BSides Atlanta Goes Virtual, Attracts Global Audience

KENNESAW, Ga. (Apr 24, 2020) — When organizers of the BSides Atlanta information security conference learned that all in-person events on campus were prohibited due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, they had less than two weeks to turn the conference into a virtual summit.

While the process involved overcoming several challenges, like coordinating presenters’ schedules from home and making sure attendees and presenters could interact, organizers encountered one issue they did not predict – skyrocketing attendance numbers.

BSides Atlanta typically attracts between 300-400 information security students and professionals each year to Kennesaw State University. Taking the event online and opening registrations up to international residents led to an audience of more than 1,100 people from 16 countries.

BSides Atlanta 2020 Hosted by Kennesaw State University's Michael J. Coles College of Business

The BSides Atlanta conference has been sponsored by the Michael J. Cole College of Business and hosted on campus since the event’s inception two years ago. It is part of the global network of BSides events that are free to attend, each organized independently by local organizers to meet the information security needs of their respective communities. BSides Atlanta features panel discussions with industry experts, training opportunities, networking, and information security competitions.

Once the University System of Georgia made the decision in mid-March to cancel on-campus events, BSides Atlanta organizers, including Andy Green, a lecturer in the Information Security and Assurance program, began working to take the event online.

Green reached out to other BSides chapters around the world to open the conference up to their audiences. Using social media to spread the word, BSides Atlanta suddenly found itself becoming an international conference with 1,140 participants hailing from countries like the United Kingdom, Tunisia, Greece, Nepal, and Australia, among others. In all, 214 confirmed attendees came from outside the U.S.

“Once we decided to share this with the world, it picked up bit by bit into a groundswell,” Green said. “We encouraged our speakers with a global reach to share the event. The whole thing had an amplifying effect.”

The increased interest meant the conference needed multiple technologies to ensure everything went smoothly. Conference sessions were held in webinars on the Zoom web-conferencing platform. Because each session could only hold 500 people, organizers broadcast them over the Twitch livestreaming platform to act as an overflow. Finally, organizers used the online collaboration tool Slack to handle all communications between attendees and presenters.

“It was a crash course in meeting-at-a-distance technologies,” Green said. “I was so nervous. This was going to either be glorious or an absolute train wreck. Fortunately, everything went beautifully.”

Conference sessions included presentations from a variety of information security experts. There were four tracks running throughout the day with nearly 40 speakers. One panel addressed diversity in the STEM field and included the Coles College’s Director of Diversity Education Sonia Toson moderating a discussion featuring multiple ISA graduates.

For the first-time ever, the event also featured live pre-conference training sessions attendees could pay to participate in. EC-Council, an organization that promotes ethical hacking, taught a course on reverse engineering malware, while security consultancy Coalfire LABS offered a session on penetration testing. Both organizations made free seats available to a small number of Kennesaw State students and alumni like ISA graduate Jonathan Sams, who attended the Coalfire penetration testing session.

“The training will definitely help my career,” said Sams, who works as a cybersecurity analyst for NCR. “They taught me practical skills with hands-on labs that helped the material stick. I would 100 percent attend another class like it.”

Taking BSides Atlanta online successfully for an audience four times larger than the event usually attracts provided some logistical challenges. According to Green, the biggest challenge was managing the speakers.

“Instead of being able to grab someone and tell them where to go, they are sitting in their home in front of a webcam,” he said, adding that in the days leading up to the event, they hosted several web-conference sessions to make sure the technology worked. “It really wasn’t the tech piece that took up the most time. That was all plug and play. It was the people, making sure they are all moving in the right direction.”

All the work coordinating people and making sure technology was in place paid off, as feedback from attendees was universally positive.

“I always enjoy attending BSides Atlanta,” Sams said. “The conference speakers are always great. I definitely applaud their ability to transition to virtual-only in such a short time, and am already looking forward to BSides Atlanta 2021.”

Although organizing a virtual summit was a learning experience that helped expose Kennesaw State and the Coles College to a global audience, Green is eager to return to an in-person event next year.

“I wouldn’t have done it this way if I hadn’t been forced to,” he said. “But, I learned a hell of a lot. That fact that this thing can happen and did happen speaks well to that fact that, if we think, and plan, and manage expectations appropriately, we can end up with a solid event like we did.”

Read more about Green’s experiences taking BSides Virtual

-Patrick Harbin