Day 105 - Away Day!

Once a year in every region that ThoughtWorks operates in, we hold a retreat called Away Day. It's a weekend of getting together with your colleagues that you may not get to see very often. We share stories, give talks, and just generally have a good time. This weekend we had Away Day for North America region. Six hundred ThoughtWorkers flew in from all corners of the the US, Canada, and a number of other countries.

On Friday we all converged on Atlanta, Georgia. We kicked things off with a few mixers before dinner. Dinner was held in an enormous ballroom that still barely contained all of us. I roamed around and met a few folks, including a nearly 20-year ThoughtWorks veteran. He was a super cool guy, and we had a great conversation about all the places he had lived while he was coming up in the 70s. After Dinner the Office of Managing Directors for North America gave an opening-ceremony type talk. From there, it was off to do more mingling down at the hotel lobby bar. It was great fun, though I ducked out a little early to make sure I was ready to give my lightning talk the following day.

Saturday was very busy. I ended up spending more time preparing for my talk than I had planned on, so I slept a bit late. I missed the first talk of the day, but after that I was on for the rest of the day. I was part of a block of seven lightning talks given one after another. I enjoyed all of other talks a lot, though my favorite had to be a dual lighting talk. It alternated on each slide between talking about Serverspec and the various properties of Whiskey. The tempo of that talk had everyone in stitches, and we still managed to learn a lot of cool stuff about Serverspec!

My talk was a repeat of one I had already given at one of our Dallas Office gatherings a few months back. It was a talk about locks, how they work, and how to pick them. Everyone seemed to really enjoy it, and over the course of the rest of the day I had many people come up and ask me more questions about that. If nothing else, I received a lot of great feedback to incorporate into the next version of my talk, should I decide to give it again in the future.

The rest of Saturday afternoon was spent eating, mingling, and attending other talks. In particular we had a number of Keynote sessions given by people invited by our Chairman, Roy Singham. They all focused on various injustices going on in the world today. From the US' immigration policy, to Troy Davis, to Islamaphobia (I can't find a link to the speaker for this talk, sorry!), and to the massacre of 34 striking mine workers in South Africa a mere two years ago. It was an emotionally charged series of talks, and a powerful reminder of just how far humanity still needs to go.

In the evening we moseyed over to the Georgia Aquarium to spend a couple of hours viewing the exhibits before dinner. I spent most of the time roaming around with a local to the Atlanta office whom I met for the first time there at the Aquarium. We saw a lot of cool stuff, and got to chat a good amount. I'm always impressed by the engineering that goes into aquariums. In particular, crafting the gargantuan panes of that go into an aquarium of that size has to be incredibly difficult.

After seeing all the exhibits we gathered together for dinner. During dinner we had a guest come and speak to us. Her name was Eriel Deranger and she represented the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. She gave a powerful talk about the struggles her people have had in keeping oil companies from completely ruining the land they've lived on for generations. Already their water supply is tainted by the runoff of the mining operations further upstream from them. It has gotten so bad it's no longer safe to drink, nor is it particularly safe to eat the fish that swim there. The good news is that they actually have legal grounds for challenging what the oil companies are doing, so they have a chance of beating back the industrialization of their ancestral lands.

Following her talk a band took to the stage. We started off by having a sing-along of a classic progressive protest song 'If I had a Hammer', and then went on to mingle and dance for hours. I continued to roam around the room, finding new people to meet, including a number of people who had more questions about locks and picking thereof. Around 11 they started shutting things down at the Aquarium, and we all began our trek back to the Hotel to begin the after party.

The after party was a lot of fun. I mostly hung around one of the two Karaoke rooms, because I loves me some Karaoke. We had a great time, belting out classic tunes like Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, Wannabe by the Spice Girls, and others. We finished up with the must-have song for any serious Karaoke session: Don't Stop Believin' by Journey. It was a strong finish to a greatly enjoyable evening.

Sunday was a much quieter affair. We started off by giving out our Aaron Scwartz Memorial Award, given to a ThoughtWorker who best embodies the ideals Aaron lived for. We had a number of great nominees, but only one could win. In the end it went to the team working on SecureDrop for the Freedom of the Press Foundation. After that we had a great talk given by Jake Applebaum on how best to counteract the rise of the surveillance state. It gave me a lot of food for thought.

Unfortunately many of the end-goals he spoke about will be things that won't come to fruition for at least a decade. Things like creating a plug and play router that can easily connect you to TOR. Technical people have no issue accessing TOR, so this box would be geared toward making it easy for the general public to access the internet anonymously. The key problem in building such a device comes in guaranteeing its openness.

When you deal with proprietary technology (hardware or software), you really have no way to know if they've purposefully put any backdoors into it. You can't even audit it to make sure there aren't any security holes in it. Creating open software is not a problem, we're already quite good at it. But creating open hardware is another thing entirely.

Think of all the manufacturers that might have a hand in something like your cell phone. Qualcomm, Broadcom, Apple, Google, Intel, Nvidia, and countless other manufacturers have a hand in building the components of your phone. If any of those manufacturers decide to put in some kind of backdoor—even if its only intended to be used by them—there's no guarantee that bad guys won't find and exploit it. An open hardware platform that can be audited by a community with a vested interest in its security is the best chance that we'll actually end up with something secure in the end.

Those were the biggest things for me about the weekend. I also had another revelatory experience in one of the talks I saw on Sunday, but I've already gone on long enough for one post. So I'll just save that for another post sometime in the future.