Blackhat: Contact High

by Rocky DeStefano in

Motivation is an intriguing thing.  For some it’s primarily intrinsic and for others it can be any number of extrinsic rewards neither is right or wrong everyone has their “drivers” and certainly they evolve as you grow and are influenced over time.  For me I’ve always felt the tug on my heart to do the right thing, or at least what felt like the right thing at the time.  That meant finding a mission I can believe in and care about and putting myself  “all In”.  Whether that meant serving in the AF or later supporting .mil, .gov and .com it’s always nearly the same. 


When I serve on the vendor side I always attributed my contribution to helping people protect (or at least have better awareness so they can protect themselves).  I’ve been able to easily identify my larger motivators.  That’s not so say they are enough.  This field can be frustrating as hell and can effectively deepen into depression when you see the same mistakes being make decade after decade.   It weighs on you – and you have questions like what impact am I really having?  Left alone those thoughts eat at your core and weaken you and therefore weaken everyone around you.


I’ve never been any more intelligent or gifted than anyone else around me, but if I’m “all in” no one will ever out work me, and I pride myself on that.  There’s a downside to that though, what happens if I’m not “all in”?  I’m still very good at whatever I’m doing but if I’m weakened by depression perhaps I’m nearly as effective as I could be, or perhaps I don’t recognize the value that I’m adding.  All in all it can turn into a vicious downward spiral.


What does this have to do with attending Blackhat, DefCon, B-Sides, Source, RSAC, Schmoo, etc? In a word - Everything. 


One of the things about being driven by mission is that you quickly learn you can’t do it alone, ever.  You need a team to cover you and to push you or drag you forward at times.   Coming to these events is a mental contact high if you engage at the right level.  The technical briefings are good and I get value from them, but for me not the type of “engagement” I’m talking about. 


For me it’s seeing execs of security companies or industry luminaries interact at a human level with everyone who walks up to them.  The smallest acknowledgement of an idea or counterpoint not previously consider delivered by a respected person can cause an interesting butterfly effect.  It may spark that person to go back and redouble their efforts, change course direction or sometimes to just bring things into focus more clearly and that small nudge can change the balance of a entire program.  And it works both ways.  We all gain from conversations.  Just the simple act of human empathy that we’re all fighting the same battle and knowing that we all care about the outcome more than the short term rewards is reinvigorating.


For me the InfoSec world is very much like being back in the Military.  We’re all fighting towards the same goals albeit probably unorganized and inefficient but we’re putting our best efforts forward to try make a difference.  My mission when I served was the “war on drugs” you want talk about futile efforts?!?!   I look at those days not with contempt or frustration but with reverence for the team of professionals I went to battle with.  I think about the leadership, motivation and trust our leaders gave us to find ways to win in the smaller areas we could win. 


In many ways this industry is very similar in that regard we just don’t always acknowledge the wins we do have – dedicated and supremely talented professionals willing to engage and push us towards better things.  We tend to get caught up in the ideals of perfection or in the losses that we sustain and forget to relish the small wins that surround us everyday and use the opportunities that our adversaries provide us as a catalyst for learning and advancing our mission.  We need to learn to not give our adversaries any more “mental” power over us by giving up or letting these battles deflate us.  There is a much larger war being waged and I confident we’ll continue to innovate and power through until we equilize the playing field.


I’ve lost sight on that (several times over the years) – maybe some others will resonate with my struggle, maybe not.  In any case, I appreciate all of you, your efforts, your skills and of course the sense of humor you maintain along the way.  This fight will never end and I’m ok with that – at least I am when I step back and realize how many people are alongside me pushing forward.