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The 2020 RSA Security Conference will go down as one of the more surreal gatherings of security professionals in recent memory. In spite of fears related to the coronavirus, the conference did, in fact, happen. Those who attended voted with their feet, weighing the risk of exposure to attending this once-a-year gathering.  Here are some of my observations for those not able to make it:

Yea, but what about the Coronavirus? The spread of the coronavirus hung over the conference like no other topic in recent memory. As I mentioned in my article on the way out to RSA on Sunday, this conference was marked by a series of unknowns given daily headlines announcing the spread of the virus. A convenient icebreaker topic at first, as the week drug on discussions involving the coronavirus drowned out deeper discussions involving security. Daily news, including the state of emergency announcement by the Mayor of San Francisco, filled up available conversation space. As one attendee remarked, in a month we’ll either laugh about how silly our fears were or we’ll think attending RSA 2020 was the most reckless thing we’ve ever done. I can’t think of another security conference where personal health and safety were planning considerations, but they were at RSA 2020.

Shake, bump, or forearm bash? The awkward and unanticipated human aspect at RSA 2020 was the simple act of shaking hands. Shaking hands, which usually comes naturally and without thought, was replaced by an awkward cycling through handshakes, fist bumps, and forearm bashes as greeters tried to arrive at the most socially acceptable approach. My personal favorite was the elbow bump, which took a bit of hand-eye (or elbow) coordination to get right. This awkward interaction played out over and over again around the footprint of the Moscone Center as attendees struggled to settle on the form of greeting that balanced friendliness with ever-present health concerns. 

Who Made it, who didn’t? After the high-profile withdrawals of AT&T, Verizon, and IBM, a constant topic of discussion at RSA2020 was about attendance. Were there less people this year compared to last? What other big companies bailed? Although not aware of official attendance numbers at the time, anecdotally the booth traffic seemed fine, if not a little light (subsequent numbers from RSA say attendance was down 15%). Our sales team in the booth was deeply pleased and the number of serious discussions in the booth seemed better than usual. Perhaps there were less expo-only attendees who by definition are less serious prospects? Of note, I like what IBM did with their abandoned expo floor space:

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One negative indicator was the Bar at the W Hotel. Both Monday and Tuesday night you could walk in and grab a table or seat at the bar with ease – typically you can’t walk, let alone get a seat, at the W Bar during RSA. As a bellwether for attendance, the W Bar pointed towards deflated numbers:

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Prepping back Home.  By day two of the conference a topic of discussion was the DR/BCP response to the coronavirus back home. Several high-profile corporate travel bans were announced during RSA, so security leaders in attendance started to riff on BCP/DR options should their corporate workers all be forced to work from home. What’s the effect on the corporate VPN concentrator when 20,000 workers hit it from their home networks? How does their corporate conferencing infrastructure (e.g., Zoom, Webex, etc.) hold up when everyone is remote?  Dusting off – our maybe creating – pandemic BCP/DR annexes were a constant theme of discussion

No T-shirt this Year..After a string of well-received t-shirts, I couldn’t bring myself to rolling out a coronavirus-themed t-shirt given the very serious nature of the spread of the virus. Since the virus dominated discussions, there was not really an opening for any other topic. Instead, I decided to create this post-conference t-shirt:

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DM me @johnbdickson if you are interested in one…

For those who attended, RSA 2020 was a valuable, if not memorable, experience. Sessions, meetings, and interactions on the expo floor went ahead in spite of daily news on the coronavirus. With other conferences being canceled left and right, there was a sense that RSA might be the last opportunity to attend a security conference for the foreseeable future. As such, there was a sense of urgency to get as much out of the week as possible…

About John Dickson

John Dickson web resolution

John Dickson is an internationally recognized security leader, entrepreneur and Principal at Denim Group, Ltd. He has nearly 20 years’ hands-on experience in intrusion detection, network security and application security in the commercial, public and military sectors. As a Denim Group Principal, he helps executives and Chief Security Officers (CSO’s) of Fortune 500 companies, including major financial institutions, launch and expand their critical application security initiatives.
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