Profession vs. Passion
While driving back from @BSidesAugusta this weekend, an interesting conversation was sparked about the difference between a "CON" and a conference. We're often are asked "what is SkyDogCon and what makes it different?" Though that question seems easy to answer, it really depends on the person who's asking as to whether or not they'll understand the answer!
So, some of you reading this know exactly what I'm getting at, while most of you are likely scratching your heads! If you fall into the latter category, give this post by @thegrugq a read which may just add some context for you. So, back to that "interesting conversation" I mentioned...
We came up with several ideas, definitions, and generalizations though the one that seemed to get at the spirit of the difference the most (at least to me) was a contrast of "Profession vs. Passion" as it relates to attendee's motivation for coming. It's not a small distinction and not one we take lightly when planning each year's event. The question you should start with is, "would I go even if work didn't pay or assist with the cost of going?"
Focus on the Profession
Lets make a quick clarification, there is nothing wrong with professional conferences. One of the most amazing things about Security BSides events is they make quality security education accessible to professionals who otherwise may not have the opportunity to attend larger industry events. That said, the demand for inexpensive "professional education" isn't really contributing to a more engaged and competent security workforce either! It may feed the CPE monster, but sitting in lecture-style back-to-back talks for hours over a weekend isn't most people's idea of fun!
In the article referenced above by @thegrugq, he faults among other things cat memes, "infosec rockstars", and general business economics for limiting the quality of content available to smaller conferences. He's not all wrong! I have witnessed many a presentation where the speaker clearly spent more time finding memes and developing one-liners than developing their topic. Meanwhile, for every 8 presentations you attend, maybe 1 will resonate or improve you as a professional.
Focus on the Passion
If you're not getting it yet, maybe go watch the DEFCON Documentary and see if you catch on to the difference. Some may call it culture or community or passion and they're all correct! The difference between a "CON" and a "conference" is the context, the purpose. For those who have gone to CONs like DEFCON or CarolinaCon or Outerz0ne and others for years, education was a byproduct fueled by passion for learning and participating in community. A CON is for the enthusiast not just the professional!
I'd compare it as @thegrugq does to a "comic con" that many go to not because work pays them or provides for them to go. People go because its fun! It's their passion, hobby, creative outlet, or any combination of reasons that motivate them to participate regardless of who's paying.
So what's the difference?
SkyDog made the CON to be "all the things he loves about a CON and none of the things he hates" or so he tells us. So, it is true we often have amazing talks and presenters. Even still, one of the things we love most about SkyDogCon...the community! Hanging out with our friends we rarely get to see, often since DEFCON or the last SkyDogCon. Hearing a presentation on someone's passion project which may not get a slot at an industry conference but is of value, interest, and an audience (if for no other reason than one of our own is excited to share). We value the opportunity to have an open dialogue (many times in the middle of a presentation) and share experience from both professional and personal perspective.
Ultimately, the "CON" is a gathering of a community focused on interest not a profession and is accessible to anyone interested in learning, participating, and contributing. It may not look or feel "professional" because it inherently isn't and yet, I postulate, is even more critical to the development of knowledge and education than any "conference" or professional organization. The "CON" differentiates itself in cultivating a passion above attendance, relationships over colleagues, and contribution over notoriety. This is the hacker culture we seek to embody in SkyDogCon!