The RSA survival guide

By Javvad Malik, security awareness advocate at KnowBe4

A colleague of mine is attending RSA for the first time (hi James). I was going to write him some tips on preparing and surviving RSA, but thought that like him, many others may be attending RSA for the first time. Therefore, as someone who has attended many times, I feel like it’s my duty to prepare you for what is to be expected.

The Prequel

At the outset, things start off like any other conference. Having arrived later than expected due to delays, you wake up in an over-priced hotel room, neck hurting because the hotel pillows are either too firm, or too big, or too fluffy to your liking. You make a mental note to pack your own pillow in your suitcase next time you travel.

You try the coffee in the room, thinking it may actually be good this time. But after a few gulps of black sludge, you leave it and promise you’ll treat yourself to an over-priced large cup as you walk down to the Moscone.

However, your hopes of a coffee are quickly dashed as you see the lines for coffee extend out of the coffee shops, spilling onto the streets to the point where the hipsters and homeless blend into one unrecognizable mess.

So, you follow the sea of conference goers who all seem to be heading in the right direction. Sales and marketing people are usually the loudest, walking in groups laughing and joking. Many attendees walk looking at their phone – I’m never sure if they’re looking at directions, actually answering emails at that hour or merely trying to avoid eye contact with anyone else.

It’s not until you reach the Moscone, collect your badge, and take the escalator down into one of the expo halls that it hits you. Like when you first see the Death Star in Star Wars…. that ain’t no moon.

There’s probably no way to prepare yourself for the sheer size of the venue and people who attend RSA. It’s like dropping your ice cream in the garden and having 10,000 ants descend all at once.

These shoes are made for walking

If you’re wearing heels at this point. Prepare to want to amputate your own feet by the end of the show. The place is huge, and you’ll need to factor in at least 3 times the amount of time you need to walk in between sessions.

Prepare yourself for long lines, and a lot of standing around. Even if you have a comfortable pair of shoes… bring a second pair and rotate them.

I don’t know what the policy on electric skateboards, or Heely’s is. But I’m assuming they are not allowed. Unless you’re one of those morbidly obese mall cops. In which case you get a Segway.

Drugs & Nutrition

I don’t usually advocate drugs, but carry your own pain killers, anti-allergy pills, eye drops, your heart and sugar pills… whatever you may or may not need. If you’ve ever taken medication for anything, there’s a high chance you’ll need it during the week.

Unless your name is Jayson Street, I don’t recommend trying to survive a week on a diet of pizza and Pepsi (even if you try to supplement it with caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and the earlier-mentioned pain killers)

Keep a bottle of water with you and stay hydrated. Try prepping meals and snacks. Sandwiches can be made and stocking up on protein bars is always a good idea.


In today’s day and age we all have many gadgets and electronic devices that need constant recharging. It’s a bit like when I have the flu and I need someone to check on me at least 3 times a day to ensure that if I do die due to the dreaded flu, my body is found before rigor mortis sets in and I can be positioned in a respectable manner.

A conference like RSA can take its toll on even the most energetic of extroverts. Take time to recharge your mind, body, and soul. I’m definitely not advocating yoga – but schedule time to be alone. Sit down on the grass, go for a walk, or go back to the hotel room for a while and collect your thoughts. Burning yourself out is not a good look.

Quality over quantity

I remember being a kid when penny sweets actually cost a penny each. Which meant if I ever had 2p, I could buy 2 sweets. If I ever had 50p, then the shopkeeper knew he had a long task ahead counting out 50 different sweets for me.

But as any child quickly learns, having too many sweets in quick succession can lead to terrible results. Until, that is, you develop an immunity to it… or you think you do until your doctor tells you that you’re diabetic. But that’s neither here nor there.

The main point I’m trying to make here is that more is not often better. And while you will undoubtedly feel the urge to meet with 500 people you know are in attendance. That typically results in very shallow “hi, bye” interactions.

Be deliberate with who you’re meeting. Sit down for five minutes or more and just be present and have a proper conversation. You’ll both find it a fuller experience.

Concert ear plugs

A couple of years ago, I believe at Blackhat. It could have been RSA, but I’m pretty sure it was Blackhat, I bumped into Karen Elzari, and as we stopped to have a quick chat, she removed her earplugs.

Not an event goes by where my ears don’t thank Keren for the tip. Concert earplugs are a life saver, particularly if you’re spending a lot of time in the exhibition hall. Less noise, less irritation, less headaches, less need to raid the drug bag you’re carrying.

Be a connector

It can be easy to have little conversations with people you know. But if you see two people, be sure to introduce them to each other. It benefits if you can try and find some common ground when introducing them. For example, you know both have an interest in API security, or both have dogs, or something else, can really help facilitate a good connection.

Of course, this does mean you’ll have to learn and remember something about everyone you meet. Which is why I mention quality of meetings over quantity. The last thing you want to do is stand there and make an introduction between “Andy” and “Bruce” and say something like, “You two should know each other, you’ve both got eyes.”

Show it

As DMX eloquently put it, ‘talk is cheap’.  So, it’s always useful to show something to someone. Let’s say you have figured out how to scan the badge on your phone and all the info pops up… share it with the person you’re talking with. Chances are they may not know about it… or it could make a great conversation piece. Show them your water bottle, your camera, your WiFi pineapple, or how you can get the ATM in the corner to spit out dollars (maybe not)

Follow up

It’s all good having a great time at the conference. But that’s not where the fun ends. Follow up with people you met, send a nice email to the speaker whose talk you felt was well delivered or useful. Forge connections – so that next year when you go, you already have a circle of contacts, and you can help guide* all the people attending for the first time.

*A guide can lead the way or lead astray. Use the power wisely.