Hacking for Defense @ Stanford — Making the World a Safer Place

Introducing Hacking for Defense — Connecting Silicon Valley Innovation Culture and Mindset to the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community
Hacking for Defense is a new course at Stanford’s Engineering School in the Spring of 2016. It is being taught by Tom Byers, Steve Blank, Joe Felter and Pete Newell and is advised by former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry. Join a select cross-disciplinary class that will put you hands-on with the masters of lean innovation to help bring rapid-fire innovative solutions to address threats to our national security. Why?

Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, CIA, NSA
What do all these groups in the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community (DOD/IC) have in common? Up until the dawn of the 21stcentury, they defined military technology superiority. Our defense and intelligence community owned and/or could buy and deploy the most advanced technology in the world. Their R&D groups and contractors had the smartest domain experts who could design and manufacture the best systems. Not only were they insulated from technological disruption, they were often also the disrupters. (During the Cold War we used asymmetric technologies in silicon and software to disrupt the Soviet Union’s lead in conventional weapons.) Yet in the last decade the U.S. Department of Defense and Intelligence Community are now facing their own disruption from ISIS. al-Qaeda. North Korea. Crimea. Ukraine. DF-21 and Islands in the South China Sea.

Today these potential adversaries are able to harness the power of social networks, encryption, GPS, low-cost drones, 3D printers, simpler design and manufacturing processes, agile and lean methodologies, ubiquitous Internet and smartphones. Our once closely held expertise in people, processes and systems that we once had has evolved to become commercial off-the-shelf technologies. U.S. agencies that historically owned technology superiority and fielded cutting-edge technologies now find that off-the-shelf solutions may be more advanced than the solutions they are working on, or that adversaries can rapidly create asymmetric responses using these readily available technologies.

Its Not Just the Technology
Perhaps more important than the technologies, these new adversaries can acquire and deploy disruptive technology at a speed that to us looks like a blur. They can do so because most have little legacy organizational baggage, no government overhead, some of the best software talent in the world, cheap manpower costs, no career risk when attempting new unproven feats and ultimately no fear of failure.

Terrorists today live on the ‘net and they are all early adopters. They don’t need an office in Silicon Valley to figure out what’s out there. They are experts in leveraging Web 2.0 and 3.0. They are able to collaborate using Telegram, Instagram, Facebook, Skype, FaceTime, YouTube, wiki’s, IM/chat. Targeting, assessments, technology, recipes, and tactics all flow at the speed of a Lean Startup. They can crowd-source designs, find components through eBay, fund through PayPal, train using virtual worlds and refine tactics, techniques and procedures using massive on-line gaming. All while we’re still writing a Request for a Proposal from within the US Government procurement and acquisition channels.

We’re Our Own Worst Enemy
In contrast to the agility of many of our adversaries, the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community have huge investments in existing systems (aircraft carriers, manned fighters and bombers, large satellites, etc.), an incentive system (promotions) that supports the status quo, an existing contractor base with major political influence over procurement and acquisition, and the talent to deliver complex systems that are the answer to past problems.

Efficiently Being Inefficient
Our drive for ultimate efficiency in buying military systems (procurement) has made us our own worst enemy. These acquisition and procurement “silos” of excellence are virtually impenetrable by new ideas and requirements. Even in the rare moments of crisis and need, when they do show some flexibility, their reaction is often so slow and cumbersome that by the time the solutions reach the field, the problem they intended to solve has changed so dramatically the solutions are useless.

The incentives for acquiring and deploying innovation in the DOD/IC with speed and urgency are not currently aligned with the government acquisition, budgeting, and requirements processes, all of which have remained unchanged for decades or even centuries.

The Offset Dilemma — Technology is the not Silver Bullet
Today, many in the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community are searching for a magic technology bullet — the next Offset Strategy — convinced that if they could only get close to Silicon Valley, they will find the right technology advantage.

It turns out that’s a massive mistake. What Silicon Valley delivers is not just new technology but — perhaps even more importantly — an innovation culture and mindset. We will not lose because we had the wrong technology. We will lose because we couldn’t adopt, adapt and deploy technology at speed and in sufficient quantities to overcome our enemies.

Ultimately the solution isn’t reforming the acquisition process (incumbents will delay/kill it) or buying a new technology and embedding it in a decade-long procurement process (determined adversaries will find asymmetric responses).

The solution requires new ways to think about, organize, and build and deploy national security people, organizations and solutions.

Stanford’s new Hacking for Defense class is a part of the solution.

Hacking for Defense (H4D) @ Stanford
In Hacking for Defense a new class at Stanford’s School Engineering this spring, students will learn about the nation’s emerging threats and security challenges while working with innovators inside the Department of Defense (DoD) and Intelligence Community. The class teaches students entrepreneurship while they engage in what amounts to national public service.

Hacking for Defense uses the same Lean LaunchPad Methodology adopted by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health and proven successful in Lean LaunchPad and I-Corps classes with 1,000’s of teams worldwide. Students apply as a 4-person team and select from an existing set of problems provided by the DoD/IC community or introduce their own ideas for DoD/IC problems that need to be solved.

Student teams will take actual national security problems and learn how to apply Lean Startup principles to discover and validate customer needs and to continually build iterative prototypes to test whether they understood the problem and solution.

Most discussion about innovation of defense systems acquisition using an agile process starts with writing a requirements document. Instead, in this class the student teams and their DOD/IC sponsors will work together to discover the real problems in the field and only then articulate the requirements to solve them and deploy the solutions.

Each week, teams will use the Mission Model Canvas (a DOD/IC variant of the Business Model Canvas) to develop a set of initial hypotheses about a solution to the problem and will get out of the building and talk to all Requirement Writers, Buyers (Acquisition project managers) and Users (the tactical folks). As they learn, they’ll iterate and pivot on these hypotheses through customer discovery and build minimal viable prototypes (MVPs). Each team will be guided by two mentors, one from the agency that proposed the problem and a second from the local community. In addition to these mentors, each H4D student team will be supported by a an active duty military liaison officer drawn from Stanford’s Senior Service College Fellows to facilitate effective communication and interaction with the problem sponsors.

Today if college students want to give back to their country they think of Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or Americorps. Few consider opportunities to make the world safer with the Department of Defense, Intelligence Community and other government agencies. The Hacking for Defense class will promote engagement between students and the military and provide a hands-on opportunity to solve real national security problems.

Our goal is to open-source this class to other universities and create the 21stCentury version of Tech ROTC. By creating a national network of colleges and universities, the Hacking for Defense program can scale to provide hundreds of solutions to critical national security problems every year.

We’re going to create a network of entrepreneurial students who understand the security threats facing the country and getting them engaged in partnership with islands of innovation in the DOD/IC. This is a first step to a more agile, responsive and resilient, approach to national security in the 21stcentury.

Lessons Learned

Hacking for Defense is a new class that teaches students how to:

  • Use the Lean LaunchPad methodology to deeply understand the problems/needs of government customers
  • Rapidly iterate technology to produce solutions while searching for product-market fit
  • Deliver minimum viable products that match DOD/IC customer needs in an extremely short time

The class will also teach the islands of innovation in the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community:

  • how the innovation culture and mindset operate at speed
  • advanced technologies that exist outside their agencies and contractors (and are in university labs, and commercial off-the-shelf solutions)
  • how to use an entrepreneurial mindset and Lean Methodologies to solve national security problems

Sign up here.

Read more Steve Blank posts at steveblank.com.