One leaves RSA with an innate sense of awe at the sheer size and scale of this event. The orchestration and programme management for a conference serving over 40,000 people is breath-taking. While the conference is intensely educational, it’s also really good fun. There’s a pervasive atmosphere of excitement about ‘what’s next’ and many of the speakers were stellar names in the industry.

RSA’s conference in the Moscone Center San Francisco is centred around three main buildings. Each building has at least three floors, and two buildings are connected by underground walkways and an overhead airbridge. It is easy to get lost in these buildings, particularly on the Expo floor.

The conference officially starts on the Sunday evening with a reception for first timers and LoyaltyPlus members. The scheduled programme of speakers, however, starts on the Monday. The opening keynotes were full, as were the closing keynotes on the Thursday.

Advice for future attendees and speakers 

Are you planning to attend/speak next year at RSA and are wondering what to expect? If so – here are my tips/lessons learned for an awesome conference experience. Let’s start at the end. If you have teenage kids like I do, they might ask you to bring foods home that they cannot get easily in Ireland. So I brought a stash of food back in my cabin bag. One of those items was monk fruit powdered sweetener. Apparently, this dusty white powder in a 500gm pouch looks and feels like an illegal substance. This causes big red alarms go off: the TSA search your bags, swab you and do a complete pat down, bring you into a separate room with a TSA guard and wait on the lab to confirm that it is, in fact: sugar.

Back to the conference: wear your RSA badge at all times and bring photo ID such as a passport or driving licence with you everywhere. Being amongst 40,000 people is of itself quite stressful to some people. It’s full-on people all day. Carve out some time to decompress at your hotel – even if it’s just 30 minutes in the quiet or a swim in the pool. If you are speaking, there’s a speaker room in Moscone Centre where you can find quiet and a bottle of water. [Warning: be sure to close the lid properly on this water; otherwise, it will spill all over your briefcase destroying not only its contents but also your trousers!]

Getting around the venue

Most hotels are within a 15-minute walk from the centre and most are serviced by shuttles which leaves every 15 minutes. But wear flat shoes. Most people are wearing jeans anyway, but even those in suits often wear trainers.

reakfast was served each day at 7.30am-8.30am to encourage participants to attend early. The conference starts sharp at 8.30am. These breakfasts can feel awkward – particularly for any introverts. See this part of the conference as an opportunity to make a connection rather than an awkward moment. Say something like “so how is the conference going for you so far?” or “what session has piqued your interest so far?”

Some sessions are first come first served, and there can be huge queues. Arrive at least 15 minutes early to them. (Bonus tip: ask the people in front of you what session they’re queuing for, as sometimes the queues can get a little intermingled in the crowds.)

Making the most of your RSA experience

Most conference sessions last 50 minutes and most must be booked in advance. This is very important if you really want to get the most out of your experience. Book the sessions you want to go to. There are also two-hour sessions called learning labs. These are more practical sessions, typically run by industry experts, and are limited to small numbers so you need to book early.

The term ‘track session’ means that the programme committee has selected the session on merit. There are other sessions on outside of track sessions and are typically vendor or sponsored sessions. These do not go through the same rigorous selection process as track sessions.

There is a minimum 20-minute gap between sessions and 60-90 minutes set aside for lunch. There’s a question time at the end of each session lasting between 5-10 minutes. The day usually ends around 4.30 if you attend keynotes.

Preparation for presenting

If you’re speaking, be sure you understand the layout of the room you’ll be speaking in. Avail of the opportunity to have a 15-minute practice session the day before your session is scheduled. Make sure you put this time into you diary as you can get caught up in the times of so many things. Arrive at least ten minutes before your main session is due to start. Be sure to stick to timing notifications from your room moderator – RSA does not tolerate overruns. Your session will be recorded, including your slides and your voiceover. RSA will take official photographs which will be sent to you afterwards.

Compete your online session survey after each session you attend. Give honest feedback. These surveys are really important to the RSA programme committee, and to speakers.

There’s a ‘pub crawl’ at 4.30pm in the expo centre where all the vendors have their booths. This is worth the trip just to absorb the vibe of the place. There are little bars dotted everywhere offering free beer, wine and cocktails. If you want swag, you’ll often be asked to scan your pass: it’s considered ‘consent’  (occupational hazard: I can never resist a privacy reference).

The social side of San Francisco

There are events and parties on every evening. Many are open to all attendees (a list is sent around), some events are by invite only. RSA hosts an amazing evening for speakers which was really well organised and great to catch up with so many people. There were many other events I attended and all of them were fantastic.

There is a bookstore. Go look at the books to see the latest best sellers in cybersecurity or privacy. Often, the authors do book signings, so if you’re interested in a particular book, you might be able to pick up a personalised copy. It’s also a really quiet little space to get away from the madding crowd! Speaking of restful spaces, there is a puppy petting station (I kid you not). These areas have dogs that are training to be socialised as assistant/comfort dogs.

If you get some time to explore, go take the boat out to Alcatraz – and keep an eye out for porpoises in the bay while you go there. If you get the time to go for a drink, go to the View Lounge in the Marriott. It’s a truly breathtaking view of San Francisco. And finally, if you love seafood and want to try a genuine SF experience, head to Scoma’s down at the wharf and take the cable car there – they are famous for their clam chowder.

Dr Valerie Lyons is the Chief Operating Officer of BH Consulting. She was chosen to speak at the prestigious RSA Conference 2023 in San Francisco.

About the Author: Valerie Lyons

About Dr.Valerie Lyons (PhD, MBs, BSc, CISSP, CDPSE): Dr. Lyons is the COO and Senior Consultant at BH Consulting. She is an accomplished Information Security and Data Protection Risk Leader with extensive senior-level experience in the financial services sector. Her experience spans compliance, corporate and ICT governance, data protection, information privacy, team management, and team leadership. Dr. Lyons also designs and delivers a suite of bespoke technical data protection training programmes and workshops covering a vast range of topics such as Data Protection, ISO 27001, and ISO 27701. She is a leading authority on privacy as a CSR and privacy as part of the ESG (environment, social, governance) agenda. She holds an award winning PhD in Information Privacy from DCU, a MSc in Business Leadership from UCC, a BSc (Hons) in Information Systems from Trinity College and a number of post graduate diplomas in Cloud Computing Strategy, Executive Coaching, and Leadership. She has also lectured for several years in DCU’s Business School and has presented her research at several information security and privacy conferences including ICIS, CPDP, ISACA and COSAC. Dr. Lyons was one of the first women in Ireland to become a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) and is also a Certified Data Privacy Solutions Engineer (CDPSE). She is also a SheLeadsTech champion for ISACA, and a staunch advocate for women in cyber and privacy.

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