We all hear it. Give back to the community. Speak at a conference they say. Yeah, about that…
I follow a lot of Infosec people on twitter. I frequent some Infosec IRC channels. I’ve met some of the more well known Infosec people what I would call the “Superstars” of the Infosec world. I call them Superstars, not because they are putting themselves above the rest of us, but because they are easily recognizable, and always out there. You know, the ones that give advice, have been around forever and are looked upon as leaders by a bunch of us. Almost all of them say the same thing at some point. Everyone should give back to the community. Everyone should speak at security cons. I totally agree, having spoken at one con (BSides Chicago back in 2014), and trying to be more chatty on twitter. The problem comes in with the amount of speaking slots at the cons and getting selected.
Here is the thing as I see it, and it isn’t pretty nor is it fair. I don’t look at this lightly, nor do I think any of this is malicious or really intentional, but like in any large group of people, there are cliques. We can’t avoid them, it is our nature to form smaller subgroups. This unintentional grouping of us has other unintended results. One of those is the speaker selection process. So many talks given by such a small subset of our industry, and it becomes a daunting task to break in. I for one would love to speak again, but I keep running into the issue of what to talk about that I actually know. For myself, that runs into areas where other people give very similar talks and are better known. Yes, I have filled out CFPs for more cons and after the rejection letter have seen a similar talk being given by those people. I don’t hold any ill will about it, and I keep trying to find some other area to talk about that I might be able to slip through the CFP process. Unfortunately, I am more of a jack of all trades and am not comfortable with my knowledge level to go different routes (Most of what I come up with there is a “Superstar” that does talks along those lines).
Now, to be fair there are cons that have the first timers/new speaker track, which try to promote new speakers. I know at leas tone of the big cons out in Vegas (which I have never been to) has this sort of set up. BSides Chicago use to have this track, but right now doesn’t. It is a great idea, pair up the new speaker with a mentor who has spoke before. Having these tracks at more cons, say Derby, Shmoo, Circle City, Local Bsides everywhere, is a great way to get more people to speak. Talk about instilling confidence and getting more people involved!
Another way, and one that I think has even better potential, is for the “Superstars” or any speaker for that matter, to offer to team-up with other people who are interested in speaking but haven’t, or don’t get to speak very often. For instance, say Jim gives talks quite frequently. Jim knows a lot of people from local meetups, twitter, and IRC. He knows that Fred is interested in an area that Jim is going to send a CFP in at a conference that both are planning on attending. Before filling out the CFP, Jim talks to Fred and offers to do the talk as a tandem, mentoring Fred not only in doing a CFP, but on how to set up the power point slides, and even more information about the topic itself. Fred and Jim tag team for talks at a few more conferences. It gives Fred the information and confidence to talk to Jim before the a conference asking Jim if he can do the talk on his own. Jim agrees and submits on a different topic, and Fred gets selected. After a few more cons, Fred now takes someone else under his wing, and Jim does the same. Now we are getting into really giving back to the community. Fred not only has been mentored on how to do a presentation, from CFP to the Conference, but has been mentored in the topic by someone who has more experience with it. It becomes a win/win situation.
Maybe some con would allow the adding of a second speaker after a talk is selected. Maybe a speaker will just offer to have someone not as experienced help with everything up to the talk itself because they don’t want to be up talking at a con yet. There are many ways to spin this into giving back.
BSides to me is the place that this should be happening all the time. I’ve been to some that have the feel of an ASide conference, more formal, big name speakers, people split into areas like a VIP. Personally I think that is not what BSides should be, and instead it should be a place to let newer speakers get their feet wet. That every Bsides (if big enough to have 2 tracks) should have a new speaker track, and if not big enough, should favor speakers that are not as well known. Give people the chance. Cons are a great way to really mentor the new people to our community, and in so many ways. Lets all take time to give back.