From Safety To Where?

From Safety To Where?
Photo by Martin Jernberg / Unsplash

Earlier today, The Beer Farmers shared a post I wrote way back in 2019. It was a sort of retrospective of that year, and it covered our and my own adventures in cyber. You can read it here.

I say "way back", because it is a long time ago when you consider it. So much has happened since and with that in mind, I thought it worth reflecting on the period since in a new post series, which will also be my first posts in over four years. I won't use this single post to chronicle four+ years, but with this will A. start doing that and B. hopefully get my writing back in flow.

When we'd come out of the tumult of Spring and Summer 2019, we stopped to take stock and work out what (if anything) to do next. Andy Gill and Chrissy Morgan had moved on from the band and indeed into new professional roles, which left us back with the original lineup of Ian, John, Sean and Myself.

We pondered the idea of doing a sort of 'Year In Review' podcast and that seemed popular with the team, if a little cheesy. Nothing flash or complex. Just a chat amongst ourselves about how cool 2019 was and giving out some hat tips to the folks that had helped make that so special.

So, on that basis, I proposed we perhaps should invite some guests along - people we'd worked with, shared a stage with and so on, just to add their own perspectives and make it less about The Beer Farmers. This also seemed to resonate with the rest of the band.

And then Ian had a brainwave that became legend.

Importantly, a band usually contains a couple of main artistic contributors, with others as support functions. But in this case, think of the rock band Queen, where each original member wrote at least one hit. Or indeed several. This will become important as this blog plays out.

We'd already featured on the now defunct The Many Hats Club podcast, run by Stu Peck, probably by this time about 10 times? Usually we'd do a two hour rant about the state of cyber things and members of the Discord would chime in and give it some extra oomph and liveliness. It was great fun and an extension of our live conference circuit work in a far more interactive way.

Anyway, back to Ian's brainwave...

"Why don't we do a conference?"
"Isn't everyone doing those? Also, who's gonna show up?"
"Leave that with me"

And that was it. Nothing more, nothing less. Fuck the "Year In Review" idea I had. Ian had grand plans to put on a conference at the end of 2019 that would be something epic. And that thing was BeerCon1.

Ian's been around a while, as have I, and we both get the idea that opportunity is a thing that should never be ignored. So, we got the band together and discussed what a Beer Farmers conference might look like. And oddly it all came together really rather well. People that know me know I have a long career in the music industry, so the idea that I approached this with a Live Aid mentality might not come as too much of a surprise, because we set a date (early December 2019) before we even had any real clue about what we were doing.

"How are we doing this?"
"The technology?"
"We'll figure that out"
"Who's speaking?"

Helpfully, having been regulars on The Many Hats Club and also on the live talk circuit, we'd developed a lot of relationships and made a lot of friends. We've also been around in this industry for a long time as well.

I've made a joke of this plenty of times, but Ian literally went through his 'Rolodex' of infosec contacts and signed them up to speak. A few I lined up (Troy Hunt, as well as a load of people from the UK cyber scene), but in the main, it was Ian calling in people. The premise was a charity event, which is how it played out.

We sorted out the tech, production and importantly who was speaking. 89 speakers in fact, broadcast via The Many Hats Club Discord and as a fundraiser we picked Mental Health Hackers and The Electronic Frontier Foundation as beneficiaries of any money raised, which involved setting up a GoFundMe. Which I did.

Ian, Sean and I did a gig for Stu Hirst and Harry McLaren up in Edinburgh at the end of September that year. Cyber Scotland Connect it was and there's a recording out there somewhere. There's also a podcast we did the afternoon beforehand, again on The Many Hats Club where we announced BeerCon1 to the World, the entire plan and everything. We still didn't really have a plan at that stage, but whatever. It sounded like we knew what were doing which was fine. :D

Winding forward to the event itself, we had actually planned it all, organised the presenters, scheduled everything, got the tech sorted out and also the production team (props to Matt and Declan who may never know how important they were in the origins of The Beer Farmers' development).

Let's do it, yeah? Let's do it.

The schedule was a 24 hour non-stop 'cyber jukebox', with well-known names and people less well known rocking up to be interviewed by one or more of The Beer Farmers for roughly 15-25 minutes at a time. Again, go look at the playlist to see who we spoke with.

The lever on the show to switch it on was due to be pulled at 8PM on December 7th. We had a problem. A major fucking problem. The platform planned to deliver the thing was Discord. Discord was hosted on Google Cloud and Google Cloud fell over about 45 minutes before go live.

We weren't sure what was the root cause to begin with, but luckily (and again this goes back to Matt and Declan), we didn't mess around trying to make a broken technology work and just hope for the best. We fell back to an alternative technology, which at the time hardly anyone had heard of - Zoom.

We're not experts at the live broadcast of cyber events, but we did get in there before they kinda became the only thing we could attend, just a few months later.

Anyway, we scrapped Discord, resorted to Zoom and piped the output to Twitch. And we engineered all that on the hoof, while prepping speakers, prepping ourselves and with literally just minutes before opening up the show.

When I think about it, it fills me with pride. It really does. Never mind the planning and engineering of it all, or the execution. It was practically a first. A first for virtual global infosec events, in which we were able to welcome presenters and attendees from pretty much all parts of the planet and all walks of life. I think we created a template for what was to come when that thing happened not long after.

In the end, we ran for 26.5 hours, heard from lots and lots of wonderful people about their experiences in cyber (and even not cyber!), and managed to raise many thousands of pounds for the charities we selected.

It was great. It was hard work, but we did it for all the right reasons and achieved all the outcomes we hoped we would.

We also put the event on sooner than Geldof put on Live Aid and had more performers...

Next up, I'll talk about 2020 and the lockdown era.