For those of you who are close to me, you’ll know that my life has been crazy lately. Between teaching courses, changing jobs (
here I come, Google!recently started at Google! (I’m slow at posting these :) )), and organizing BSides Winnipeg, I’ve barely had time to breathe!
Things are still chaotic, of course (in fact, movers were packing up my life as I wrote this), but I wanted to take some time and talk about BSides Winnipeg.
I’ll go over the background, the planning, the day-of, and some lessons learned. If you just want to see cool photos, here you go!
I think BSides Winnipeg is best summed up by this complaint (from one of the most negative surveys we received):
Q: “What, if anything, sticks out as something you particularly disliked about the conference?”
A: “The content was very technical, and did not seem to follow any specific underlying theme aside from security. This is the only personal time I have for errands, so was not able to stay for all of the sessions.”
For a weekend security conference, if our biggest mistake is having a security conference on the weekend, I think we win!
So, the idea of having a security conference has been something that me and Mak Kolybabi have talked about forever. I’ve known Mak for way, way too long. I marked his papers in University, he was an intern when I worked in government, and we beat almost all of Notpron together. That’s true friendship right there!
Anyway, me, Mak, and Andrew Orr founded SkullSpace, Winnipeg’s first and only hackerspace, three years ago (in fact, our first ever meeting was December 7, 2010—almost exactly three years ago). We had many objectives back then—bring together the community, give Winnipeg’s tech-savvy at-risk youth a place to hang out, and to get the coolest foosball table we could find. But one of our most important objectives was to bring a conference to Winnipeg.
We spent a lot of time discussing how we would do that. My favourite idea that never left the drawing board was to host the conference in October, when DST turned off. That way, we would have a 25-hour day on Sunday, and could officially all ourselves the “longest one-day conference”. That didn’t happen for what I hope are obvious reasons. (It probably wasn’t our worst idea.) [Editor’s Note: I actually registered timecon.ca because I felt that this idea was so terrible that we had to do it.]
After months of discussion, we settled on doing a BSides conference, and registered BSides Winnipeg as a not-for-profit corporation in Manitoba. We invited anybody who wanted to help out to come to our first meeting, and then tricked them into signing paperwork, making them legally responsible. Before we knew it, we had six directors (who probably just realized they’re legally responsible from reading this); besides myself, we had (in alphabetical order): Alex Weber, Andrew Orr, Colin Childs, Jay Smith, and Mak Kolybabi. Why us? We were at the first meeting. And, we all made it happen!
There were a lot of questions to answer in the planning phase. How long? What time? Where do we host it? Etc. etc.
Due to a mistake in geography, I attended (and spoke at!) BSides Ottawa a couple years earlier, which was hosted, if my memory serves, at a bar called Tucsons in Ottawa, ON. It was a two-day one-track conference held at a bar. I loved that idea, and I really pushed for it. We were uncertain if we could afford a two-day con, so I made it my goal to get enough sponsors to make that work.
I spent a lot of pounding the pavement, and contacting sponsors. Seccuris was super receptive, as the biggest supporter of infosec in Winnipeg. They quickly became our highest-tier sponsor, followed by many others. A number of small Winnipeg-based companies sponsored it, such as Octopi Managed Services, and I was also able to find a receptive group at Microsoft who eventually (to my huge surprise!) cut us a cheque. Tenable—as the employer of half our organizers—also helped out, as well as PacketViper at the last minute.
My favourite story from getting sponsorship was this: I emailed a large Winnipeg-based tech company asking for sponsorship money (as I frequently do). They quickly responded with a polite decline, saying “we aren’t inclined to sponsor these type of events”. I appreciated the response—I much prefer a polite decline to being ignored. I thanked them for their time and moved on. A couple days later, an employee of the company emailed me and offered to personally sponsor the conference. Before I knew it, he’d written us a cheque! That was super cool, and we likely would have given up on either t-shirts or badges without him!
Our complete list of sponsors can be found on our sponsorship page. Please support them, and let them know that you appreciate their sponsorship!
Another important question was: do we get sponsors to pay directly for goods, or do we open our own bank account and take/write cheques. It quickly became apparent that having our own bank account was the easiest solution, and that’s the path we chose. Sponsors paid us, and we paid out the goods.
After BSides Ottawa at Tucson’s, I really wanted something with that kind of atmosphere. As the official meeting space for SkullSpace (before we had our own), the King’s Head was the obvious choice. I emailed the owner of the King’s Head on August 17, 2012, asking if we could book space for a weekend of November in 2013. I’m not usually one to plan ahead, but we had space booked like fourteen months in advance!
The King’s Head was a fantastic venue. They let us use their space for free, as long as they catered the food. We wound up giving them a budget to work within, as well as a headcount, and they took care of the rest. We got fantastic feedback on the venue, with the only complaint being that it was too crowded.
One lesson learned: we didn’t get the invoice from the King’s Head till after the event, and we had totally neglected to plan for the gratuity they included. Part of that wound up coming out of our pockets, so lesson learned: get the invoice in advance!
We knew Mak was planning to have a baby. As of writing this, she was all but born. Once we had the dates picked out, Mak found this gem in our chat history:
[2012-08-17 09:06:10] ( xorrbit) mak can get katie preggers now and have a bsides baby
The best part was, with Katie’s due date being the week after BSides, that was a contingency we had to plan for all weekend! Mak could, at any point, get the “it’s time” phonecall. Fortunately, he didn’t. The baby has now been born, on December 2/2013, and is home and healthy!
We had high hopes of doing electronic badges, and even had a small local company—Retrohm—lined up to do them. Unfortunately, we couldn’t afford to do anything fancy, but here’s an early prototype:
We also had all kinds of crazy ideas, such as, “Would it be doable to have a badge that fills up a QR code the more ppl you’ve met?”
Maybe next year? :)
We ended up some some pretty slick looking badges anyway!
We knew we wanted the talks recorded and streamed, but also that we didn’t know how to do it ourselves. Fortunately, we got some help from Rylaan Gimby and Ric Lim, who were recruited by Colin Childs. On the day-of, Thor Robinson was also recruited to help out.
With equipment obtained from Video Pool, they did a fantastic job recording the talks! The videos aren’t online as of this writing, but I’ll be sure to send out links when they are.
As many of you know, we also had a live stream. On day one, it wasn’t set up as well as it could have been, but we caught all the action on day two. Lesson learned: stream the projector, not the speaker (with a webcam, you can’t really do both).
The A/V crew also took care of the sound board, which was a huge help! Having a good A/V crew made the whole event run far more smoothly than it would have, so I’m super glad that we got the right folks together!
The Internet connection was sponsored by VOI Network Solutions, a small Winnipeg-based ISP. We put a point-to-point dish on the roof that gave us a fantastic 30mbit connection. My understanding is that they plan to keep it at the King’s Head, too, so that’s a definite win-win.
Having these various non-monetary sponsors—King’s Head, Video Pool, VOI Network Solutions—was a huge benefit. We didn’t get money from it, but we got free use of the venue, free recording equipment, and free Internet access!
The morning of, we arrived at 11:00am and started setting up chairs. By 11:30, it looked like a conference. About that time, people started arriving. By the time the first talk kicked off, we had nearly a full room!
(A funny sidenote: somebody mentioned that we should bring lots of duct tape, just in case, so I threw a roll of duct tape in my bag. Within the first ten minutes, somebody was asking if anybody brought tape. Win!)
Registration went smoothly, the talks were fantastic, the Internet connection worked, the food was good and right on time, and the bartender—Dave—is the greatest person in the world. All in all, we had a blast! No major issues arose!
That being said, I spent the whole day walking from stage to wireless village to registration to the audio both and back to the stage, making sure everything was going well. I don’t think I was ever needed, beyond simple decisions, so that was awesome!
Saturday night, we cleaned up, enjoyed the evening, and set up again first thing Sunday.
Sunday morning, we woke up to snow. The first snowfall of the season! Classic Winnipeg. One of our speakers, Brandon Enright—who was visiting from California—wondered when the rescue helicopters were showing up, though any Winnipeggers know that a couple inches of snow on the ground is probably nothing to call the National Guard about. :)
The whole day Sunday went even more smoothly! I spent most of the day watching talks and relaxing a bit. Then the Sunday cleanup went well, and we all made it home.
So, what was the result?
We had about 160 tickets total—including sponsors, speakers, staff, and attendees. We had about 140 people show up.
We used 101 drink tickets on the first day, I didn’t get a count for the second day (but it was less than 30, if we went over 130 we would have heard about it, since that’s all we paid for).
Every talk happened, and they almost always started right on time. The feedback was universally positive. So we definitely did something right! One tiny mistake: we didn’t leave room for meals, so the talks surrounding the meals had to be coaxed into place to make room. Lesson learned!
We sent out surveys to everyone, and they mostly came back positive. Somewhere in the realm of 95% were either mostly or very satisfied, and only I think 2% were in any way dissatisfied (nobody said “very dissatisfied”).
After a great conference, we’re excited to do BSides Winnipeg 2014! We’ve deferred all planning until January, to give us time to relax. Our goal is to grow into a bigger venue, assuming we can find the sponsorship we need. So here’s hoping!
Some things went well and some things went less than well:
- We need breaks for lunch and/or dinner, and between talks
- Get invoices in advance—the gratuity surprised us
- Have three or four people whose specific (and only) job is audio/video gear (recording, streaming, sound board)
- Bring a roll of duct tape
So once again, thanks to everybody who made this happen!
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