2020 - Cave Life: Part III

2020 - Cave Life: Part III
Photo by Vitolda Klein / Unsplash

This is the last of the 'Cave Life' series, but it contains some important stuff that I and my fellow Beer Farmers got involved in, that brought us towards the end of lockdown and into more familiar territory.

Having wound InfoSec Happy Hour down and all that stuff, we got back into "What do we do next?" mode. Happy Hour had been a real success for all the reasons I described in my previous post, but we were done with it. We hadn't called time on The Beer Farmers as a band, though, so we needed a fresh project.

Like so many things in life, for good, bad or otherwise, opportunities land in your lap. Everything we do is for the right reasons - we make no money from The Beer Farmers. We're not a company, or a charity, and indeed a lot of the stuff we've done has cost us money - think merch / swag. Over the years we've done a job of producing some of the coolest stuff defacing laptops ever. Stickers, but in addition, drumsticks, cowbells, t-shirts, hoodies and so on and so forth. To start with, the cash for all this came from our own pockets. It wasn't until we started the BeerCon project that we were able to attract sponsors, but even then, all the money went on paying back speakers and attendees with mementos. Cos we're not about making money.

You get the idea. If you have a Beer Farmers item of clothing, specifically an orange/ yellow t-shirt or original dark blue hoody with an FBI-esque logo on the back, you are in a select group of cool. By the way, all of this needed designing as well, which involved my time, Sean's time and more recently Scott's. I've also been the primary shitposter on The Beer Farmers' social media since day one, which again takes time.

In the Autumn of 2020, as we were still working out our next plan, we did a keynote talk for BSides Newcastle, UK, which was fully virtual. It was good fun, although the residual memory for me is that the slide deck contained a photo of Hitler, Goering and Goebbels and that slide got used as the thumbnail for the video. There was context behind it, so that's fine. The video is on our YouTube.

Prior to that, we'd considered whether we should look at running another BeerCon. I mean, we'd named our first show BeerCon1, so that indicated the first of more than one of that event.

This time we went with the zeitgeist a little. Or in fact a lot.

We'd applied to conferences with talks, had them accepted, got some direct invites and whatnot, but as they started dropping like flies thanks to COVID, we realised and it was more of a collective thing than one person in the band suggesting it, that many shows in the UK specifically cater for rookies - so that's folks new to presenting in public, or with limited experience. Not necessarily rookies in the cyber security world, although that could also be the case.

With a lot of mainstream conferences closing their doors for the duration of lockdown, it occurred to us that a lot of them ran rookie tracks and had likely accepted a lot of speakers. But they had no gig. No stage. No audience.

With that in mind, we concocted BeerCon2 and named it 'Rise Of The Rookie', with the express purpose of giving a platform to anyone and everyone that may have had a talk accepted elsewhere that couldn't go ahead because the events they got the nod from had to be cancelled. The only criteria would be that they were fresh to speaking and / or fresh to the industry.

Most conferences run main presenter tracks, with a rookie element (usually a discrete track). BeerCon2, as far as I know was the first cyber conference to make the focus purely about rookies.

So, we put out a call for presentations or CfP in a fashion reflecting the aim of the event - open to anyone who fitted the criteria of new to either or both public speaking and / or the cyber industry. We received plenty of responses, including a few from people who were clearly neither new to public speaking, nor cyber (there are stories in that for another time). in fact Scott created a meme on the topic.

In the end, we selected 29 presenters across ONE TRACK. The BeerCon track and that's a model we've stuck with up to 2022 and will continue with.

You can check out the content here. It's knockout. This time around, we needed to involve a crew, as it's one thing to promote an event for people less familiar with public speaking. It's another to get them prepared and feeling confident in delivering their gig. That's where our mentors and roadies came in. I say our mentors and roadies, they were folks that simply and freely gave up their time to help out the presenters, with such things as slide deck construction, timing, delivery and just the basics like reassurance that what they were doing was valid and valuable. The mentors did that and the roadies handled the smooth flow of people into what may have felt like the lion's den during the event.

They know who they are, but perhaps unsurprisingly, they're in the main the same people who were regulars on InfoSec Happy Hour.

We'd also upped our tech game, which meant we had more control over Zoom, Twitch and then even Slack and our Discord. Probably far more tech than needed, but then in this day and age, why have one tool to do the job when you can have half a dozen, right?

Scott brought some video editing, as well as graphic design that we'd not had previously as well, so when you look at things like the opening video and also the overlays during the talks (not to mention speaker cards), they were all his creation. It brought things to life in a way we hadn't managed previously, but then previously we'd been constrained by the tech and also the general lack of experience of putting on a significant event.

When you compare BeerCon1 and BeerCon2, they look as though they were produced by a totally different group. And of course they were, but the point is we learned and developed as we went and utilised skills as best we could, to create the best event we could. And we used what we had to make this shit happen.

It just felt slicker and that meant we could do justice to the people presenting, and that meant they got a reasonable quality recording of their talk that could be tucked away in their CVs or used in their public profiles. That's really what this is all about. Lifting folks up through giving them opportunities. Paying forward is a term often used, so that'll do. That's what The Beer Farmers stand for.

On the back of BeerCon2, we organised an InfoSec Happy Hour reunion of sorts, in the evening after the main event concluded. It was a car crash, but on reflection quite funny. Blame Ian.

The conference itself was a total success - 2244 unique attendees, so we thought it would be light relief to throw in a Happy Hour and a now legendary Beer Farmers quiz. The problem was that after two days of hosting the event, we were quite exhausted and not really in the mood for more fun. But we did it anyway.

Chrissy Morgan also suggested we run a fancy dress night (costume party for you Americans) because the conference was pretty much around Halloween, so we added that to the mix. There were prizes for the best get up and that went pretty well.

Ian was down in Bournemouth with Will, or BushidoToken as you probably know him. And they were drunk in a pub. As we were trying to deliver the quiz, Ian kept heckling with comments that included "FLOCK OF SEAGULLS!" which kinda ruined the overall vibe. One or two others also chirped with obnoxious stuff that properly removed the love of the ending. Anyway, they apologised and Ian was fired from the band for a few days, and then all was well again. We did capitalise on that with merch in memorial of the night.

In the end though, it was another epic production. We wanted to put on a conference for rookies, we put on a conference for rookies and we put those folks on the map. Lots of them have gone on to great careers and I think what we did helped.

There is a pretty funny addendum to this tale - John Opdenakker's swag bag. It was posted in Glasgow, went to Heathrow, from Heathrow to New York, from New York to San Francisco and then all the way back again to Heathrow, before the final forward to Belgium. You couldn't make that up, and it isn't made up.

That was pretty much 2020 done, and so ends the Cave Life trilogy.

Next up will be a reflection on 2021, when we could start seeing each other again in person. You know, like normal?