First BlackHat USA and the Conference Associate Program

This summer I had the opportunity to work at BlackHat USA as a conference associate and attend DefCon, both for the first time. Having never been to Las Vegas or such major conferences I was ecstatic for the opportunity.

My experience at BlackHat was primarily shaped by the Conference Associate program. Through this program students and alumni from certain universities can apply to work  as BlackHat support staff. Conference associates are put up in hotel rooms in or near the venue, earn a wage, get about one meal a day, and earn access to conference briefings online in addition to scoring a DefCon badge. While most the day was spent preparing for the conference or helping attendees, evenings provided ample opportunity to meet new people and make new connections. I made friends with peers in the program and had the opportunity converse with professionals about career development. I even met some of my online friends face to face for the first time!

The opportunity to ask professionals face to face what they are looking for in good candidates for various roles was extremely helpful. Additionally, it was great to learn about the highly varied backgrounds that brought them to their current point. There are stereotypes about who is interested in cybersecurity, and an idea that everyone starts in tech in the first place. I’ve found that isn’t the case. The greatest common denominators seem to be curiosity and drive.

I had also thought I wouldn’t know anyone there but I learned that several professionals from the DC 801 area worked in the NOC. Some of whom I had met at previous security conferences. As someone working at the conference rather than attending it, the social opportunities are the highlight. When it comes to networking, I am someone who is more interested in becoming friends with people who have similar professional interests than I am in rapid fire business card distribution. What I learned from my first multi-day major conference is that it is a better than usual opportunity to build relationships. Everyone is away from home, and to a potentially lesser extent away from work, and therefore ready to talk and play.

Some real highlights for me included making friends with my roommate and other conference associates, meeting Tarah Wheeler and getting my copy of Women in Tech signed, and discussing career development with pentesters over lunch.

If you have the opportunity to work as a conference associate through your school, like UVU or UAT, I highly recommend it. Earning a wage there can help with your travel expenses and make it a bit easier to get to DefCon. The one downside this year was we received our DefCon badges after BlackHat the same Thursday that DefCon started.



My tips regarding a first time Vegas visit and BlackHat USA:

  • Pack light and purchase snacks at the local walmart or to order from Amazon Prime Now if you don’t have access to a car or don’t want to get an Uber. (Take it from someone who packed 3 boxes of clif bars.)
  • Uber is super expensive! Account for this when you choose your hotel room. I walked a lot to save money but The Strip is designed to corral consumers, not to be walkable.
  • Drink a ton of water. Drink more water than you think you need and purchase it from a supermarket or walmart. Otherwise you can end up paying $10.00 for a bottle of water. Get some aspirin too while you’re at it.
  • Bring your own portable battery. You don’t want to be plugging into any old USB port after all. Burner phones/devices are also a good idea but it’s still important to maintain physical control and not make any unecessary connections. 
  • Bring cash and store it securely so you don’t need to withdraw from machines.
  • BlackHat: If you are a student and venture into the vendors area it is helpful to have specific questions or to go with a professional. Not everyone on the vendor floor knows how the product they are pushing works and if they do they likely want to speak with someone who has decision making power in a business. However, it should be noted some vendors love talking to students because they see them as potential contributors, future customers or possible interns.
  • BlackHat Conference Associate: If you have time to explore during the conference itself try to go see demos instead of talks. You can get access to talks later unlike Arsenal Demos.
  • BlackHat USA: If you wait until the last day to purchase apparel you can probably get it on sale. However, if you are an average sized male be aware your size may not be available by the time the sale comes.  
  • Wear quality shoes made for walking which have already been broken in. This is not the time or place to break in a new pair of shoes or suddenly transition to minimalist footwear.
  • Pace yourself when it comes to alcohol. Never leave your drinks unattended and drink plenty of water!
  • Go to bed early enough to enjoy the next day! By the end of a week I hadn’t met my personal sleep requirements so Def Con was more difficult than it need otherwise be.
  • Give yourself time to recharge your batteries at night as well. Especially if you are an introvert, it can be exhausting to meet so many people and be in such busy places all day. Take some time to read a book, take a soak, go for a jog or take care of yourself in some other way.
  • Walk the strip at least once. You see so many interesting things, displays and people. Go see the fountain show at the Bellagio, you will not regret it.


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