Getting the Most Out of Black Hat

It’s the time of year when security professionals of all stripes gather in the Las Vegas desert to attend the Black Hat, DEF CON and BSides conferences. If you’ve never been before, the anticipation is building, and next week will be like nothing you’ve ever experienced. If this is your 10th or 12th trip, then you’re probably thinking of the heat, the crowds and the parties. Either way, Black Hat is an exciting experience that’s as much about learning as it is about making contact with other professionals who share your interests in security.

Beat the Heat and Save a Seat

There are a few basic rules to follow to make the most out of Black Hat. First of all, drink a lot of water — seriously, hydrate whenever you have the chance. It’s easy to forget when you’re in the hotels that Las Vegas is a desert environment. Even if you never go outside, it can leech the moisture out of you. Sleep might be optional for many during Black Hat, but water isn’t. Speaking of which, get as much sleep as you can during the week. Sleep and water can help prevent the dreaded “con flu” when you get home.

Spend a few minutes with your schedule on the first day to figure out which sessions you plan to attend. It’s incredibly frustrating to talk to someone later in the week and realize the one talk you really wanted to see (or your manager told you to attend) just finished and you missed it.

If you’re attending with friends or co-workers, it’s a good idea to have them save you a seat in popular talks. A divide-and-conquer strategy also works well when there are multiple interesting talks at the same time. Each of you can take in one of the talks and compare notes after. It’s not quite as good as attending yourself, but sometimes you have to make hard choices.

Put Yourself Out There

The biggest value of the conference is the chance to make contact with people outside your normal sphere of influence. Even if you’re an introvert, make a point of meeting new people, talking to the speakers if you can and learning about the people you encounter during the week. It’s no exaggeration to say that you can make contacts at Black Hat that can change your career, but you need be willing to put yourself out there.

Many security people use Twitter to broadcast their location and activities, which makes finding some of the social gatherings simple. Facebook might be easier for some, but Twitter has long been a staple of communication at Black Hat.

Also, be sure not to miss the vendor parties. Some of these have almost legendary reputations. These events can be great fun, but a few words of warning: They’re almost always crowded and loud, and they can be hard to get into and exhausting to attend. Go to the events, be social, but also be very aware of how much you’re drinking and how you’re acting. Nothing ruins a trip to Black Hat like waking up the next morning with a hangover and memories of embarrassing incidents from the night before. Moderation in all things is a good motto to follow.

An alternative to attending parties is to find a few friends, either new or old, and create a private event of your own. It can be surprisingly rewarding and fun to talk in a quiet setting while you relax and eat. Plus, it gives you the time to recover from the exhaustion a day of walking the conference floor can create. There is no shortage of activities a short cab ride away from the conference hotel.

Book Your Trip to Black Hat

Black Hat is an endurance event, and it will drain you dry if you let it. But it’s also a very rewarding trip that can change the way you view the rapidly evolving security landscape. Drink all the water you can, try to get at least a few hours of sleep a night and know you’re going to be tapped out by the end of the week. See the talks that are important to you, but remember that the social aspects of a huge conference such as Black Hat are often more important than the technical.

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Martin McKeay

Security Advocate

Martin McKeay is a Senior Security Advocate at Akamai, joining the company in 2011. As a member of Akamai's Security Intelligence Team, he is responsible for researching security threats, customer education and industry intelligence. With over fifteen years of experience in the security space and five years of direct Payment Card Industry work, Martin has provided expertise to hundreds of companies. He is also the author of the Network Security Blog and host of the Network Security Podcast.