Las Vegas was hot, darned hot. The average temperature was a blistering 38C, without promise of clouds, rain or even a cool breeze. None of this really mattered to me as for nine days I was a virtual prisoner of Caesars Palace, doomed to only see the outside sunlight though glimpses out of windows, doorways and the TV.
The pre-panic GSE study, followed by the GSE exam took care of three days. Those days descended into terrible sleepless nights, which manifested itself in forcing me to roaming the halls, streets and haunts of nearby Vegas venues from 12am until 5am each night. This was a desperate attempt to weary my confused and over excited brain to slumber. If only it had worked. The days were simply blurred. I have vivid memories of particular moments and events, but anything that wasn’t GSE driven has been consigned to the void.
Luck was on my side this year as I got to be a work place volunteer at SANS Network Security 2010 on Steve Sims’ Developing Exploits for Penetration Testers and Security Researchers course. This meant I got to take this amazing course and not go in to further crippling debt, which in Vegas is always a good thing. Normally, as a volunteer, there’s a muster on morning before the conference starts and all the behind the scenes work takes place. This ranges from sorting out the course materials, working out what needs to be done and then everything in between. There’s a huge amount of hard, physical work that’s done by the volunteer crew. As the GSE exam was still in full flow, I missed all this. That’s actually a shame, as you get to know the others, start the banter and camaraderie that keeps you going for the long week ahead.
Around 1200 people attended, with 41 courses, dozens of talks, presentations and break out groups happening throughout the week. This is the first time I’ve been a part of a SANS conference of this size and the sheer amount of planning, organisation and ordered chaos is stunning. I stuck my head in the early register room around 8pm on the Sunday night and was surprise to find a large group of volunteers and SANS staff still there. They had registered over 500 students, but the place still looked like only a few people had registered. I said a few quick hellos, picked up my books and the famous red apron headed off to sleep. Well, that didn’t work and after around three hours sleep I was back at the meeting point at 6am Monday morning, feeling surprisingly awake. Only problem was, I was at the wrong muster point and it took about ten minutes to work this out. Obviously I was as awake as I thought.
A quick jog to the right meeting point, walked in to the volunteer group. To see thirty plus men and women in the bright red aprons in one spot is a stirring sight to behold, especial without any form of caffeine in the blood stream. Standing at the head of the room was Katherine, the SANS volunteer general, fixer, enforcer and part time fairy godmother. Katherine was in full flow, assigning last minute tasks, correcting minor issues and checking on status points. She quickly noted my less than quiet entrance and summoned me. This is a great start to the day and week, I though groaning inwardly, busted for being late and stupid, an excellent first impression. Katherine was very kind – fortunately – and had a couple of extra duties for me to undertake during the conference. None of which were any real burden and being determined to make up for any slight, I happily took them on.
The major part of the first day duties is to get the students sorted with their course materials, welcome packs and point them in the right directions. Given some of the delightful American accents and turns of phrase I’d already encountered and had some “minor confusions” with, I quickly volunteer to be a runner to grab the books, rather be on the front desk. There’s nothing worse that some foreigner demanding you repeat yourself clearly and in the Queen’s English – it might work for Hugh Grant, but put in front of 500 Americans who haven’t had coffee, I wouldn’t like his chances.
Anyway, the hours flew by. Some six hundred students where sorted out; I got to meet some of the guys and girls and nearly crippled both Emily and Matthew, the two other SANS staffers working with Katherine. I think the accent and the floppy hair smoothed over most of the my near fatal mistakes, the professionalism of everyone else helped too J
When a supply problem popped up, I got to assist Katherine as she worked her magic fixing it, which was pretty amazing to behold, given the distances, logistics and time frames involved. I’ve worked at big events before, but I’m still amazed how the folks in the background just make things work, without anyone noticing. I think they could have stepped in to a career as an illusionist without messing their hair.
All of this in the first few hours before conference had even started. The first day is usually the busiest and when things can go a bit loopy. Still, got to the end of the day in one piece and no fires broke out in the building, so better than the last SANS conference. It’s at this point the volunteers disappear in to the “office” do some quick paper work, talk about what’s happening in the classes and hurry off to help out with one of the evening talks.
It’s during the downtime you get to socialise with the other volunteers, share experiences, swap ideas, verbally abuse each other and generally have a lot of fun. It’s all about the banter. Anyone who puts their hand up for a one of these roles there to learn and put in a good amount of hard work on top of all the mental effort while in class. In my book, that’s someone worth getting to know. Over the six days, I got to spend a bit of time with pretty much everyone in a red apron, some very unlucky people got to spend too much time with me. Brad, Sarene and Jared obviously did something terrible in a former life and so got the lion share of quality time. If you get the chance to be a volunteer, throw everything you have at the experience and drag out every last second.
The rest of the week became a predictable flow of stability and spikes of utter chaos. The spikes, caused either by near-death experiences from instructors on Segways and/or beer, kept life pretty interesting. One late night incident which culminated in a disastrous round of whiskey shots, another plonked me in the middle of the Forensic crowd, face to face with Eric Huber and his Liege, Rob Lee. I think it only best to left some of other stories in Vegas, but a good and semi-safe time was had by all.
I had some excellent random chats with other students about the GSE, SANS, security and life in general. I only wish I’d had more time to spending chatting with some of the other people there, as I’d seen their names on blogs and mail lists, but it’s better to put a face to the name. As the little red apron gives you more access to the instructors, so I managed to chat with a good number that never reach these shores, in an attempt to teach a class or two in Oz.
Some fantastic talks were given in the evenings, but invariably there would be work to do or three talks on at the same time I wanted to be at, so I got to what I could. One evening I gave a talk on TMG, which I must write a post on, where 20 odd souls turned up to hear. I was following some very tough acts, but managed to survive and hey – I can now say I was on Stage in Vegas!
Summing up, it was a crazy, non-stop nine days in Las Vegas, I meet some amazing people, took a phenomenal course, had very little sleep, was occasionally tortured and had all-round brilliant time. Okay, it took over 1200 hundred words and a huge amount of rambling to say that, but it was a massive experience and one I won’t be forgetting any time soon.