Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Wrong About Presentations

But first- this series is a bit off-the-cuff and lacking in polish, but I’ve been meaning to do it for ages and if I wait, well, this blog continues to look abandoned.  So please forgive the rambling and read on.

Today let’s start talking about presentations.

I have heard and read that they are all too long, except the ones that are too short.  That talks are simultaneously too technical and too high-level.  Oh, and all panels suck.  Ted-style talks are the best, except that they are hollow, empty, and don’t work for highly technical content.  And you should never let vendors speak because we’re all just sales weasels, except for the events where only “sponsors” get to speak.

Let me once again venture into crazy talk: it really depends on who you are and what you want.  I don’t like vendor sales pitches, but apparently some folks find them a good use of their time.  I’d rather avoid those kind of talks, but that’s me (and probably you, too, but whatever).  If sales presentations are a good use of your time, that’s OK with me.  I do hope you do some homework before whipping out the old purchase orders, though.

I will say that a lot of presentations I’ve seen could have been delivered better in a shorter timeframe- but that’s as much on the events as the speakers.  If the only choice is an hour slot, people do an hour talk.  I do think the quality of things like Shmoocon Firetalks is in part because people often pare down what they planned to be a longer talk, leaving only the key points and deliver them in a short time.  Scheduling talks of different lengths does pose real logistical challenges for conference organizers, but I think it would be good to make it easy for people to do shorter talks.  Of course, speaker ego can be an issue, we need to make it clear that the quality of the talk is not tied to the length of the talk.  I also thing that shorter talks make it easier to get new things in front of an audience.

Presentation style, there’s a topic sure to inflame absolutists.  The style has to match the speaker and the topic.  You will never do a good Ted-style talk that walks through the code of your new project or steps through disassembly of malware.  Conversely, a code walk isn’t the way to explain big picture issues.  Lately my presentations weave the ideas and information together via storytelling, in a style that sometimes borders on stand-up comedy.  And it works for me and the less technical topics I’ve covered in the past few years, but it certainly won’t work for everyone or every topic.  I know there are disciples of some books and styles such as Presentation Zen and Slide:ology, I think they are great resources but as always there is no One True Way.  Do what works for your audience and for you.

As far as panels, many are indeed often a lazy attempt at getting on the schedule, they’re frequently poorly moderated and wander off topic into incoherent ramblings.  It is also true that well-run panels can showcase display a diverse set of opinions and experiences and add nuance to complicated topics.  Panels do not suck, bad panels suck.

And no, this series isn’t over, I’m just getting warmed up.

 

Jack

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Relevant to my rants

Before I resume my rambling on conferences and presentations, here’s a great article I came across via Tales of the Cocktail, a site you would expect me to link to from my, ahem, travel blog.

This article is specifically about submitting a cocktail seminar to Tales of the Cocktail, but several points in the list of seventeen items apply to a wide variety of events, regardless of topic or venue.

Also, it has been said many times by many people and in many ways- one of the best tips for getting your proposal accepted at any event is to follow the rules. Really, read the rules/guidelines for submission, and follow them.  Also, submit early.  Most event reviewers are volunteers and do it in their spare time, something which gets scarce when the deadline approaches.  Submit early and you’re more likely to get non-bloodshot eyes looking at your paper.

 

Jack

Friday, October 7, 2016

Wrong About Conferences, part 3

Thought I’d get tired of this topic?  No way, I’m just getting warmed up.

Today’s installment continues on the events themselves:

A lot of people complain about the commercialization, the sales pitches, the circus-like atmosphere of some vendor areas.  I’m not a big fan of these things myself (OK, I loathe them), I prefer to engage with vendors in a rational manner- but whether you are buying antivirus, SIEM, a new car, or a washing machine, expect the sales hype.  If you are like me you’ll ignore the excesses and gravitate towards the companies who bring engineers and maybe even support personnel to accompany the sales and marketing teams  to shows so that they can answer hard questions and help existing customers.  And if you aren’t buying, or curious about the tech, avoid those parts of the events altogether (or as much as the venue allows).

The same events which have the big vendorfests are often the best for meeting people for quiet meaningful conversations- not at the show but nearby, away from the mayhem.  If thousands of people go to the event, there may be folks there you want to talk to, you don’t have to meet at the conference.  If you are going to do this, make appointments.  You will not just run into folks and have time to chat.  And “I’ll meet you in the lobby” isn’t good enough, especially at sprawling complexes like the Moscone Center in San Francisco, the Las Vegas Convention Center, and other huge venues.

The flip side of over commercialization are the community events with little or no advertising and sales.  They are a great relief to many of us who suffer the excesses at commercial shows, but they don’t generate leads for the sponsors so it can be hard to pull in the funding needed for the event.  These events often get funded primarily through ticket sales because someone has to pay.  A lot of companies will provide sponsorship for visibility and the good of the community, but there are a lot of community conferences and not enough money for all of them.

The realms of for-profit, not-for-profit, and non-profit are too convoluted a topic for this series, bet whether people want to make money from an event or not, they want people to like the event.

It is also worth mentioning the size of events.  Everyone want to go to the cool events, and so some grow until they aren’t what they used to be, and a lot of folks complain about this.  When I hear such complaints I am reminded of what the sage Yogi Berra said many years ago about Rigazzi’s in St. Louis:

“Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded”

But if events cap attendance and demand continues to grow they get accused of being exclusionary by some.  What’s a conference organizer to do?

You’ll note I’ve avoided naming specific events, although I’m sure most of you have assigned names to several things I’ve mentioned.  I would, however, like to use one specific group as an example, an example that could be applied to many other groups and events.  DC303, the Denver area DEF CON group, is well known and very active, and I’ve heard them accused of being “cliquish”  and excluding people from activities and events.  I would like to make two points abut DC303 (note, I am *not* a 303 member):

First, as with most organizations, some things are limited to members.  I can’t expect to toss my kayak in the bay and be welcomed down at the yacht club.  Some things are more open than others- and some do require an invitation, which leads to my second point:

My first interaction with the 303 crew was in July of 2009, at the first BSides Las Vegas.  I knew almost no one other than from a few online exchanges, they certianly didn’t know me.  And it didn’t matter, I showed up and got to work as did several others- and many of us became friends.  That’s it, three simple steps: show up, participate, and be accepted.  If you skip step two you probably won’t make it to step three.  This applies at your local LUG or ISSA chapter as much as to 303 or pretty much any other entity.

Next week I’ll change topics a bit and babble about what’s wrong with presentations, speakers, and who knows what else.

 

Jack

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Wrong About Conferences, part 2

Today let’s start with a look at the conferences and events themselves.  One of the cyclical things I see is dismissing events people don’t like as irrelevant or worse.

“The big commercial cons are irrelevant…” as tens of thousands of people go to them, learn, share and yes, do the business of InfoSec.  The business of InfoSec, it’s so ugly and dirty, oh, and pays tens of thousands of us a living while funding an amazing amount of research.  Maybe they aren’t the places for cutting edge research, especially offensive security stuff, but that’s not their core audience.

Are there excesses? Sure there are.

Are they valuable to a lot of people?  Of course they are.

And very few people are forced to go unless they are paid to do so.

Don’t like it?  Not your scene?  Cool, don’t go.

 

“That’s just a hacker con, full of criminals…” as thousands or even tens of thousands of people gather to learn, share, and (gasp) maybe even do a little business.  Yeah, we’re all a bunch of criminals, right.  No, almost all of us at hacker cons are trying to make the world more secure.  You may disagree with some methods and opinions, but hacker cons help make us more secure.  Some may not be the best places to learn a lot about policy and compliance issues, or securing global enterprises, but that’s not what they’re about- and some “hacker” cons do cover these topics well.

Are there excesses? Sure there are.

Are they valuable to a lot of people?  Of course they are.

And very few people are forced to go unless they are paid to do so.

Don’t like it?  Not your scene?  Cool, don’t go.

Fifty years ago buffalo Springfield sang “Nobody's right if everybody's wrong”, and that sums up the way I feel about a lot of the con noise, hype, and drama.  Find the events that work for you, contribute to making them better, and avoid the ones that don’t work for you.

There are plenty of things I don’t like about a lot of events, I’m a cranky old man.  I do, however, understand that different events serve different needs and audiences.  That doesn’t excuse hype, lies, and bullshit but no event has a monopoly on that.

More on events in the next few posts.

 

Jack

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Everyone is wrong about conferences

In the past couple of years there have been many blog posts and articles on the topics of what’s wrong with InfoSec and hacker conferences, which events are or are not relevant, and what’s wrong with the talks and panels at those conferences.  A lot of good points have been raised, and some great ideas have been floated.file00029400867

But they are all wrong.

Many of them aren’t just wrong, they’re also symptomatic of some of the things wrong with InfoSec, a failure to understand the importance of context and perspective.

Let’s start with this simple fact:

Your experience is unique, it is not not universal.  Your perspective is therefore not a universal perspective.

As with anyone offering The One True Answer to any question, allow me to suggest that It Isn’t That Simple.

In upcoming posts I’ll dig into a few of theses topics, not to give The One True Answer, but to share some of my experiences and perspectives, and float a few ideas of my own.  I don’t claim to be an expert on conferences or presentations (or much of anything else), but I am and have been involved in a lot of conferences- as an attendee, participant, program committee member, organizer, volunteer, vendor booth staff, speaker, and even bartender.  I also participate in events large and small, commercial and community, business- and hacker-centric.

And I have opinions.  You may have noticed.

Stay tuned.

 

Jack