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A Black Hat, DefCon and B-Sides survival guide

Many security professionals are making plans for a week in Las Vegas at the end of this month for three big InfoSec conferences: Black Hat, Defcon and BSidesLV. Several of us from Akamai InfoSec have been going for years and are familiar with what to expect and how to make the best use of our time there. 

If you're a first-time attendee, however, the experience can be overwhelming.

For that reason, each year I put together a survival guide of sorts. In the coming days I'll focus on presentations scheduled for the three events that fit in with trends we've been witnessing in Akamai InfoSec. For now, here's your primer:

Tip 1: Don't let the noise get to you

Black Hat in particular is a noisy event. The vendors, in an effort to really fit in with the attitude of the conference, come up with all kinds of theatrics. One year, a guy was dressed up as a "Mad Russian" hacker mastermind. His attire was a cross between Captain Caveman, Charles Manson and Rasputin. I don't remember the vendor he worked for. I also remember that between sessions, it's hard to move around as people mingle in the middle of crowds rushing from one talk to the next.

The talks themselves are often surrounded by drama, though that part has calmed down in the last couple of years. Sometimes a vendor will try to stop a talk about exploits for a vulnerability in their products. Lawyers are brought in and a mess ensues. This happened in 2005, when Cisco moved to squash a talk by then-ISS researcher Michael Lynn on an exploitable issue with Cisco's IOS router operating system. The move proved to be a waste of time for Cisco, since the story got out anyway. But what was worse, in my opinion, was that a lot of good talks went unreported in the media because everyone was too busy chasing the hype over this one talk.

And so my advice here is to remember what you do in your day-to-day job, find the talks that most closely address the challenges you want to overcome and don't let drama and noise divert you from the plan. 

Tip 2: Make time for B-Sides
At the same time Black Hat is going on, security practitioners will be giving talks at another event called Security B-Sides. This one is for those who maybe couldn't afford to attend Black Hat or DefCon or for those who wanted to speak at those events but were rejected for one reason or another.

It's a more low-key affair than the major conferences, and there are gems to be found on the agenda. The event has gotten considerably bigger in the last couple years but it's still something you'll want to make time for. The content is worth it.

Details for this year's event:

When: July 31-Aug. 1
Where: Tuscany Suites and Casino on Flamingo Ave.

It's more about the networking, anyway
To me, the most important part of the Las Vegas events is the networking. In some cases, you get to finally meet a bunch of people you only knew through Twitter up to that point. You'll also make many new contacts who will offer you a variety of helpful feedback in the years to come.

If there's an opportunity to have coffee with a fellow security practitioner at the same time a bunch of sessions are going on, go for the coffee. The talks may entertain, but it's the relationships you forge over coffee or a meal that will likely lead to useful collaborations and lines of support when you need it most.

Too much drink in public can hurt your career
This last piece of advice is along the same lines as the last one. If you're hitting the parties at night, where the booze is almost always free flowing and paid for by the vendors, remember that opportunities abound to make fresh business contacts. A game of poker and a few drinks can be the stuff future partnerships are made of. I don't drink anymore, or play poker, but I've made valuable contacts just by hanging out and being an observer.

This can cut both ways, of course.

If you enjoy too many free drinks and get plastered, you run the risk of making a big fool of yourself. I've seen some well-regarded security professionals do this many times, and when they do it's all people talk about for the next week.

I wouldn't want to be that person.

I hope you found this helpful. Safe travels and enjoy the week!

4 Comments

nice content!

Mostly great advice.

The bit about "make time for BSides" is either out of touch, or cruel sarcasm. Whuh? Unless you've stalked the BSides tweets for months ahead of time and pounced at the moment that availability was announced, there's no way in hell you're going to get in.
Somewhat like reminding people to "make time for the Ninja Party" (which is no more, but you get the point)...
Regards, and I can't wait to see you there with my 15K other buds!

Love your advice, especially too much to drink can hurt your career. It cuts another way as well. I had to dump a good interview at RSA/BSides this year because the interviewee was too drunk on camera. Lucky for him I wasn't interested in blackmail.

"It's more about the networking, anyway." Spot on!

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