Saturday, December 10, 2016

I'm a failure - (mis)adventures in CFP submissions

I love speaking at security conferences.  A good conference presentation goes beyond just sharing your data.  It's a true performance art. Edutainment if you will.  I've been a technical reviewer for submissions at a number of conferences as well.  I always submit to a CFP as though I were a reviewer thinking "is this a presentation I would like to see myself?"  If the answer is no, I don't submit it.

That being said, I'm always a little put out when I get rejected for a conference.  A bunch of reviewers looked at my work. My idea. My baby. And having judged it, they found it lacking. No matter how many times I've been through it or how I just know it will be different this time, I'm always put out.  Sometimes I have a feeling of impostor syndrome.  I always find myself wondering "why didn't they like me" or "why wasn't I good enough?"  Sometimes I think that the reviewers know a bunch of people have presented on this topic before me - they think I'm a fraud.... Thoughts (self destructive thoughts) like these happen every. single. time.

But then I quickly remember something I saw on an old "No Fear" tee shirt years ago:
100% of people who don't run the race never win
This is when I remember that I have to put myself out there to win.  I personally submit several proposals for every one that is accepted.  Sometimes when I get rejected from one conference, I submit the same paper to another conference with no edits and it gets accepted. Sometimes reviewers are helpful (like at DEFCON, thanks Nikita) with providing great feedback and I am able to modify my submissions to be better for the next conference.

When you submit to a CFP and aren't accepted, I think it's important to let others know that you've submitted, but were ultimately rejected.  I think this does two important things:

  1. It lets others know you are at least trying to give back to the community.
  2. It lets others know they are not alone in being rejected.

Most conferences receive twice the number of submissions they can accommodate, some receive even more than this.  They have to reject someone. In fact they have to reject a lot of someones.  But don't let this discourage you.  Keep submitting, keep polishing the submission, and most of all don't fear failure.  It's totally natural to feel bad with a rejection notice, but you have to brush yourself off and get back up again.

Why am I writing this now? I submitted two papers to Shmoocon this year, both before the early decision cutoff.  When the early decision came and went without me on the list, I felt bad about myself.  Then I got out of my slump and figured maybe I'd be accepted in the second round. Yesterday, I got two notifications.  The first said I was accepted to speak.  I was elated.  The second email ten minutes later said I was rejected.  I was totally deflated and wondered "what's wrong with me?"  Truth be told, if I never expected to be picked up for both talks.  I'm honestly happy I got accepted for one talk at all.  This will be my third time speaking at Shmoocon and it's an awesome conference.  But they didn't like my second talk.  They don't like my ideas. I'm a failure. A drink or two later I was celebrating being accepted for one talk and the pain from the rejection felt long gone.  If I'd been rejected for both, the sting likely would still be stronger.

Update: Someone reached out to me and said I should be happy one paper got accepted. I am. He said I should be grateful that I wasn't as he put it "totally rejected."  Again, I am.  For the record, I submitted three to RSA this year with a 100% rejection rate.  My point in explaining this was to note that you can feel rejection even when you've been accepted.  Again, if this helps you - great.  If it doesn't, then just forget I wrote it.

These destructive thought patterns are far too easy for us all to fall into.  I'm not writing this for your sympathy, I'm hoping that others can read this and realize "I am not alone - this is something that others go through."  If that's not you, I envy you and the control you exert over your emotions.  For the rest of you: you are normal, these thoughts are normal, don't give up, don't stop submitting, give back to your community.

I'll close by saying that I think security conferences are very important and so is speaking at them. My company Rendition Infosec sponsored several conferences this year and will continue to in 2017.  I also strongly encourage my employees (okay, it's technically coercion) to submit and speak at conferences.  Three members of the Rendition team (Edward McCabeBrandon McCrillis, and Michael Banks) spoke at multiple infosec conferences this year.  I try to coach them through the submission process to maximize their acceptance rates, but I suspect I'm putting them in a bad emotional state when they are rejected. For that, let me formally apologize.

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