I had the pleasure of attending the 2019 Women in CyberSecurity (WiCyS) conference and giving a lightning talk with Tom Kopchak and Heather Ricciuto. This year–due to Coronavirus-related concerns WiCyS was a bit different, as it took on the format of being a virtual conference.
As wonderful as it is to go somewhere different and meet new folks in person, the benefits of a typical in-person conference were still there and didn't change much. Rather than traveling from room to room, I traveled from Zoom to Zoom–listening to wonderful speakers and taking notes just as I normally would.
This blog post is my take on how things went to give those planning to attend a virtual conference–which you totally should!–a better idea of what to expect.
Conference differences you should be aware of
After experiencing both in-person and virtual conferences, I decided to break down some of the major differences between the two conference types.
1.) Attending a virtual conference
WiCyS chose to use vFairs, a virtual conference platform to host the conference, and Zoom was the medium for delivering the talks in real-time. The speakers were set up as panelists with an unlimited audience size. Even though the process of attending sessions and listening to talks was essentially no different from the norm, there was an unexpected distraction: the chat.
Unfortunately, joining the sessions as an audience member severely limited my ability to turn features on and off, and I did not have a way to mute the chat. This quickly became a large distraction and took some attention away from the speaker. However, similar to in-person conferences where there is always background noise in the halls, the chat notifications soon turned into background noise.
Shoutout to our talk!
The presentation Tom, Heather, and I put together for WiCyS had a few goals, such as spreading knowledge and interest about the Collegiate Penetration Testing Competition (CPTC), increasing the number of women participating in the competition, and hopefully gaining a few volunteers along the way.
2.) Speaking at a virtual conference
For me, the biggest difference in conferences was speaking. Presenting to a sea of faceless names on a Zoom bridge without my co-presenters near me felt isolating. It’s hard to gauge engagement when you can’t see the people!
We were lucky to not have any unexpected background noise or technical issues–some common recurring themes for other speakers in other sessions. However, during our lightning talk, the chat I previously mentioned was lit up with conversations ranging from previous talks to wishing luck to others speaking after us, as well as intermittent questions about our presentation.
For those who have stage fright, speaking to a computer screen may be a great way to begin to get over the fear; however, I love to interact with an audience, and sadly, the virtual format lacks that connection.
I didn’t get to compete in this year’s CTF competition as I spent my time in the National Cyber League (NCL) Coaching Center. One of my favorite activities at a conference is whatever competition they have going on. Not only do I love the challenge of working toward something I may or may not know, CTF competitions often connect me with new friends and people to trade stories and tools with, and I was still able to do this remotely with ease!
At the start of each evening, people were a bit shy, but once they got back into the game, I got to see people who have never met in person slowly come out of their shells and work together to defeat some fun challenges crafted by Cyberskyline.
Networking was almost identical, but without the concept of being squished into a room. A giant chat room was hosted on the conference website where people were encouraged to start threads and communicate openly. Many conference-goers took advantage of this to upload their business cards and send their LinkedIn profiles. I was happy to find I had a solid chance of meeting someone new simply by existing in a chatroom.
5.) Vendor Booths
The vFairs platform held an unexpected surprise: a virtualized vendor village! Just by scrolling horizontally on the screen, I was able to see the companies who maintained a booth, I was able to “walk up” to whichever booths I wanted, chat with a representative from the company, and pick up some virtual “swag.”
This is great for teams and companies looking to learn more about different vendors, and for conference sponsors to have an avenue to connect.
Aside from some quirks, WiCys was able to adapt and successfully transform into a virtual conference. Did I wish this were in person? More than anything. But would I have preferred no conference? Not a chance! I spent three days glued to my laptop immersing myself in the sessions, chatting with people in the networking lounge, and wandering around the virtual platform, just like I would at a physical conference.
Overall, virtual conferences are something I believe more people–especially those who have never been–should take advantage of. If you want to know more, talk to me on Twitter at @mistressven0m, and feel free to follow us on Twitter at @hurricanelabs to keep up with our latest posts. Thanks!