Once a year, the RSA Conference USA gathers thousands of executives, vendors, and sales representatives together to transform San Francisco’s Moscone Center into the central nexus of the worldwide information security industry. At the 23rd edition of the conference, happening later this April, participants will have the opportunity to join more than 350 sessions, keynotes, and seminars. They have a chance to participate in hands-on workshops and attend peer networking sessions and can visit the more than 400 company booths on the massive expo floor.

dhia_croppedBut despite the size of the event, some information security professionals see RSA as a chance to make uniquely personal connections and take stock of the impact that their own work can have on an industry. Dhia Mahjoub, senior security researcher at OpenDNS Security Labs, says that the RSA Conference gives him a unique opportunity for face-to-face interactions with colleagues from around the world and to see how the innovative security research he and peers work on everyday can be used to address modern information security challenges.

“RSA is important for researchers because commercial products are the embodiment of the intense, continuous research that happens behind the scenes,” he said. “Most of the time, the research that we do is focused on solving problems that haven’t yet affected most people. We spend a lot of time on new research and innovative, visionary-type stuff. But our end goal as researchers is to protect people and corporations from online threats. Seeing how our work morphs into real products is enlightening. RSA is a chance to get a reality check”

In his role as security researcher at OpenDNS, Mahjoub works on research that applies a variety of analysis techniques to security threats ranging from botnets to banking trojans. In the last two years alone, he’s delivered 14 talks related to his research at events ranging from Kaspersky SAS to BlackHat. He is also part of the non-profit security research group MalwareMustDie, which helps track botnets and other malicious sources on the Internet.

Though security researchers are often competing for mindshare and conference speaking slots, Mahjoub says that that the environment at RSA generally feels more open and collaborative than other big trade shows.

“I’ve been to both RSA and Black Hat, and I feel that RSA is more pleasant. It’s all sales-y, and some people hate that… but it’s a mix,” he said. “RSA gives you a chance to visit all of the vendor booths and get an idea of what is going on across the entire industry. You can follow people on social media, but nothing beats seeing what is going on firsthand.”

Last year’s RSA Conference broke several records for size and breadth. According to event organizers, over 28,000 attendees attended the 2014 show, which also featured more than 400 sessions in total. The unofficial RSA Parties Twitter handle is also tracking more than 70 parties and receptions happening during the week of the event. But despite the size of the crowds that these numbers suggest, many researchers see RSA as a chance reconnect with friends in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Anthony Kasza, whose work as a security researcher with OpenDNS Labs also takes him to conferences around the world, says that RSA offers a unique opportunity for researchers to unwind with their peers.

“RSA brings everyone together in one place, which is nice,” Kasza said. “I’m looking forward to interacting and talking with industry people I haven’t seen in a while or met before. As researchers we need to get out of our research boxes, unplug and interact once in a while with the products and companies in our industry. After-parties, follow-up Twitter chats and hallway conversations are typically even more beneficial than the presentations.”

Mahjoub agrees. “The private parties, mini-conferences, and meet-ups around RSA are a great opportunity to catch up with old information security friends and meet new ones in an informal setting,” he said. “We get to strengthen connections, build trust and plan future collaboration. Meeting old and new friends is also high on my to-do list and spending some quality time with them.”

When it comes to the sessions, researchers often cite plans to attend talks given by friends with whom they share interests or talks covering topics related to what they encounter in their work. But even for hardcore researchers, RSA presents a once-a-year opportunity to get an overview of the most important topics facing the industry today.

“Adi Shamir, Whit Diffie, and Martin Hellman—the legends are always around at RSA. The former NSA chief is even giving a talk. The cybersecurity journalists—people like Brian Krebs—those are the kinds of people I’m looking forward to hearing from,” Mahjoub said. “I do research on a daily basis, but I need to see the big picture. I need to see how I can position myself as a researcher in the world. I’m not just a researcher, I’m part of a community.”

If you’re interested in attending sessions and events hosted by OpenDNS during RSA Conference USA 2015, visit the OpenDNS at RSA webpage for more information.

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