As I roamed the halls of the DefCon hacker convention, the men in the red shirts with gear packs on their backs were everywhere. Two were talking near me. One responded to a beep on his hand-held device. Security, I thought. They looked serious. A third joined and to my surprise, moments later they were bopping each other with a long foam swimming pool floatie.
I was fascinated. “Excuse me. Are you security?” I asked.
“Yes. We’re Goons,” they responded like triplets.
“May I take your picture?” I asked.
“Certainly!” a guy named “CHS” said in a Bugs Bunny accent. I took the photo, then in a snap they zoomed over to join some fellow Goons in a huddle forming around a cute, petite red-head carrying bags. As I prepared to take a picture, the poor girl was temporarily swallowed in the mob of red shirts.
Luckily she emerged in one piece. Whew. I was later told that I was one of the first people on the planet to witness a live Goon feeding. “This is the first year they brought lunch to us,” CHS said, delighted.
“So what exactly does a Goon do?” I asked.
“We make sure the conference runs smoothly. We’re security, but we do more than that,” he said.
I could see that. These were clearly not your average, everyday conference security guards. I soon learned that the Goon Army consisted of super-smart professional people who took time off from work each year to help run DefCon. Their job: To keep DefCon running smoothly, keep people safe and make sure everyone had a good time.
I had heard about Goons for years and I knew it was prestigious to be one. I even saw one in real life once when I was taking a friend something he needed for a scavenger hunt. That Goon seemed big and scary and wouldn’t let me pass without a badge. Now here I stood watching big strong Goons with handles like “El Pescadore,” “The Captain,” “Whiteboard,” and “GodminusOne” act like little boys playing with puppies.
“Tell me everything!” I said. “What else do you do? Have you ever had a serious crisis? How do you become a Goon? Are you a hacker or a security professional? Do you get paid for this? Do you have weapons in your gear? What do you do when you’re not Gooning? What motivates you to do this?”
“Slow down!” said my new goon friend CHS. “I’ll be right back.” He walked out of hearing range, talked on his 2-way radio, then returned with a message. “I’m going to introduce you to our Goon leader.”
Wow. It was a moment of reverence. I had just been granted permission to enter the alien ship, and I was going to meet the alien leader.
The Goon leader’s name was “noid” (spelled in all lowercase letters) and technically, he was the “Director of Security.” He obviously took the security part of his job seriously. He vetted me for my motives, examined my business card, verified my pass, and then, ever-so-patiently, he started answering my questions. I had limited time with him because he was on his break.
I learned that the Goons work in teams. Each team has a director/leader/captain. Different teams have different specialties, different shirts, different traditions.You can’t apply to be a Goon, you have to be referred and hand-picked by another Goon. The Goons are tight, like a close-knit family. All the Goons are volunteer, the job is exhausting and yet churn is almost non-existent. There are approximately 200 Goons now.
One Goon named “Flea” couldn’t make it due to personal circumstances, so the other Goons constructed a life-sized cardboard cut-out of him and took pictures of the cardboard “Flea” in different settings, posting the pics on Facebook regularly so Flea could see what “he” had attended. A similar thing was done for Derek of DCTV the year he had cancer and couldn’t make it. He attended this year, I met him. These men (and a few women) are proud to be called Goons. They have formed a highly-efficient Goon “brotherhood” that without a doubt has helped contribute to the wild success of DefCon.
It’s rather phenomenal. When I was studying for my MBA, I had to research the inner workings of countless technology companies and write myriads of research papers about management, corporate culture, intrinsic motivation and utilizing human capital. Yet nothing I learned in grad school, or in my experience as a co-founder of a tech company, compares to what I learned from the Goon “Management System” at Defcon.
These Goons could take corporate America to school. More about that soon.
Lei, Arclight, Quiet and Gadsden
Stay tuned for Goonology 102.