By Anastasia Howland

During the weekend of October 5-7, Montreat College sophomore Sam Brown and seniors Kenny Summerow and Sam Cleveland, along with Montreat cybersecurity professor Greg Sayadian, traveled to Louisville, Kentucky to attend DerbyCon—one of the largest “hacker conventions” on the East Coast.

Although “hacker” may not mean what you think. “Some people think, ‘Well that’s criminal stuff,’” Summerow notes about certain skills demonstrated at these conventions, such as lock-picking or car-computer hacking. However, hacker conventions such as DerbyCon are not held in order to foster crime. DerbyCon is for “ethical hackers,” whose goal is to teach on raising awareness about possible security breaches. “We want to try to not give them that false sense of security if there’s something that is not secure in their computer systems or in their network,” Summerow says. “We want to be able to tell them why and what they need to do to improve that. And that’s one of the main draws for people in the cybersecurity industry.”

At any given hour during the three day hacker convention, there were four different presentations given on various topics, many of which raised awareness about such false sense of security. Montreat senior Sam Cleveland described the overall atmosphere as a sort of “fun, happy, chaotic.” Students attended talks on topics such as the investigation of the dark web by the FBI, or the power of social engineering, which is a technique employed by many hackers involving the psychological manipulation of individuals into divulging information.

Although many DerbyCon presentations covered weighty or highly technical topics, others covered topics you might not expect to be touched upon at a hacker convention. Summerow mentioned presentations dealing with self-care in the midst of stressful mental environments, tips on how to be a better co-worker, and even one session which taught attendees how to “hack themselves” to be more extroverted. Cleveland recalled one presentation which showed how an ethical hacking organization, Hackers for Charity, “used [their] technical skills to put [a country which had been destroyed by a hurricane] back online piece by piece.” He points out how this combats a pervasive understanding about those in the cybersecurity world. “We’re not just slaves to a keyboard,” Cleveland says. “We can get out there and get our hands dirty and do a lot of good for the community.”

DerbyCon also presented a host of opportunities for students to engage in networking with companies such as IBM and Wal-Mart who were there accepting applications for their cybersecurity departments. Organizations which hold information security training and issue security certifications—possession of which remains vital to employees in the cyber world—were also present. “There are a lot of opportunities,” says Cleveland, “I got a lot of business cards, a lot of emails, so I’m hoping that one of those will pan out into a career.”

Both seniors expressed gratitude for and excitement about the experience. “I would have never been able to go if it hadn’t have been for Montreat,” Summerow says. Cleveland was able to recognize a major jump in understanding from the time he attended DerbyCon two years ago to when he attended this October’s convention, as he has now spent over two years in the Montreat cybersecurity program. “I think my favorite part was sitting in a lecture, and listening to what the guy’s saying, and realizing ‘I know exactly what he’s talking about. I have the tools he’s talking about. I want to try that,’” says Cleveland.

Ultimately, both seniors recommend DerbyCon for cybersecurity students at all levels. Tactics and tools which are used in Montreat cyber classes are present all throughout the convention’s presentations and booths, so students are able to both learn and be affirmed in their previous learning. “One of the great things about attending those lectures is that they’re using some of the similar tools we’re using right now,” Cleveland says. “It’s really affirming to know that we’re walking out of school with some practical experience.” In closing, Summerow sums up their DerbyCon experience: “I would say if you want to see what the industry is and how open it is, go. It’s definitely worth the trip.”