How can we build a stronger community of speakers and leaders? I have a few thoughts. In some ways, this is a response to Jericho’s Building a better InfoSec conference post. I disagree with a couple of Jericho’s points. To be fair, he brings more experience in both attending conferences and reviewing CFPs. For that reason and others, I have a slightly different perspective.
Engagement should be encouraged, heckling discouraged. Hecklers and those looking to one-up the speaker should be run out of the room. But engagement, engagement is something different: sharing complementary knowledge, and pointing out ideas. Engagement is about raising everyone in the talk.
At the BSides Detroit conference, during OWASP Detroit meetings, and during MiSec talks, we get a lot of engagement. Rare is the speaker that goes ten or fifteen minutes without being interrupted. It is a good thing. If the audience has something to add, let’s get it in the discussion. If the speaker says something incorrect, let’s address it right off. In fact, many talks directly solicit feedback and ideas from the audience. Engagement, to me, is key to building a stronger local community.
Participation should be encouraged, waiting for rockstar status discouraged. I have seen people sit on the sidelines waiting until they had just enough experience, just enough content, just enough mojo to justify being a speaker. The only justification a community needs to accept a speaker is that the speaker is committed to putting the time into giving a great talk.
At local events, we have a mixed audience. I believe that every one of us has a unique perspective, a unique skillset, and a unique knowledge. True, a pen-tester with 20 years of experience might not learn anything from someone with only a few years. Yet not all of our audience are pen-testers. It is the commitment to put together a good talk, practice it, research past talks of similar nature, and solicit feedback that marks someone as a good presenter.
Let me give an example. At last week’s MiSec meeting, Nick Jacob presented on PoshSec. Nick (@mortiousprime) is interning with me this summer and has a total of ten weeks of paid InfoSec experience under his belt. Don’t get me wrong. Nick comes from EMU’s program and has done a lot of side work. But a 20 year veteran, Nick is not.
Nick’s talk was on applying PowerShell to the SANS Critical Security Controls. He structured his talk with engagement in mind. He covered a control and associated scripts for five or ten minutes, and then turned it over to the audience for feedback. What would the pen-testers in the room do to bypass these controls? What would the defenders do to counter the attacks? All in all, the presentation went over well and everyone left with new information and ideas. That is how to do it.
In sum, the better InfoSec communities remove the concerns speakers have about being heckled and being inadequate. A better community stresses engagement and participation. Such communities do so in ways that open up new opportunities for new members while strengthening the knowledge among those who have been in the profession a long time.
That is the trick to building a better InfoSec community.