDC Washington, DC
BSidesCharm Baltimore, MD (just outside)
BSidesDE Wilmington, DE
Summercon New York City, NY
Thotcon Chicago, IL
Derbycon Louisville, KY
Circle City Con Indianapolis, IN
Hack Miami Miami, FL
Defcon Las Vegas, NV
BSidesLV Las Vegas, NV
Hack3rCon Charleston, WV (not to be confused with Charles Town… very different)
Shmoocon Epilogue Fairfax, VA

Each has a focus and each has value depending on your goals. Many of them even have a focus that is varied in intensity depending on the event. Regardless, depending how you participate in the conference will change your experience dramatically. Regardless of what you end up doing, realize that a twitter account is almost necessary to get the full experience. Many professionals I know have Twitter accounts they only utilize during conferences, which is perfectly acceptable. Here is a list of some of the possibilities of things to do:
Attendee Type:

  • Attending Training
  • Hallway Con/BarCon/Eating with other con participates
  • Challenge Player
  • Attending Parties
  • Attending Talks
  • Attending Villages

Other Badges:

  • Vendor/Sponsor
  • Staff/Volunteer
  • Organizer
  • Trainer
  • Speaker

Some people devote the entire conference experience to one of the above, but ideally, you should attempt to participate in as many of these as possible at each con you attend. At least as many of the attendee type things to do at cons as well as speaking and training. It is a very different and interesting experience to be any of the first three types of “Other Badge” participants. Being a staff, volunteer, vendor or sponsor shouldn’t take up your entire con experience. Ensure you participate and enjoy since you showed up to the conference. I will break down each type of attendee experience:

Attending Training:

Some have said Training is one of the more common justifications for attending conferences at this point which makes sense to me. Many conferences offer relatively inexpensive training compared to dedicated training events like SANS. You can experience some unique trainings that may not be quite as polished as a professional training event, but at a fraction of the cost. Additionally, there are some topics that just aren’t available in a professional training environment at the moment. It is a great learning experience and in many cases is a negligible cost difference. These trainings are almost always given by practitioners not professional trainers meaning their real world experience in the subject material is significantly better. Most people I’ve spoken to would much prefer a more knowledgable trainer rather then a more polished trainer if you have to choose between the two. I attend any training I can at conferences. It can take up a significant amount of time, but I am rarely disappointed. In many cases, training is available on the days leading up to the conference which increases your learning opportunity. If possible always participate as it sets the tone for the rest of the con and you can form relationships with other students that can make the con more fun and create a lasting network of others interested in subject of the training which can be very valuable in addition to networking with the instructor during the conference.

Hallway Con/BarCon/Eating with other con participates

This is my second favorite portion of conferences, yielding only to training. Given the lack of social nature of many in the information security field, I attempt to appeal to peoples sense of appetite by ensuring at each meal I eat, there is at least one person I haven’t eaten with that con. To achieve this, I tweet relatively in advance before eating and ask who wants to join me, tagging the conference and any other random tags I think are appropriate. Additionally, if the wait is long, I tend to ask random people “Who doesn’t want to wait in line?” in a attempt to get random people I don’t know to join me. This is especially applicable at Defcon. The most common thing I end up doing at most cons is hanging out in the hallway talking with people. Sometimes about a talk that I have just seen, but more often asking what they have been working on or researching. This has led to some amazing opportunities and connections with others that share similar research interests. Often I end up explaining some of my projects and/or research as well. This has led to some contributors in a few of my projects and sometimes it just increases peoples awareness and sometimes all I get is negative commentary like “that is a waste of time”, but everyone is entitled to their opinion. Sometimes their negativity is correct; sometimes its not. If I decide a conversation is not useful, I just move on. There are typically between a hundred and two thousand attendees at every conference listed above besides Defcon. If your conversation with one person isn’t interesting or useful, move on or change the subject. Many times, these conversations end up at the bar.

Many people in InfoSec like to drink. I don’t mind, but I am not in love with drinking. I tend to only drink what I enjoy drinking which causes some issues, but often it allows the willingness to open up and have better conversations. Social anxiety appears rampantly. Libations help… If don’t want to drink, don’t. If someone pressures you to drink, tell them no clearly and if they continue, hangout with someone else. There are plenty of people that have fun at conferences without a drop of alcohol like Jayson Street, although some believe Diet Pepsi is his alcohol. It is a choice; not a requirement.

Regardless talking with others and learning/networking through private conversations is extremely valuable. This allows for peer review of your findings/research, learning of others research, projects, tools and ideas. Many of these conversations have led to ideas for projects and research. Sometimes the only value I get out of conversations is laughing with someone and a contact for the future if I ever get a interest in whatever that persons expertise is in. Remember that while you may be knowledgable in a subject, there is always someone that is also researching that same subject and others who don’t even know that research topic exists. High level conversations about research and projects is commonly found in the bar.

I tend to hang out in the smokers area quite often regardless of not smoking. the outside area for smokers always contains a few folks and people need to do something besides sit on their phones, so there is almost always good conversation wherever the smokers area.

Challenge Player

Over the last couple years, information security challenges have exploded in popularity in both the professional and student portions of information security community. Most value practical application far above any paper showing non-practical knowledge. The challenges force students to take the theory they learn via traditional college system and supplement it with practical challenges that force students to think and apply those concepts in someone practical applications. Working professionals enjoy the opportunity to do the same. Challenges come a wide range of formats including Attack Challenges, Defensive challenges and the most popular Jeopardy style. These challenges touch on a broad range of different skills including:

  • Crypto
  • Forensics
  • Web Exploitation
  • Binary Exploitation
  • Recon
  • Reverse Engineering
  • Programming
  • Packet Analysis
  • Log Analysis
  • Lockpicking
  • Social Engineering
  • Wireless Challenges

These categories make-up the practical skill-sets covered in most InfoSec jobs. While playing these challenges, learning, research and working with others can teach you an incredible amount.

Attending Parties

Depending on the particular conference, most of the parties are similar. Loud music, very few people dancing, tons of alcohol and lots of people out the in hallway chatting just outside the party area, far enough away to have a conversation without screaming, but close enough to hear the music. I strongly recommend ear plugs for most of these as in the party area, the noise can be deafeningly loud. Similar to bar con/hallway con and meal-time, given libations, most attendees tend to chat easier at party time. There are always some who get destroyed; either help them or ignore them. As mentioned before, I do recommend enjoying some alcohol, but getting plastered is not recommended. It can be quite the fun escape, but your at the event to teach, learn, and network; Being sick does not help.

Attending Talks

This may seem somewhat intuitive, but it is rarely worthwhile to view talks. Given the numerous other options for things to do. This assumes most if not all talks are recorded. I tend to attend talks that aren’t recorded and other conference portions. If there is a talk on a subject and I believe I have questions or if I am extremely interested in that subject or if I know the speaker and just want to support/troll them, I will attend the live talk, otherwise I am almost never in talks. Know which talks are recorded and which aren’t. Every once in a while, there is a recording issue and talks won’t be recorded, but that is rare. When talking with others, find out what are the most interesting talks they’ve been to, if any, and why. This helps after the con when I watch videos.

Attending Villages

Villages are interesting areas focused in a particular subject. Some examples are the awesome folks at Wifi Village (the folks that host the Wireless CTF), TOOOL, Hardware Hacking Village, and ICS Village. These contain the experts in a given subject. Many contain talks given on advances in that specialty area. I visit every one I can at every con I go to.

Suggestions


Rooms

At conferences, you only sleep a few hours per night and you don’t want to leave your expensive toys in your room. Plan to split a room with someone. Always put the sign up requesting not to be disturbed, this helps to avoid maids with sticky fingers. Any supplies you need, you can get from the front desk. Staying at the con hotel has advantages and disadvantages. The conference hotel will have unsafe wifi/network, but thats also true of surrounding hotels. It is significantly easier and faster to get back to your room to change, drop equipment/swag, and get back to the festivities.

Gear

In most cases, a minimal amount of equipment is ideal. The less to carry around the better. If your taking a technical training, then bringing a laptop is necessary, but otherwise avoid it. Keep a minimum amount of extra cloths and plan to have some extra space for stuff picked up at the conference as swag still takes up space. After a few hours of walking around, even a few pounds can make a noticeable difference. This is the benefit I mention above in the rooms section. If your room is in the conference hotel, it is much easier to drop off the swag bag and backpack. Bring a rechargeable battery for your phone/tablet.

Twitter

As I mentioned above even if you only utilize it during conferences, create a account and watch the Conference & Conference Organizer twitter account and the associated hashtag. It is the easiest way to get info on whats going on. Setup your twitter on phone and make sure your phone rechargeable battery is charged and you have a adapter for your phone. I almost always tag the con account and hashtag when I go eat and find someone else that wants to go. Many others do the same. It is a great opportunity to meet other professionals and have some great conversations.

Goal

If you have a idea of what your looking for to start, that helps. Some typical goals:

  • Recruit other professionals or be recruited
  • Get advice technology choices within your organization
  • Learn how to implement a new technology
  • Learn how mature a technology you have implemented
  • Build your professional network to prepare for the future
  • Advertise your projects or business

Conclusions

So there is a ton of information in this post that is hopefully useful, but I was asked if I consider conferences worth attending. As a information security professional , the exposure of various technologies, solutions and ideas combined with the ability to learn quickly how to implement the correct solution is extremely important. In a larger organization, you can be more specialized in a particular technology, toolset and/or role, while in smaller orgs, your part of everything. I heavily value exposure to various technologies and experts to help with hard decisions. Conferences supported by twitter is how I do that. Conferences allow me to have discussions on critical questions and issues that can’t be answered in 140 characters or just shouldn’t be. Following up on twitter with people you meet in person help lead to personal projects, research and new thoughts.

As you long as you pick the right conference to participate in, you will be exposed to new tools, ideas, and/or people that will help you progress. I found conferences extremely valuable to my development as a professional and now that we am preparing multi-day in-depth Snort Basics and Snort Tuning classes, going to conferences has become even more valuable as I connect with more groups that need the training that we are putting the finishing touches on. If your ever at a con, come say hello; if you can’t find me, tweet at me and I will come find you.

PS: Make sure you know what the distance is to your event. Committing to showing up to a conference, being on the road for an hour of what you think is a 90 minute drive and having the GPS say, 5 hours remaining is really bad, especially when you have no hotel and planned on driving home.

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