It's RSA Conference season once again

... and this afternoon I was standing in my studio looking at some high-heeled stripper shoes (in my size) some fishnet stockings, and a knife-pleated Japanese Schoolgirl skirt (also in my size) and thinking "It's too cold to do this ..." Or something like that. My plan was to take a photograph of myself in "booth uniform" from the waist down, and my normal business-casual-slacker from the waist up. Because I threatened my boss that I'd work our booth at the conference wearing high heels and stockings.

Because, apparently, the extra 3" you get by wearing platform shoes really tells a prospective customer a lot about your credentials as a computer security company. I also wanted to see if we could get an old WWII Sherman Tank to park by our booth, because apparently having a ridiculously irrelevant vehicle parked at your booth says a great deal about how well your products work. That's what I concluded from RSA last year, anyway.

Me and Gary McGraw asking a marketing spokesperson (in spandex) about the relationship between the company's product and the car: "it says our product is really fast" A for effort.

Last year there were 4 or 5 booths that had some kind of ludicrously expensive sports car, or a flock of young women showing a great deal of spandex and curves. I suppose if a vendor has absolutely no real marketing message, that's a substitute, but I suspect that even the most out-of-touch customer is not going to mistake a firewall (or whatever it is) speeds and feeds for that Ferrari's top speed. How does dollars spent, length of inseam, or miles per hour, correlate to telling us something useful about:
- The quality of the product?
- How well it meets customers' needs?
- How easy the product is to use?
- The company's ability to innovate?
Actually - it tells me quite a lot. It tells me I'm looking at a company that has a marketing organization that's as out of touch as the management team that approved that booth set-up. Here's a good idea: replace the Ferrari with a cardboard cut-out of a Ferrari and use the money you just saved to hire a new marketing team.

I'm not making a moral argument about sexism in our industry or the objectification of women. I could (and probably should) but it's easier to just point out the obvious: the only customers that will be impressed by anyone's ability to hire pretty models to work their booth aren't going to be the ones signing the big purchase orders. And, it's possible that they're thinking your sales team are going to be a bunch of testosterone-laden assholes who'd be better off selling used tires. If some company wants to appeal to the consumer that's going to jump at the T&A maybe they should relocate up the street to O'Farrell where they can include a happy ending with their product demo.

I know that, to a large degree, RSA Conference has become a self-referential industry event, in which the message you put forward at your booth is probably less relevant than "Look! We're still here!" but it is an opportunity to reach out to potential customers, partners, investors, and shareholders. And I remember how, last year, I went by Palo Alto's booth and Nir Zuk, the founder, was doing the pitches to a massive crowd - and answering some pretty crunchy technical question, too. (No: Nir was not in a miniskirt) That's the kind of performance that would impress me if I were shopping for a company to invest in on their IPO. That's the kind of performance that might interest me enough to take a look at their product - instead of their founder's butt. If I thought that they were just counting Ferraris in their dreams, I might not be so impressed with their long-term story. Everything a company does is, in some way or another, a pitch for money and one of the things they need to think about is how they're saying that money is going to be spent. Sure, I understand that you're collecting money and are probably going to do something stupid with most of it, but don't tell me up front that your R&D is going to take second place to your founders' love of Formula-1 cars and strippers.

What blows my mind is that computer security is, first and foremost, a knowledge industry. It's highly technical and attracts practitioners who are dedicated, well-read, able to absorb complex technical problems and analyze intangible benefits of complicated technologies - and the best that some people can come up with to impress them is T&A and expensive cars? Really? Why not just have a couple of marketing people stand at the booth and scream, "WE THINK YOU'RE STUPID" at prospective customers while they stroll by? Instead, at my company, we're going to buck the trend and keep using RSA as a way to tell our customers and prospects about what we're up to.

Drop by and say hi.

(Hotel Grand Elysee, Hamburg. Feb 19, 2013)


Mike Rothman comments on the same topic, here. There are a couple of problems with the position Mike takes, though I think his heart's in the right place. He's engaging in a form of the naturalistic fallacy, namely that this is how things are, therefore there's no reason to change them - most notably: "Even if it's objectionable to you, Ms. Market says booth babes still work in getting badges scanned. Or else they wouldn't be on the show floor." Well, yes, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. It's just what is. You can excuse virtually any stupidity (or even serious crimes) using that argument. But the core of my complaint isn't the girls in spandex - I like girls in spandex* - but rather that it's bad marketing because it's as irrelevant as the fast cars, sumo wrestlers, and stage magicians. Does any of that say anything about the company's products other than "we have a really incredibly cheesy and stupid marketing team? Yay, us!"

I think the main thing Mike misses is that perhaps what we're seeing is a side-effect of marketing people using the wrong metrics to determine success. If you use the metric I do "how successfully is the company selling its product?" then Palo Alto's booth, with the performances by Nir Zuk, is a tremendous success. If you use the metric of "how many badges did I manage to scan?" then why not cut to the chase and have someone handing out $5 in return for letting them scan your badge? What I think is going on here is that marketing of this sort may not actually do very much to drive sales, so the marketers score themselves on their ability to scan badges. That's like playing in a basketball tournament and patting yourself on the back for having the best shoes, irregardless of your ability to put balls through the hoop. Executive managers that are approving marketing budgets ought to be asking themselves "WTF am I approving? Really?" and hiring better marketing people, not looking at results like "Oh, WOW! We scanned 12,289 badges and now we can send 12,289 annoying pieces of junk email to prospective customers that will demonstrate the effectiveness of the Barracuda spam blocker product!" Perhaps marketing uses metrics like badge-swipes because they can't quantify a positive impact on sales due to their activity. If that's the case, the problem is marketing's. The important part of collecting metrics is understanding what your metric is measuring and the degree to which it's relevant to your mission.

In other words: I don't want to get rid of booth babes, I want to get rid of stupid marketing.

(*Although, if I want to enjoy ecdysiasts, I'll go to a strip club, not the RSA conference. That way I can be pretty sure I will get a lap-dance without having someone trying to tell me about their signatureless malware detection appliance)


Someone who did attend RSA this year emailed me in regard my crack about just standing here giving out $5 for badge-scans:

Subject: FYI. Someone at RSA was giving away money to scan your badge....

Forgot the vendor, but got $10... :)

'Nuff said.