A Northern Geeks trip, well, home(ish)

Back in the annals of time (2011) I wrote about my first experiences at a security conference; the first UK BSides in London. To say that that con had a big impact on my career is an understatement, but that’s a story for another day. That experience was exactly why; when catching up with an old colleague just two and a bit month’s ago Ben said “I’m thinking of doing BSides in Newcastle, do you want to help out?”, I immediately and without thinking said “YES!”.

When I read a message later that week that said “I’ve got a venue sorted, we’re scheduled for 9 weeks time”, I immediately said “FUUuuu……….”

Fast forward 9 weeks, and the quickest ever organised BSides(*) is complete, the self named #WeirdestEverBSides living up to it’s name (more on that later).

(* I believe that claim is accurate, but with BSides spinning up all over the globe, I’ll happily be correct if/when someone else claims the crown).

Negatives

Lets get these out the way first; no event organised in 9 weeks, spearheaded by people that have never organised an event before, was ever going to be perfect. The merch order wasn’t completed by the time of the con, the planned talk recordings/streaming weren’t active, the venue (by it’s nature, more later) was cold and we were still packing the last of the attendee bags whilst the first batch were being handed out.

I’m sure some attendees have complaints and feedback I’m unaware of, please, get in touch and provide any and all feedback, we can’t improve or fix problems we’re unaware of.

Positives

Where do I start? I was a broken man after the event (especially after only just fully recovering from an illness that I feared may have forced me to miss the big day), but overhearing positive feedback throughout the event kept me going, and reading all the feedback from attendees on social media channels since the conference closed has me immensely energised and insanely proud of playing my small part in planning and on-day helper-monkey work.

One advantage of the merch delay was we had no way to differentiate any attendee; which was a great leveller, everyone was equal and I could be confident that all the positive comments I heard weren’t just made to be polite to the crew member within earshot.

Now, if you’ve read previous write-ups of my various conference travels, this is the point I usually attempt to summarise each talk I saw, distilling the copious notes I took and attempt to get key points across to anyone that missed a given talk, but was interested in the topic. But, this was the first con I was involved in the crew, so barely got to any sessions myself, and DEFINITELY didn’t get to take any notes; so the rest of this post is likely to be a brain dump of my memory from the day.

Venue – Dynamix

What can I say? University lecture rooms? Hotel conference suites? All been done before, try a skatepark; scratch that, we can go further – lets have track 1 IN the halfpipe!

I felt the choice of venue was inspired from the first pre-con visit I had to get setup for the big day; perfectly setting up the tone of the event, and providing a unique and memorable venue as the backdrop to the con.

The Dynamix team who hosted 100+ geeks and hackers? They were brilliantly supportive and helpful, many thanks to the whole team. If you’ve any interest in doing insane <redacted> propelled on little wheels, get yourself down; the skills on-show by the regulars whilst we were setting up night before were amazing. Me? Did I rekindle my youth (I used to be a blade-r you know?…..)? Considered it; then bailed whilst walking down the steps, spread all over the concrete without the aid of wheels, so those days may be behind me.

Talks – tracks 1 & 2

As mentioned above, I’m disappointed that I missed almost all the talks in their entirety, so I’ll leave the talk summaries to others. What I will say is that the odd couple of minutes I managed to snag hidden at the back whilst running between this and that task were excellent. Sam’s journey through early days home computing as a child felt strangely familiar, Rick’s journey through the evolution of cyberpunk made me feel OLD, and Ben philosophising the methodology known as the “F’#%k it!” approach was both entertaining and provided an insight into how a con was able to go from idea to delivered in ~9 weeks.

I missed all of the Jenny Radcliffe‘s keynote, but was left in stitches when I noticed the message left on the back of her hoody:

As I was running around like a mad-thing at the time I read this, still unsure if we’d be able to pull the con off (despite it had started at this point), this definitely seemed like advice I wish I’d taken. (and I still somewhat blame my naive optimism for running the event on Jenny and her team for making BSidesLiverpool’s inaugural event look so effortless)

Villages

If a given pair of talk topics didn’t take your fancy, there was plenty to keep you occupied:

  • Physical Security? Try your hand at lockpicking (and safe cracking) courtesy of Moon on a Stick
  • Looking for your foot on, or next step up, the security career ladder? Try the careers village, with great thanks to Harvey Nash and Sharpe Recruitment
  • Already on the infosec career travellator and need help dealing with the stress and burnout discussed as part of several talks on the day? Try the all (most?) important Mental Health village
  • Your kit getting old and dated? Try the charity sticker collection.

Thanks to everyone that got involved in the last activity, almost £100 raised for Great North Air Ambulance, who do crucial work and it was great to be able to support them in a small way.

As the below shot of my previously naked laptop shows, I had to be pulled away from the stand before I spent my kids’ inheritance.

Just 24hrs ago, this machine was ready for respectable business meetings. Now it’s ready to CRUSH those meetings 🙂

CTF

I’m gutted I didn’t once make it upstairs the CTF (and not just because it was one of the only areas with warmth). Everything I heard during event, and following up on social media afterwards suggests I definitely missed a great event. So must say a big thanks to the PwnDefend crew for designing and running the CTF, I must make a better effort next year.

Lunch Break

Lunch started conventionally enough, with pizza provided by the Log Fire Pizza Co. They did an excellent job of refueling attendees and crew alike.

Entertainment during the lunch break was a bit more of a curve ball. You know what totally fits with an infosec conference? Wrestling! Well, maybe not totally, but we had to take advantage of the fact that Battle Ready, featuring none other than WWE NXT’s own, Primate, were training in the far corner of the venue. They agreed to put on show for attendees during the break, for the small price of a pizza each from the LogFire van. Odd combo, but most attendees appeared to appreaciate another bulletpoint on the journey to weirdest ever BSides.

Curtain falls

Ian, aka Phat Hobbit, took centre stage for the closing keynote. Delivered in his usual bombastic style, Ian took the audience through his review of InfoSec during 2019, and crucially providing his insight and wisdom for what will be needed for the years and decades ahead as we as an industry approach the turn of a new decade. Ian had the audience’ undivided attention, the only time you couldn’t hear a pin-drop, was when Ian had the audience roaring with laughter; sometimes with cracking wit, and sometimes just a hard truth, delivered too close to home generating a nervous, knowing, chuckle.
It made me think about my 2019, I’m still thinking about that, but at the start of the year I definitely didn’t expect to be contemplating the same, listening to a keynote speech to a conference I played a small part in organising, whilst overhanging the lip of a half-pipe:

The memorable quote I took away was this:

You won’t be able to beat cyber criminals

We will beat cyber criminals

(Paraphrased as I wasn’t fast enough to take a sneaky pic of the slides before they changed. Ian, happy to be corrected if I’ve misquoted.)

So the conference which emphasised community and togetherness at the heart of an industry, closed with the same message. A request was made for anyone; speaker, official volunteer or attendee to raise their hand if they had helped out in any way, even down to the small act of re-positioning a chair in the venue – almost every single hand was in the air.

Which leaves me with the tl;dr version of a post that is FAR longer than I originally conceived:

For an industry with an annoying reputation for drama, together, we can, do and will achieve amazing things.

And goals which at the outset may have seemed impossible, improbable and just flat-out cray, will be achieved

My thanks to everyone who had enough faith in the event to give up their precious free time to join a bunch of overly naive and optimistic geeks and hackers who dared to believe that a security conference, organised in ~9weeks, in a cold warehouse in Newcastle (yes, Gateshead 🙂 ) could possibly be anything other than a disaster. I’m obviously very biased, but I believe we achieved, at least, the level of ‘not a complete disaster’.

See you next year? Maybe?


Andrew

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