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BSidesPGH is back. Here’s what infosec enthusiasts can expect from the 12th annual event

Andrew Gish-Johnson, a security operations manager and one of the event's organizers, says it's a chance to learn and seek out job opportunities.

BSidesPGH organizing team. (Courtesy photo)
What do you do when you’ve been rejected to give talks at major hacker conferences such as Las Vegas’s DEF Con or San Francisco’s RSA Conference?

In the case of Pittsburgh circa 2011, you launch BSidesPGH, a volunteer-driven information security conference of your very own.

The annual gathering’s name comes from the B-side of an album, because that’s typically the side of the tape of that doesn’t get played — something the hackers whose talks don’t get accepted can empathize with.

According to Andrew Gish-Johnson, a Carnegie Mellon University security operations manager and one of the event’s longtime organizers, as the years went by, more and more mainstream conference outcasts became interested in the concept. What started out with just 100 people has led to an expected 800 attendees for the 12th annual Pittsburgh edition, to be held this Friday, July 21, at Rivers Casino.

BSidesPGH is part of a global network of BSides events. Its appeal, Gish-Johnson told, is that it offers the ability to swap info about current cybersecurity topics.

“It’s a day of people sharing their research or cybersecurity topics that are hot,” he said.

BSidesPGH organizer Andrew Gish-Johnson. (Courtesy photo)

As a volunteer-organized event, BSidesPGH relies quite a bit on funding from sponsors, who attend because it provides the opportunity to find potential employees, Gish-Johnson said. Yet organizers don’t tend to allow sponsored talks — making it unique among tech (really, any) conferences.

“They’re passionate about trying to avoid sponsored talks, especially talks about products,” Gish-Johnson said. “We have space for sponsors, which, that’s a debate within the BSides series of events: How do you keep this from becoming a corporate event? And there’s very different opinions about how many sponsors and how expensive an event should be.”

Should you venture to the Rivers Casino this week, you can expect to exchange knowledge with your Pittsburgh peers, as well as other hackers that Las Vegas and San Fransisco forgot. But another of the major draw of the conference is that it doubles as a job fair without the usual formality. Many attendees, Gish-Johnson included, have walked away from BSidePGH with new opportunities, thanks to networking during the event.

“The networking aspect of the event is very, very critical to allow people to network to find better jobs,” Gish-Johnson said. “I pitch it like, ‘Is there something you want to tell people about that you’re passionate about, security related? Or are you disgruntled about your job and you want to find a better one?'”

BSidesPGH 2022 Capture the Flag challenge. (Courtesy photo)

Away from a potential update on your LinkedIn, you could also participate in an unconventional round of Capture the Flag. In this context, the team-based game is amended to be puzzle challenges for cybersecurity professionals. During the game there will be a variety of difficulty levels for participants, with social engineering challenges and pop culture references thrown into the mix for fun.

“There’s some trivia and there’s some technical knowledge. Know that we’re going for a retro ’90s challenge,” Gish-Johnson said. “I suppose our Capture the Flag is a draw, because we do get people that come in from out of town, because we offer pretty good prizes.”

Gish-Johnson hopes BSidesPGH can be a welcoming place where tech pros can learn new things, make new connections and find career opportunities if they’re in need. If any of this sounds appealing to you, note that registration is still open.

“The Pittsburgh community is pretty diverse … just because we have the universities and major technology companies,” he said. “The feedback to us [from sponsors] is, ‘We hire at BSides Pittsburgh, because that’s where we find people who want to join us that are good employees.'”

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.

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