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 PerryJoin 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 21st century, 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 Strategyconvinced 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 21st Century 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 21st century.

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

The DoD and Silicon Valley can work together

Our team at BMNT Partners forges relationships between the military and the Silicon Valley. Many people point out to me the daunting challenge of this undertaking; the government bureaucracy is too overwhelming to work with private companies. While this is mostly true, we have found success by challenging old methods of engagement.

During my service in the Air Force, I witnessed the rise of technologists and incredible human achievement coming from the private sector from the explosion of the Internet to Space X’s extraordinary and improbable journey (both cases were a mix of private and government funding).  At the same time, I was experiencing enormous frustration in my first program management role; by the time I arrived our program was $10B over cost and 10 years behind schedule. Instead of aerospace engineering and program management, I spent the majority of my time consumed by Nunn-McCurdy reports and providing status to Congress. My frustration grew as I had little ability to influence the prime contractor on this program with award fee – they always received the majority of their fee regardless of performance. This experience shaped a deeply held belief that as nation we could do much better if we learned to work to work with private industry in a mutually beneficial way.  

This partnership can and should be done, and below are my five observations for better government interaction with private industry. I use Silicon Valley as my reference point, but these apply everywhere outside the traditional defense base.

  • Accurately articulate the problem.    Requests for Information (RFIs) on fedbizopps.gov are the mechanism the DoD uses to gain industry feedback. Given the travel restrictions “govvies” face, fedbizopps and industry days are often the only methods used to engage industry. This cycle encourages responses from the same traditional defense firms who can afford to spend money and time on RFI responses. And frankly, fedbizopps is confusing and uninspiring and it requires someone with a government acquisition background to navigate.

A better way we’ve found instead of industry days and RFIs is to hold a “hackathon” around a particular problem. For example, we worked with Christopher Zember, Director of the Defense Information Analysis Center, to identify areas within the DoD that the commercial sector could engage more effectively and efficiently. Instead of sending out a mass posting asking for people’s best ideas for military technologies, we narrowed the scope to a vexing and complicated problem the military faces that costs lives and money: supply chain resiliency. We brought together diverse teams drawn from academia, subject matter experts, military end users, venture capitalists and data analysts to scope the problems faced on the battlefield due to insecure movement of supplies. We gained an appreciation for problems by stories from users in the field and learned about emerging technologies in energy, water, and advanced manufacturing. Instead of the several month cycle required for an RFI, we derived a well-informed and accurate description of the state of commercial technologies applied directly to user problems. This process gave companies insight into military challenges and simultaneously fed back a more informed landscape of emerging technology to government requirement writers and program managers.

  • Clarify Signals and Expectations.  Government technology acquisition, compared to private industry, takes a long, painful, eye-stabbing time that most start-ups don’t have the resources to bear. It’s maddeningly difficult to gauge how much real funding from the DoD is available to give to private companies. The total picture is impossible to tell, even with access to government requirement and planning documents, and it’s challenging for any outsider to understand how real the opportunity for funding is from a particular office. We’ve seen companies go out of business chasing what they thought was real funding from the military because they were led on with unclear signals. Doing this will create a larger chasm and shut out the DoD entirely from anyone notable in the Valley. Understand your contract and funding plan and vet it internally before real engagement with any company – otherwise you are wasting their time and hurting their business.

For example, a company founder we work with was getting requests from a government office to participate on roundtable panels at conferences.   Side discussions and phone calls revealed several government program managers were interested in his technology.  He was just starting his company and in the process of fund raising.  Based on the feedback and invitations he was getting from these program managers, he spent money on plane tickets and conference fees to attend these sessions. I accompanied him to one conference to gauge how real the interest was by speaking with the program manager. The program manager informed me that yes they were very interested and felt his technology was the best they had seen to date and it would inform their subsequent RFP. When I asked about his budget, he responded that he had to go to "POM" for the funding. That is a 2-year cycle and is by no means definitive. I promptly steered the founder away towards a limited engagement with this office - no travel or lengthy discussions about his tech. He would have wasted another six months of his scarce resources, which would have caused his company irreparable harm. I’ve seen numerous examples of this type of engagement that is harmful to business.  

  •  Leverage strengths across the cultures. Often I get asked the question of why the Valley should care about the military when the profit potential, compared to the commercial sector, is low.  The DoD has many problems (just as every large organization faces) but their mission is challenging and unique. The solutions to these challenges have applications that expand further than the military and extend to the customer base the Silicon Valley wants to reach.  The differences in cultures can only help to strengthen the types of products Silicon Valley is producing.  How many entrepreneurs in Palo Alto have experienced a deployment, put their life in danger, lived abroad in challenging circumstances, or given 5-30 years of service to an ideal? The Silicon Valley talent base is amazing, but it needs diversity in its people and thinking to build better products that “change the world.” Although veterans from comprise less than 5% of the population, they come from all over the country with varying socioeconomic backgrounds. These different perspectives can only help Silicon Valley with its diversity issue and perception of myopia. At the same time, the military needs Silicon Valley style thinking to save lives and protect our service men and women without breaking the national budget.
  • Select projects carefully and set them up for success. Single use technology that only has a military purpose – ships, tanks, fighter jets – should be left to the traditional defense base. However, in areas where a commercial market exists and is growing – energy, cyber security, healthcare, data analytics, IoT, sensors, robotics, advanced manufacturing – the DoD should select projects from these industries and then set the program management offices up for success in execution. Technologies with commercials overlap will also attract investors that will reduce the taxpayer burden in development, fielding and sustainment. Furthermore, government program managers investing alongside venture capitalists or private equity will have a better due diligence process which will de-risk government investment. To encourage a public private cost sharing, easier treatment of IP is necessary by the types of contract mechanisms used. Contract vehicles, funding type, scope and IP treatment need to be set up prior to the start of the project to ensure a commercially friendly engagement. We've seen this model work well in our practice (Space X is a great example of receiving NASA funding following private investment).  The need for shared public and private cost models will increase as national budgets shrink and sustainment costs of legacy systems rise. 
  • Immerse yourself in the “ecosystem”   80% of time should be spent networking outside of the office to talk with scientists, VCs, start-up founders and academia. I’ve found that because national security issues are diverse and span across many disciplines, there is no shortage of people that I need to meet and learn from to inform my choices for investment and consulting.   The first year in the Valley was playing catch up to the culture of start-up land -- most of it was spent outside of my office. Beliefs that I held about the state of technology and possibilities were developed from my time working sensitive programs in the government and coming here was like learning a new language, but the experience has proved invaluable. We need more people from the government doing a similar exercise to keep up with a rapidly evolving battlefield.  
As a senior leader from an Army agency recently pointed out to me, the Silicon Valley is not some magical place that will fix all the ills of the DoD. He’s right. But there is enormous potential for our country if the two can learn to work together.

What are you going to do after college?

During my career in the Army, one of the most enjoyable parts of my job was the time I had to talk with Soldiers about their plans for life after the service. For some, this was several months down the road, for others several years. Regardless, most would say that they wanted to use their GI Bill resources to go back to school. At this point in the conversation I always followed up with, “what are you going to do after college?”

Some answered with a detailed professional plan while most just said they would figure that out when they got there. I’m certain that this conversation occurs everyday across our military services. This means that many of the 10,000 service members transitioning every month plan on going to school but many haven’t decided what to do beyond that.

If I had the same conversation today, I would bring up the opportunity in advanced manufacturing. Just like military service, this is meaningful employment. It’s important to our country and our economy. It’s also a great way to make the transition to civilian life. A young Soldier with three years of service makes over $30,000 per year. Jobs in advanced manufacturing start in the same range or higher and go up quickly with additional training, experience and responsibility. These jobs are in high demand. There are tens of thousands of open jobs in this sector and it is a growth industry.

The trick is figuring out how to bring this opportunity to within reach of service members as they enter into their transition period from the service. This is the project I’m working on now: How to link military installations with local colleges and universities to provide transitioning service members access to the right skills as a pathway to join advanced manufacturing companies in need of great talent.

Through the course of working on this problem several points have emerged as central to success:

First, there needs to be a sustained demand for new hires within advanced manufacturing companies.

Second, these companies need to be able to reach out to transitioning service members. They need to effectively communicate the specifics of the positions available to include locations, pay, and the education and skills required to be competitive.

Third, community colleges and universities near military installations need to build certificate and degree programs that match what’s needed in the advanced manufacturing industry. These curricula need to be current and technologically relevant.

Fourth, numerous government agencies need to continue to be engaged to make this happen. The Departments of Labor, Education, Veterans Affairs, Energy, and the military services all have a hand in supporting this initiative.

As a team of teams, industry, academia, and government can get this done. The result of this collective work will provide a purpose to service members in their post service transition and provide a great answer to the question, “What are you going to do after college?”


Securing the Veteran Talent Pipeline into Advanced Manufacturing

Supply, Demand, and the T3WDI Bridge Between: Securing the Veteran Talent Pipeline into Advanced Manufacturing

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The airwaves are justifiably full of data points on why transitioning service members and veterans are ideal candidates to fill vacancies in the civilian workforce. These data points come from the military services, veteran organizations, and numerous companies from across multiple sectors who seek to hire them. Through the course of connecting the dots, several really interesting points surface.

On the supply side, there are approximately ten thousand service members transitioning to the civilian workforce every month. The bulk of these are twenty somethings with a high school diploma, many months of specialized institutional leadership and skills training, and several years of experience solving tough problems requiring a high degree of creativity, innovation, and teamwork.

On the demand side, you have thousands of requirements to fill in the advanced manufacturing sector - the sector where innovation and traditional manufacturing connect. This sector is looking for people who are dependable, trainable, and interested in helping to create things through technologically advanced methods.

This leads to the question of how to build the bridge to allow the talent pool of people on the supply side to enter into the variety of workforce positions on the demand side. An approach we’re taking is to build a strategy and associated platform that links military installations with local colleges and universities to equip transitioning service members with industry driven in-demand advanced manufacturing skills.

This Troops to Technology Workforce Development Initiative, or T3WDI, is the bridge and is the next step in a process started earlier this summer by the Department of Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratory where several dozen service members and veterans participated in an initial 6-week familiarization program. This initiative directly nests with the President’s National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) policy, is tailorable to match the focus areas of the respective Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation, and serves a key point in the recent NAMRI/SME position paper - to secure veterans into the advanced manufacturing talent pipeline.

Our efforts seek to leverage and enhance the already existing ecosystem of agencies, companies, structures, programs, relationships, trade associations, hiring activities, and numerous consortiums. This diverse team of teams will collaborate towards the common goal of creating a solid bridge for our service members to cross as they shed their uniforms and enter into meaningful and high demand employment in the advanced manufacturing workforce.