Mercury’s Shirt for BSides: An Homage to Florence Violet McKenzie

Working in cyber security, we are all about black t-shirts. Whilst I have been accused of having some fashion sense, I also own some 60 black shirts and 3 hoodies collected over the years from conferences, colleagues and memes that have spread over the years. I thought it was about time Mercury made one to contribute to the rich tapestry that has become an art within our professional discipline and make our own mark. 

I first read about Florence Violet McKenzie OBE in David Dufty’s book, The Secret Code-Breakers of Central Bureau. David dedicates an entire chapter to Mrs. Mac’s efforts and her girls in green to train and develop young men and women as Australia moved to a wartime footing in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s. Throughout the period, she trained over 12,000 men and 1,000 women through the organisation she founded, the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps. The WESC operates out of a woolshed at 10 Clarence St (just around the corner from the current Sydney startup hub), the hacker warehouse that feels reminiscent of the l0pht. In a similar parallel to BSides and other community-driven organisations, the WESC and school were fairly driven through donations and community. It also strongly focused on novel teaching methods, irregular hours and a DIY spirit that many of us in Australia’s cyber security community hold true to. Elements of WESC became key members of HMAS Harman, who were pivotal to the foundation of the WRENs and other auxiliary units throughout the Australian Defence Force.  

A recurring theme in the story of the WESC was neutrality in gender or skill, with very much a focus on achieving an outcome. Within our industry, sometimes we get fixated on the ‘rockstar’ appeal, an elitism that can sometimes be intimidating to new entrants and can be negligent to the wider community. I’d also contest that, all too often, our response is the polar opposite of elitism, where the only thing we talk about is content that has no bearing on the discipline, thereby neglecting the technical domain. We wish to continue her spirit of training, development and growing a skilled workforce. The best way is to provide the spaces for meaningful professional development at BSides.  

Our shirt design was undertaken by Pepper Raccoon. We’ve also incorporated into our shirt a decoder ring and a Bilateral Substitution Array which we’ve written into our challenges. 

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