RSA through the Eyes of a New-Grad Engineer
I graduated from Case Western Reserve University this past May, and moved to SF to work at Apozy. So far it's been a pretty great ride, filled with lots of learning opportunities. One opportunity I've had was to go to the RSA Expo for the first time and explore various companies in the security space.
After walking into the Moscone Center and registering, I scarfed down a small $10 prepackaged sandwich from one of the cafes and went to explore the company booths. I soon noticed each booth used a combination of the same few words (risk, threat, intelligence, etc.) to advertise what they do and was quickly numbed to the nuances between the vast number of companies. I found myself wondering, "Is there really space for 50 different endpoint security companies?". In fact, after walking through about half of the companies, I pretty much just started looking at the giveaways.
Something I noticed right away that was different than other tech conferences in SF (apart from the free food, beverages, and gear) was the overwhelming hordes of middle-aged men in suits. This made sense, as I later learned it was mainly a business, not engineering, conference.
The Badge Scan
Each attendee was given a badge that had their contact information on it. An interesting exchange that occurred shortly after introducing yourself to a representative at a booth was The Badge Scan. Without scanning my badge, it was as if I did not exist to the representative. It was the first part of any conversation at a booth at RSA. The Badge Scan empowered the company to spam you with whatever they want - a lot of the emails I've been getting do not have the option to unsubscribe in the email.
In return for allowing a representative to scan your badge, you were able to take whatever they were giving away. A few interesting things I picked up:
- Shredded up money (from the US Mint)
- A usb UniKey
- Caramel corn
- Bottle openers
- Magic trick kits
Now keep in mind that The Badge Scan was not a required exchange. I did not have to show anybody anything if I chose not to. Nevertheless, after watching a demo (of an unnamed company) I was curtly asked to present my badge. I politely refused, as I did not want this particular company to have me in their records, and I was sharply met with, "Do you work for a competitor of ours?". I paused, then replied, "yeah" with a "so what?" connotation. What can I say - I instigate. I could sense tensions growing as I was repeatedly told to show my badge and I got up to walk away. As I tried to step out of the booth the representative aggressively stepped in my way and prevented me from leaving, reaching for my lanyard. Luckily my coworker was there to drag me out of that frankly unnerving situation.
As I walked away from this booth, reflecting on what had just happened and wondering if I'd done something wrong, I started laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation. RSA is a place for companies to show off their products, and simply because I refused to identify myself, I was treated as a threat to the business. After I identified as a competitor, I was met with aggressive, confrontational behavior.
Disclaimer: while this was a troubling experience, it only happened at one company's booth. When I refused a badge scan from other booths, I was much better received with a smile followed by a pleasant conversation.
Takeaways for a Young Engineer Working in Silicon Valley
The part I enjoyed most about the conference was learning more about the different types of people attending and where they came from. I would highly recommend attending parties and social events as they allow you to become more culturally eloquent and meet new people. The knowledge that comes with learning what any sub-space in tech currently looks like is key to being able to transcend overlooked barriers and solve harder problems better, faster, and more sustainably.
At the same time, it's important to remember your position as a young person with fresh ideas, and to not get comfortable - things will change and it's your choice whether you want to lead or follow the charge.
Lastly, don't count on eating lunch there. You'll thank me later.