4 years ago, I went to HOPE for the first time on a last-minute press pass from my college newspaper. Some relevant facts about the trip:

  • I was 19 and had never been to a hacker con before.
  • I didn’t identify as a hacker (or an activist).
  • I was too shy to talk to anyone the entire time. Combined with the fact that I knew only a few people there, I was mostly off by myself.
  • HOPE that year was the pinnacle of paranoia in probably the most paranoid period of my life. This was 2010, a few months after Chelsea Manning was arrested for leaking a trove of documents to WikiLeaks. Coincidentally, Chelsea Manning had visited my house in the autumn of 2009; this was cause enough for suspicion from certain groups and frequent questions from reporters once the WikiLeaks story broke. Julian Assange was scheduled to give the keynote at HOPE, so you can imagine the atmosphere that year.
  • Overall it was a fun experience regardless.

This year I finally made it back to HOPE. Things were a little different than last time:

  • I flew in from Europe instead of driving from Boston.
  • I was representing EFF and Freedom of the Press Foundation, two organizations that were almost-universally loved by the attendees.
  • I co-presented two talks in front of overflowing rooms of people and got lots of audience feedback.
  • I didn’t have time to talk to all the people that I wanted to, much less all the people who were trying to ask me questions.
  • Whereas last time I made it to several talks per day, this year I was working from 4 AM in the morning until whenever-I-had-to-give-a-presentation for the first 2/3rds of the conference, then running off to meetings or working shifts at the EFF/FPF booths. As a result, I made it to a total of 3 or 4 talks that weren’t mine. 🙁
  • It was eerie to have contributed to a project that kept getting name-dropped during the conference by the likes of Daniel Ellsberg and Barton Gellman. Literally dozens of people approached me to say that they wanted to help out with SecureDrop or set up an instance. Wow!

Predictably, it was strange to be a very-minor celebrity at a conference where I’d previously felt like an outsider and deliberately tried to make myself invisible. 4 years ago, my experience in the last 4 days would have seemed impossible for a plethora of reasons: I wasn’t a good public speaker*, I had a lot of self-doubt that I could contribute anything to the event,  I felt weird for not having the same interests and background as the vast majority of people at HOPE, I didn’t know much about computers, I didn’t think that I was working on anything interesting, etc.

*Public speaking workshops are immensely helpful here; so does taking an introductory voice acting class.

Despite the slowly-fading jetlag and piling exhaustion after a month of international travel, it felt nice to contribute back to a conference that had been an eye-opening experience to me the first time.

Many thanks to the following people for working on presentations with me, giving last-minute feedback, and/or letting me sleep in their room: Parker Higgins, Bill Budington, Garrett Robinson, Trevor Timm, Runa Sandvik, James Dolan, Kevin Gallagher, Noah Swartz. Also thanks for Oliver Day for appointing me CSO of his company even though I haven’t fixed the SSL cert for his website yet.

Photo by Scott J. O’Brien (@scottjobrien)