COVID-19 effect: How coding tournaments went from IRL to virtual

What’s it like to pivot to the virtual when you’re a real-world tournament outfit? Secure Code Warrior CMO Nick Flude explains.

3DXplorer

From the French company Attadyn comes 3DXplorer, a browser-based, 3D platform that doesn’t require a plug-in. It supports 100-plus avatars in a 3D conference call. And the enterprise edition delivers added security. 3DXplorer is targeted at virtual events and trade shows.
3DXplorer From the French company Attadyn comes 3DXplorer, a browser-based, 3D platform that doesn’t require a plug-in. It supports 100-plus avatars in a 3D conference call. And the enterprise edition delivers added security. 3DXplorer is targeted at virtual events and trade shows.

Secure Code Warrior, which specialises in teaching developers how to securely code, has quickly moved to reconfigure its tournaments to virtual in the wake of the COVID-19 restrictions.

For other businesses grappling with the challenge, its CMO, Nick Flude, said there's more to it than just building a new website. For one, there's a difference between functional code and secure code.

“And secure code has generally given rise to most of the cyber security breaches we've had over the kind of last few years. So it's kind of a critical thing,” he told CMO.

It’s known as application security, or appsec for short, and the outfit hosts tournaments for developer teams, which mirror real customer implementations. The competitions are complete with prizes and designed to allow developers to have a bit of fun - with a purpose.

“It gets the engineers or developers involved in gameplay and testing themselves. And with that social element of the learning, the next time appsec comes back and says ‘right, you've had the fun bit, now you need to do the learning bit’, the developers themselves are more open to going through this program of education and testing,” Flude explained.

While Secure Warrior as an organisation is digital-first in its DNA, it’s nonetheless typically used a physical environment for hosting tournaments.

“We have a customer success team whose job it is to on-board new customers and get their developers excited about the new secure code knowledge that they're about to receive,” Flude said. "They're the ones who would go out with the customer and find a large room in their premises and set up the tournament. They invite the development teams, we produce promotional posters and have a thing we call ‘tournament in a box’ that gives the appsec people the posters, email templates, trophies and all those things they need to run the event.”

“There's music, we have a leaderboard up on the screen that plays to the gamification - and a lot of developers are gamers themselves - so it's really a social thing. And they're competing against each other.”

Finding the virtual path

But like much of the world, COVID-19 came along and upset everything. “We started to look at the current situation and work out what we could do to maintain engagement with people and still deliver on our business," Flude said.

"The idea came for running the regional or global tournament to allow people to play against each other and see what is essentially a global leaderboard.”

Secure Warrior is now running regional virtual tournaments and working with several global bodies to run virtual tournaments for their members. Flude described it as a 24-hour open tournament around the globe, with the leaderboard staggered as time zones come in and come out.

On a technical level, the shift to fully virtual tournaments required back-end resources including server capacity, while on the user-side, Secure Warrior needed to define how the competition would run, rules of engagement and parameters.

Flude said it wasn't as simple as believing ‘if you build it they will come’, and the team knew it needed to work on publicising the tournaments, which meant more than just giving a URL and log-on details. To do this, Secure Warrior has partnered with like-minded community groups and government-backed cyber security bodies to seed out and share content socially. It’s also seen the outfit expand platform to allow more interested participants.

“It's a very simple way of continuing the ‘give back within the community’ philosophy," Flude commented. "We've made the shift from customers-only through to community-only through to anybody who wants to learn about secure coding. After all, the more tournaments understand what secure coding is, the better it's going to be for all of us.”

One of the challenges is carrying the buzz of a live event over to the virtual arena. Flude said the team normally made real-world tournaments a spectacle. 

“We give out prizes and a trophy at the end, and have music as loud as we can. So we want to make sure as much of that can carry over to the virtual," he said. "We have made sure to run a simultaneous Slack or chat channel so that we can keep the fun going as well as have a channel for questions to be raised.”

The work has included writing a Slack bot application which is now in testing. This takes the leaderboard and pushes that out as a Slack message. If you're registering, the Slack channel bot for that particular tournament then welcomes people.

“There's also a little bit of barracking we built into the app itself to keep that social sense going," Flude said. "People can spectate as well. So they add their little clusters of messages, particularly because we're encouraging people to gameplay and create teams and play as a team.”

Digital considerations

Flude said the COVID-19 situation has accelerated many businesses' plans towards being digital-first or offering more of their products and services via online means. But pivoting to the virtual is not as simple as loading up a Web-based shoptfront.

“There are a lot of organisations struggling to catch up, not just presenting the front-end, but also the back-end logistics of the infrastructure,” he said. “The other one is if you don't understand your community of users, and just try to boost the website and host a webinar. You've actually got to be driving out into your communities.

“Messaging and locations that are persona-specific involves having a different way of approaching different customers that exist in different locations. You have to recognise as part of your marketing strategies that you have different personas, who consume content in different ways and in different locations, and use digital to deliver that to them.”

In other words, it's still necessary to have valid messaging and a valid understanding of your buyer or user.

“You're just giving them more of that content. So if you lead with quality and if you lead with the understanding of what they value, you’ll be offering something worthwhile,” Flude said.

Check out how these other brands are pivoting physical events to virtual:

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