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DEF CON: A Woman's First Experience

Omdia Senior Analyst Hollie Hennessy goes over her first experience of DEF CON as a woman in cybersecurity.

If you asked me how I was feeling on Thursday night about attending DEF CON, I would have said "nervous." After a week of preparing for and attending Black Hat — which I'm used to, for the most part — I wasn't sure how different DEF CON would be or what to expect.

I'd heard a lot. Switch your phone off, don't take credit cards, leave your laptop behind …some people asked why I was staying, warned I'd be exhausted, but assured me I'd have fun. And fun was an understatement.

Being able to attend these events in person has massively helped me with confidence and "imposter syndrome." This was mentioned in the opening DEF CON talk on Friday, and I've heard so many women share a similar worry. But in reality, the cybersecurity community is diverse in its talent. Although it may not always feel this way, being in Las Vegas for Black Hat and DEF CON has shown me that all you need is the enthusiasm to become an expert in your chosen specialty. With a community so willing to share knowledge, that's more than enough. I don't need to know everything, and I'm trying to stop myself from thinking that.

As a woman in tech — in cybersecurity even, networking can be difficult to navigate. Luckily, I had the most wonderful experience and genuinely can't say that I've been to many other events (social, work, or otherwise) where people are so kind, welcoming, and eager to teach and learn.

I know this experience is not the same for all women attending, but it's great to see progress made and a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment from both DEF CON and Black Hat and the willingness to enforce this. I was pleasantly surprised to make friends in the girls' restrooms (who would've thought it!) and hope to make many more in years to come.

So, what are my tips?

  1. Don't try to do too much. There's so much to do and see and you're better off taking your time to focus on the areas that interest you most. I spent most of my time in the IoT Village (I'm all about the things) and Car Hacking Village. I missed a few that I wanted to get to, but there's always next time!
  2. Save the talks for post-conference. A colleague gave me some great advice to spend most of my time in the villages, as the talks are accessible after the event. Unless you want to attend a talk that isn't recorded, or have some burning questions for the speakers, make the most of walking around and seeing all the wonderful things the event has to offer in the flesh.
  3. Talk to people! It can be daunting to pluck up the courage to say hi, but one of the best things about attending in-person events (especially after COVID) is meeting others face to face. I guarantee you'll learn something new, and even make some new friends and connections.
    Editors' Choice
    Kelly Jackson Higgins 2, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading