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From maintaining open-source libraries to managing online communities, developers and infosec professionals surely make more unpaid industry contributions than counterparts in most other sectors.

Volunteers are also pivotal to the smooth running of many cybersecurity conferences, including, of course, Nullcon, whose Goa 2023 edition began on 20th Sep. Having emerged from a volunteer-powered security community (Null), Nullcon is hugely appreciative of the invaluable contributions of its ‘Con-Trollers’.

These volunteers contribute in countless ways, including pre-show preparations, in-show troubleshooting and (via Winja) devising and running CTFs. 

What motivates this spirit of volunteerism? It surely can’t be career progression alone.  

After all, demand for cyber skills far outstrips supply, making unpaid internships less necessary than with, say, media careers, while many Con-Trollers already work in top-tier infosec roles. 

I suspect another factor at play: the sheer enthusiasm so many devs, hackers and bug hunters have for their vocation, to the degree that it effectively doubles as a hobby – and we happily indulge our hobbies unpaid, right? 

‘Experience, learning and networking – all in one place’

A passion for his chosen career, together with leveraging an opportunity to learn and network, are clearly motivating to longtime Nullcon volunteer Jatin Singhla.

“A chance to volunteer in Asia’s biggest cybersecurity conference opened the gates to learn about cybersecurity in more depth and network with industry leaders, researchers in person along with getting event management experience,” says Singhla, IT security supervisor in attack surface intelligence, vulnerability detection group, for FIS Global. 

“The best experience, learning and networking all in one place (I call it as ELN: Experience, Learning and Networking). This has inspired me to never look back and volunteer each year. This ELN I gain each year has helped me a lot to grow in my career.”

Cooper, a professional developer and videography hobbyist, has recorded Nullcon without charging the organisers since 2016 (although he politely invites anyone to buy him a drink). He wanted to bridge a gap between US conferences and their counterparts elsewhere. 

“Pompous as it sounds, it’s because I want the knowledge to be out there, easily accessible to the world,” says Cooper, who lives in the Netherlands. “Before I started doing this it was mainly the US conferences that were being filmed and published, whereas for the talks happening in the rest of the world you simply had to be there or hope the speaker published their slide deck after.”

A self-described introvert, Cooper also says that volunteering helped him overcome the “daunting” experience of feeling “very alone” among his peers at crowded conferences. “You start out with a manageable group of people that you need to interact with anyway and quickly build a relationship with, and you build a network from there,” he explains. “And as a bonus, you help everybody have an unforgettable experience at the event.”

Hitesh Madhwani helped to coordinate Con-Troller teams as senior manager of operations at Nullcon organiser Payatu Technologies for seven years before becoming chief HR officer at cybersecurity firm HackIT earlier this month.

He, too, is keen to continue donating his time to Nullcon. “I would love to help and be a part of Nullcon for as long as I can and see it grow,” he says. “It is fun to be a part of a huge conference like Nullcon.”

‘No mean feat’

Volunteering is as invaluable to Nullcon as it appears to be for the volunteers themselves.

“It helps manage the flow of the conference and [makes it] logistically smoother,” says Madhwani, adding that the achievement of around 40 Con-Trollers keeping more than 2,500 attendees happy “is no mean feat”. 

“Each Con-Troller takes ownership and gives 100%. They take pride in being part of the team,” he continues. “The energy is just mind-blowing. Makes one just keep going. I would not want to think of the event without a Con-Troller.”

Singhla, a volunteer for Nullcon since 2016, says “the most satisfying moment is seeing the tired faces of the entire team yet with a biggest smile after the end of day two every year. That smile signifies we have managed to overcome every challenge, which has ensured the best possible experience for every single attendee, speaker, sponsor and exhibitor.” 

The ‘impossible task’

Both Singhla and Madhwani fondly recall how Singhla once averted a last-minute crisis at Nullcon Goa, when the balls for about 30 beanbags that would provide comfortable seating throughout the venue failed to arrive in time. 

Hearing of this at about 5pm the night before day one, Singhla criss-crossed Goa’s state capital, Panjim, in search of a solution. Within four hours “a truck full of bean balls” arrived thanks to Singhla’s determination and negotiating skills. 

“Everyone thought, including myself, that this was an impossible task,” says Singhla, “but if you put your heart and soul into [your role] you will be definitely successful and so will the event.” The Volunteer of the Year award he won at the BSides Bangalore Cybersecurity Excellence Awards 2023 was clearly well deserved.

Madhwani also highlights accommodating last-minute replacements for attendees who could not attend at the registration desk, and how one volunteer (take a bow, Narendra) resolved exhibitor and sponsor “challenges with setting up their booths” within “a few minutes”, as notable achievements.

Cooper’s “most satisfying achievement” relates to “crowdsourcing multiple rigs” by leaving them in India and other countries, then training “other inspired individuals” to set up rigs so they could “go out and film an event on their own”.

‘Cauldron of weird and wonderful ideas’

As I’ve noted in a previous blog post, Nullcon’s inclusive, welcoming environment fosters diversity and creativity as well as a community spirit. 

“What I see, and love seeing, at Nullcon is how during the con, despite various talks being in progress, groups of people go and collaborate on something that piqued their interest,” says Cooper. “In this sense Nullcon becomes a cauldron of all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas that get explored in a welcoming environment.

“Relative to European conferences, I’m also very happy to see more women getting involved, both as attendees, as speakers and as volunteers. It’s something I know Nullcon is actively pursuing and I’m quite pleased to see their efforts bearing fruit.”