Are conferences as good as they could be?

It seems every week there is a conference purporting to be the biggest and best industry event of the calendar year. Event sponsors have varying sized booths and banners, and ads littered throughout event collateral, and are sized dependant on their financial commitment to the event. These conferences are not inexpensive! Thousands of dollars and multiple staff over 2-3 days are committed to running their company’s booth. It is a significant financial investment. Vendor staff wear their branded shirts and spend their time trying to gain eye contact with you while not-so-subtly checking your name tag to ascertain whether you are someone worth speaking to. Rinse and repeat hundreds of times per day. It’s almost a kind of awkward dance where each party knows what the other is trying to do but aren’t willing to have a direct conversation about it. A strained conversation is had where the vendor representative asks the attendee where they work and what they do, and when answered is usually proceeded by a sales spin of that vendor’s “market-leading” capabilities.

We all have attended these conferences. I often speak at these conferences. I know the environment well. Some people prefer to attend conferences just for the networking opportunities. Others state they are there just to hear certain people speak. However, I don’t know of anyone that attends conferences to be sold to. Attendees often are not interested in the booths unless they are getting a pen, webcam cover, or are able to test-drive a unique bit of kit like VR.

I admit I am not a professional speaker. I don’t even think I am a good speaker. However, I do understand that stories and an interesting narrative are essential for the audience to engage with your content. If you are a speaker and you attempt to sell your company or it’s products/services, you will lose the audience immediately. Yet it happens constantly. I wonder, would it be better for conference organisers to institute a strict “no selling” policy during presentations?

Are conferences stale? Does the recipe need to be changed in order to give attendees and sponsoring vendors more bang for their buck? I would be extremely surprised to hear of a vendor recouping their investment from a conference. I am sure it happens but not often. Are there more cost-effective ways to market your brand and capabilities at a conference while differentiating yourself from the competitors? You can’t do the same thing as everyone else and expect different results.

What it boils down to is, nobody wants to be sold to. People want to be recognised for their hard work and their achievements and empathised with for their hardships. Relationships and understanding human nature is the key to successful brand awareness and marketing. Are you discussing something that benefits them or does it just benefit you?

I have my own thoughts about how to improve conferences for all involved parties but I would be interested in hearing your opinion on how to tackle the issues I have raised. Or perhaps you disagree with me. If so, I would like still like to hear your opinion. I don’t have all the answers!

Diversity and Success in Cyber Security

On April 4th I had the pleasure of speaking at an event hosted by Preacta Recruitment and Charlotte Osborne. The topic of the event was ‘Challenging the Status Quo in Cyber Security’ and I spoke alongside the talented and loquacious Karissa Breen and Tulin Sevgin. This blog post outlines my speaking notes in full for those that are interested.

Gender Quotas

Now, I am going to say something potentially controversial. Staff gender quotas do not work.

Everyone would agree that the aim of a team or business is to be high-performing and successful. There is no business case for gender quotas. While research shows that a diverse team does increase performance, there is no data to suggest that gender quotas equate to a high-performing team. I recommend you google “golden skirts” and the study of gender quotas in Norway. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=248065

A Danish study examined 2,500 firms over eight years, finding that hiring women did indeed improve firms’ performance. Yet the conclusion was still that “the positive effects of women in management depends on the qualifications of female managers.” If quotas force hiring women, and as a result, the wrong women are chosen, there is a reason to be concerned that quotas will give the push for gender parity a bad reputation.

Instead, an organisation should have a gender quota for the pool of candidates! Then from that gender-balanced pool of candidates, you choose the best person for the role and your team. Nobody wants to be selected for a position based on their gender, cultural heritage, sexual orientation, or otherwise. People want to be chosen because they deserve it and they are the best person for the role.

Building a successful, diverse, and balanced team is not about pursuing gender quotas. It is about focussing on developing a supportive, high-performing, flexible, revenue-generating, kickass environment that people want to be a part of; where there is a culture built on the trust and respect that your colleague next to you in the trenches is there because they are the best person for the role. To choose someone based on their gender does a disrespect to that person, whether they are the best person for the role or not.

A Golden Ticket

The cyber security industry is still a nascent and rapidly growing industry. Rapid innovation and an extremely high uptake of cyber security services mean that opportunities are proliferating at a breakneck pace. Ladies and gentleman, this is your golden ticket. If you can establish yourself and your brand strongly within the market, you will rise rapidly. Whether building a start-up or climbing the ranks in the corporate world, the same principles apply.

In a world full of fish, be a shark.

I recently had a conversation with a good friend of mine, whom I respect deeply, and she said: “I am going to wait until I have established my credibility and gradually try and become a bigger fish in the market.”

I told her what I am going to tell you now….. Why wait? (repeat).

Don’t do what everyone else is trying to do and expect a different result. Be an outlier! Don’t ‘fit in’ and don’t be swayed by the consensus and the politically correct. You can not differentiate yourself if you try and do the same thing as everyone else, even if you can do it better. There are no rules! Forget being a bigger fish, be a fucking shark. You are the subject matter expert in your chosen field. You are an industry leader. It is the same principle as “dress for the job you want, not the one you have”. You need to act like the job you want. Demand credibility! Of course, you will have to back it up and earn that credibility every day but start now! Which leads me to my next point….

No-one ever built a statue of a critic.

There will be people during your journey who will attempt to rain on your parade. There will be haters. There is no avoiding them or the tall poppy syndrome they cultivate.

Let me tell you something: what they think about you, is none of your business.

In my experience, the only people saying negative things are those who have the time, and those who are too cowardly to put their neck on the line and hustle hard every waking minute of every day.

Truly successful people build each other up and are motivated by others’ success. They help and advise and guide the next generation of ‘hustlers’. They simply don’t have time to gossip and ‘hate’ on others success.

I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” – Thomas Jefferson

There is a common factor that ties everything I have said together. That common factor is hard work. Back-breaking, gritty-eyed, carpal tunnel-having hard work. There will always be someone smarter, better looking, or more talented than you. That is out of your control. But how hard you work IS within your control.

How many cyber or business-related books are you reading each week? What articles, podcasts, videos, TV shows are you ingesting to develop yourself? The only way to succeed far beyond the ‘consensus’ is to work harder than every person in the room. If you are curious and passionate about your chosen field, and you devote every spare moment of your time to your passion, there is no ceiling to your success. “Today I will do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t.”

Now, let me add an “asterisk” to this. You need to rest. You need your “zen” time. For each person it is different. For me, it is exercise and reading heroic fantasy novels (cough. Nerd. cough). For you, it might be yoga or walking the dog or watching Game of Thrones. But if you love your chosen profession, then your work and your life will intertwine and you will love every minute of it.

One last point. Kindness is free. Help each other. Find a mentor, or mentor someone. Network and help people without any thought of reciprocation. You will find opportunities and happiness that you did not think possible. The law of reciprocity is ever-present. You only get back what you give.

Shannon Sedgwick

ssedgwick.com