Come Hack for Defense!
The Insurgents are coming and they are Hacking for Defense! You’ve probably seen posts by Steve Blank, Pete Newell, and the latest by Ryan Evans on the WarOnTheRocks blog, praising the program that delivers capability, insight, and learning all at the same time.
The reason for a flurry of writing and musings this month of September is because the first Hacking For Defense (H4D) Educator’s course just took place at Stanford, 7–9 September, led by the insurgency leadership. Seventy plus of us just completed the founding Educator’s course for Hacking for Defense and new program sponsored/supported/seeded by the National Security Technology Accelerator — or soon to be called MD5. We were blown away, again, by the successful prototype course held at Stanford. Several of the students who participated in the prototype H4D program at Stanford also attended our Educator’s course. All were passionate. No sleeping here.
What is H4D?
Hacking for Defense (H4D) is a concept, a solution, a platform addressing pressing problems facing the Department of Defense (DoD), Intelligence Community (IC) and other government agencies. Inspired by the Lean Startup approach and serial entrepreneur Steve Blank and his Lean Launchpad courses taught at Stanford University and Cal Berkeley, H4D applies these principles to facilitate iterative solution discovery with a variety of end users and stakeholders in order to provide rapid, cost efficient alternatives for national security program managers.
I first read about the lean methodology in early 2011 and then met Steve Blank in 2012. I was intrigued by his focus on startups and the methodology and the discipline, the small steps, which reduced risk tremendously. I had been involved in startups since the late 90s, when dot coms filled the landscape of start-ups, and possibly was iterating in a similar manner, but not in an organized manner. This framework, while not fully complete, is a foundation with which to test your assumptions, your hypothesis, of finding the secrets of accelerating and the unknown roadblocks so that you can develop coherent and effective strategies with which to address a business problem.
This same lean methodology is applied in H4D, asking teams to talk to customer after customer, up and down the chain of command, forms the foundation for H4D. Participants “get out of the building” , get out of their comfort zone. They discover warfighter needs, known and unknown. They discover who may be saboteurs (could be the warfighter himself). They map out workflows and processes, adding clarity to the problem at hand. Ultimately, H4D is designed to transition hard problems into deployable solutions. At the very least it results in key insights Command or Government Agency leadership may not have had. At the best, it offers the acquisitions function a set of fairly well vetted requirements (acquisition level requirements and systems level requirements) that allows purchasing to happen. Maybe one day it’ll address the Program of Record issue (problem).
The concept behind H4D is simple. Work with sponsors to craft problems, unclassified of course, and then unleash teams of students to research, explore, and talk to participants up and down the value chain in order to find solutions. Solutions could be a device, or a product, but it could also be a framework of thinking. I have found the latter solution as one that often has more impact, as it introduces a mechanism to enhance decision-making and critical thinking. Like a simple SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats), a framework can enable a staff to be thorough and efficient by focusing on the most salient aspects of a problem.
Why I am passionate about this course and approach? It breaks down silos, enhances critical thinking, gets us out of the office, makes us talk to people, facilitates mentoring, and creates a more capable talent pool; the secret weapon of choice. Our weapon is not hardware or software, but our people.
There is another force behind H4D — the National Defense University’s National Security Technology Accelerator. Don’t think of this accelerator as an organization that throws money at startups. That it does not do. What it does do is tie together various approaches to innovation to build capacity in people and processes. The Defense Innovation Forum recently published an interview with Adam (Jay) Harrison, the appointed director of the National Security Technology Accelerator. Adam Harrison’s goal, and that of the National Security Technology Accelerator, is to reposition DOD to be at the center of a global, commercial, high-tech commons. It’s the focus on People & Processes that is so very compelling. We have the best technology. We just don’t know how to get our hands on it in the cycle time and at the cost we need to. NSTA and H4D play a role to addressing this issue. I am excited to be a supporter and active participant in this movement.