A review of my last three years at THOTCON

TLDR: Social media has a purpose, follow all the people.  Plan ahead, then realize that plan won’t actually work very often.  Take notes in the way that is best for you, whether electronic, by hand or photos.  Meet people.

This spring I had the opportunity to attend THOTCON (a hacking conference in Chicago, IL) for the third year in a row.  It was an excellent time, with awesome people, and I decided to put together some of my thoughts on the experience.

At this point, I think it would be best if I give a bit of background on how I ended up attending conferences in the first place.  As people may or may not be aware, Alaska is not what could be considered a hot spot when it comes to security/tech meet ups and opportunities.  Due to limited availability, I started looking outside for conferences as a way to assist my career development possibilities.  Additionally, Alaska is expensive to get out of, and as I was paying for this out of pocket originally I narrowed my search area to places that I knew people who would let me stay with them.  Another factor involved in my search was spurred by online research about attending my first con and recommendations to start small.  So, I settled on THOTCON and set off on my grand adventure.

The first time I visited was May 2017 for THOTCON 0x8.  I chose to fly in a couple days early, as there is a three hour time difference and I wanted to adjust enough to be coherent at what was essentially 5 A.M. in my world.  I arrived to wait in line super early, hauling my laptop and notebook as well as a printed copy of the schedule.  Even as a “small” conference, the amount of choices was slightly overwhelming.  I ended up parking myself in one of the presentation areas and simply listening to whoever was on the stage, rather than pursuing all the different areas I had highlighted on my schedule.  I also learned (and this may be different for other people) that I didn’t necessarily need of use the laptop I had carried with me, but instead took notes primarily on my phone and in my physical notebook.  All of the presenters I listened to listed social media contact information, which I promptly took photos of so I could follow/add them at a later time.

My second year, THOTCON 0x9, I ditched the idea of carrying my laptop and simply came with my phone and notebook.  I knew going into the conference that not bringing the laptop would limit some activities, like participation in some of the contests and workshops, so I spent more time reading through the schedule and narrowing down my options.  For me it was the right decision not to haul so much, and spending the time with the schedule really allowed me to make an active choice on what I would see or miss out on.  I chose NOT to show up super early, and instead arrived at this site at the time listed for door opening.  Another change I made the second year was attending one of the longer workshops that really dove into an area I was interested in.  While much of the workshop presentation was above my current knowledge level, good note taking allowed me to still absorb quite a bit of new information.  I took the same photos and notes as my first year, but was quicker on adding/following people of interest on social media.  Many presenters posted links to their slide decks and presentations, which I proceeded to flag and download at the end of the day.

THOTCON 0xA, otherwise known as year three attending, I felt I had a relatively good game plan in advance.  Showing up when the doors opened was definitely best for me.  This year I reviewed the schedule and made primary and secondary goals for what I wanted to see and do.  I paid more attention to conference specific social media for a couple weeks before the event, which gave me the opportunity to join into some of the “mini” meet ups that took place inside the conference space as well as additional gatherings before and after the conference itself (this may have been one of my best networking choices overall).  Also, this year I took the time to actively meet up with people that I had been interacting with only online since the first conference, which was a wonderful experience.

I have expectations to return to THOTCON next year as well, and will hopefully gather enough courage to participate in some of the competitions.  The whole conference experience is something spectacular in my opinion, and the amount of work put into it for all attendees to have a good time is staggering.  If you’re reading this post trying to talk yourself into attending your first tech conference, just do it.  Register for something now.  You won’t regret it.


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