2020 - Cave Life: Part II

2020 - Cave Life: Part II
Photo by kiwi thompson / Unsplash

I like the cover image, because yes it's a cave, but also because the contributor is Kiwi Thompson. Our Leopard Gecko is called Kiwi Thompson. So, that's nice.

Anyway, this post will focus on InfoSec Happy Hour and the material impact it had during the darker lockdown days of 2020. Read on.

In my previous post, I talked about the setting up of this project and the rather comedic start it had. Once we'd figured out how to keep it reasonably secure from bots, scammers and trolls, we were in a good place. From the original 10ish folks that attended each week (and many of those were still attending when it wound down), it started to gain traction as a place to be each Friday evening.

Sean's original idea for it was a more discreet or perhaps compact session, with a smaller group that allowed for more discussion and less chaos. That's how it started. Ever the showbiz pretender, I had different ideas, so in a fairly short space of time, the model changed.

The aim didn't change at all, in all the months we ran Happy Hour - it was about bringing people together (whomever they were) to have a good time, escape from a perhaps dreary week of not being able to physically catch up with family and friends, or do basic things like go out for a drink or something to eat.

I started noticing though that (for me) it got a bit stale very quickly and it felt like "Hi again, what are we talking about this week?" The problem was that it was pretty much the same stuff as last week, so I wondered what we could do about that. And this was where the controlled chaos started. At times it veered into uncontrolled, but we'll cover that in bit.

I proposed the idea that we might invite guests in each week (literally booking them in advance), whom we'd interview in a kinda BeerCon1 style for say a half hour and then if they wanted to hang out, then great, and other members of the session could shoot questions at them and all that stuff. This is to an extent why Meadow came to the conclusion that Happy Hour was an InfoSec conference every week.

A little like BeerCon1, we (this time it was me, rather than Ian) would reach out to folks and invite them along. Some familiar faces (the likes of Troy Hunt, Jack Daniel and so on), but also some less well known figures, such as James Birdseye who works as an NHS responder (and also radio presenter!).

We tried a few novel things as well, such as having Jo Dalton (stage name Jo Fox) deliver what was probably one of, if not the first cyber stand up comedy performances online. It was absolutely brilliant, cheered people up and helped build community. And at a time when we needed resilience, things like this were a tonic.

We had Baptiste Robert on for a chat one evening, by which time Zoom had figured out its maximum chat members per session unpaid, and because of that, we had to break out Twitch as a viewing channel. Baptiste attracted over 500 people that listened to his experiences.

The point is, we evolved the concept of a pub catch up into a pretty significant weekly event. It had its upsides and downsides.

I mentioned Scott McGready in the previous post. He'd regularly be there at the start every Friday evening and also still there long after the rest of The Beer Farmers had quit for the night. Scott's creativity led to the development of a brand for Happy Hour and indeed merchandise, which was based on the Grand Theft Auto game franchise. Exhibit A:

We had gear made (hoodies, t-shirts, stickers etc), but as the image above indicates, we had a pretty busy 'pub', week in, week out, and these were the regulars. And like everything The Beer Farmers do, everyone is welcome, from whatever walk of life. It's absolutely no exaggeration to say that Happy Hour helped bridge cultures, geographies and dare we say even helped create romantic relationships that led to marriages. What it also did was connect people and that was its fundamental purpose. And in doing so developed long-lasting friendships and careers. Yep, people got jobs purely from being a part of this thing.

What more could it have achieved?

At this point, we invited Scott to join the band, as it was clear his sharp mind and creative talent were super valuable to The Beer Farmers as a project in general. We asked, he said yes. His contributions became valuable in increasing ways, but I'll cover that another time.

Personally, Happy Hour helped me from a mental health point of view. Lockdown sucked ass for me as much as it did for everyone else that observed it. It gave me something to look forward to, and perhaps on that basis made me want to squeeze every bit of fun out of it as possible.

Sometimes it was hard work, and I think this is where Sean started to become less happy about his brainchild. There were sessions where it was just out of hand and no one could get a word in, we'd have pedantic folks sitting there on camera with their hand raised for 10 minutes wanting to edge in with a point, despite a discussion being in full flow, and then sometimes we'd have right-wing weirdos that wanted to talk about their gun collections.

On the other hand, we'd have laugh out loud moments that still make me chuckle to this day, stuff like the 'dildo wall', the Morse code cat, Alan swigging hard booze from the bottle in a really melancholy way, Marmite, Ray [REDACTED]'s green screen collapsing, sexy time music, and again, guests like Jo that took our breath away. Remember, the point of Happy Hour was fun. And we all had a lot of fun.

We didn't want to come across as moderators or controllers of Happy Hour, because that didn't feel very open and community, but in the end it did lead us to produce some guidelines. That felt a bit like the beginning of the end to me.

It's worth noting that Ian and John were really bit-part players in Happy Hour. They'd rock up like other participants from time to time, but really it was Sean, Scott and Myself that repped The Beer Famers from the start, to the end.

It became obvious that Happy Hour was a significant 'thing' and therefore quite a commitment. One or more of us had to be there each week to kick the sessions off and then when we'd flagged out of 'tiredness', we would have to either close the pub or hand over the session to a trusted other.

You could tell that Sean was increasingly done with it, as he'd go off cam, or simply drop from the sessions and when asked about it, the reply was as expected. He was done with it. Done with the chaos, the fact folks couldn't get a word in, some of the shitty behaviour and perhaps the overall fact he'd come at this originally with a smaller gathering idea, that to a large extent I'd made into a monster.

So, not long after (I think we ran Happy Hour for about 6-7 months - so that was a Friday evening/night session weekly for that duration), we called time on it. A few things happened after that.

A small group of regulars asked whether they could take over the session and of course we said yes. It ran for a short while before it dwindled out of existence. Lisa Ventura approached me asking whether she could have our permission to run her own equivalent 'InfoSec Lunch Hour' - more sandwiches and coffee than dildos and Marmite. Of course, I said yes, but she needn't have asked. There was no patent on our work.

We rocked up at a few specials - one off Happy Hour events, before wrapping the whole thing up permanently.

The chatter about Happy Hour can still be seen on the social media site formerly known as Twitter. The legacy of it lives far beyond that, and the material impact it had can perhaps never be truly measured.

It's another thing I'm proud of being involved in, alongside all the gigs we did, the conferences we still do and so on. I don't do things by halves, and indeed Ian has a quote he likes to trot out - "If something's worth doing, it's worth overdoing". That wasn't Sean's plan, but I think between all of us, we achieved something incredible and life changing.

Talking of conferences, my next post will cover BeerCon2: Rise Of The Rookie.