Hi. I’m Laurence Simon. I’m a writer. I write things.

A lot of development teams here at cPanel have been going to escape rooms as team-building exercises. In escape rooms, you get locked in a room, and you have to figure out the puzzles and challenges to get free before the clock runs out. They also usually have some kind of theme, like a bomb about to go off, or a steampunk airship, or a zombie on a chain that will break free and eat your brains (I don’t want to nit-pick, Tom, but is this really your plan?).

When cPanel Conference for the 20th anniversary was announced, I thought “Why don’t we come up with our own escape room?” (Well, okay, I thought “Ft. Lauderdale! YEEEEHAAAWWWW!” But after a moment of panic trying to come up with a reason to go, I thought up that escape room thing.)

I scribbled up some notes and ideas and potential scenarios and puzzles (one of which involved an inflatable poo emoji… be glad that didn’t make the cut), and I handed the idea to Kelli, the intrepid SWAT Product Owner, and Travis, the fearless Conference Organizer. After a few meetings and brainstorming sessions, we came up with the story that you’d be trapped in a corrupted server with Apache SpamAssassin™, and you had to prove your identity that you weren’t spam. Otherwise, the SpamAssassin would eliminate you.

We ran tests on cPanel employees in a conference room at the cPanel home office. After a few runs, we tweaked the clues and added a few notes (that clock lock was a bit frustrating and the weight of the spam wasn’t always the same). And we planned some guidelines on when to give out hints or how much to taunt and distract the players.

The original plan was to use the locks on the conference room’s cabinets because the virtual reality tour of the W showed handles on their cabinets. We could run the chains through the handles. The change in venue from the W to the Ritz-Carlton changed that plan, and when we moved from the W to the Ritz-Carlton, we had to adjust for a whole different space. And the cabinets had no handles. Oops.

(I’ll be down at the bar, reaping Jack and Cokes.)

We changed our design to borrow luggage from the staff, and ran the locks through the handles, and told the players that they couldn’t open the luggage without opening the locks.

In all, we had 9 teams go through the escape room, and only one didn’t finish (they came really, really close). The best time was by Jon Kagan, Jawad Tabrez, and Michael Blandford. Way to go!

Three teams finished with less than a minute to spare, with one team down to their final ten seconds!

I think it went really well, and it was neat seeing the teamwork and the thought processes and problem-solving strategies that different people use. And, yes, the groans from when y’all realized that “Run a test on your storage” meant that the lock combination was TEST and not FSCK or HULK or CHKDISK (I did have fun setting it to NICK before each session).

(The answer to everything, really.)

I hope y’all had as much fun going through the puzzles as we did coming up with them and running the event. Plus, Kelli as the SpamAssassin, got to meet Kevin McGrail from the Apache Software Foundation, who develops SpamAssassin.

(Maybe we can do cpHulk next year and invite Stan Lee?)

Maybe next year, if we do this again, we’ll do a little carpentry and electronics. Rig up some lights, loop some sound effects, maybe even a smoke machine.

PS: In case you’re wondering, here’s the solution:

  1. Find the puzzle with the RSA key, notice that there’s four pieces missing.
  2. Find all four bags, ham, and Spam in cabinets.
  3. Notice that the clocks are both at 12:40 (Some teams saw that the hands pointed to 1, 5 and 8 and were confused, others noticed the second hand.)
  4. Open the clock lock with 1-2-4-0
  5. Open the bag, get the puzzle piece and the scale that says “What’s the difference?” (Some teams took a while to notice that note on the bottom of the scale.)
  6. Weigh ham and Spam, calculate that the difference is 184.
  7. Open the 3-digit lock with 184.
  8. Open the bag, get Hulk hand with numbers.
  9. SpamAssassin is hungry, and threatens to eliminate one of you.. Give the Spam to SpamAssassin.
  10. SpamAssassin hands you a puzzle piece and says “Run a test on your storage.”
  11. Open text lock with TEST (Some teams tried to use FSCK and HULK and KTRK and other combinations… the luggage tag was a red herring).
  12. Open the bag, get Hulk hand and pull out third puzzle piece.
  13. Put hands together, notice that the fingers which touch say “0777” which are full permissions. Also, “cP” and “Hulk” were written on the backs of those fingers. (Some teams really liked to do lots of math).
  14. Open the 4-digit lock with 0777.
  15. Retrieve final puzzle piece, finish puzzle
  16. SpamAssassin says that server is no longer corrupt, but you have to prove your identity
  17. Give the ham to SpamAssassin.

After 3 minutes, the Grim Reaper tended to hang around the next step of the puzzle, mumbling clues, and point the end of the scythe at it (when not practicing golf swings, taking photos, and calling Uber Underworld).

Note from benny: In case you missed it, you can see a bunch of pictures from this year’s conference in this Facebook album. If you want to make sure that you know about our conference next year, sign up here. It’s gonna be a Rockin good time.