Talent As A Power Play

How Hacking For Defense delivers innovation in the form of people

William Treseder

June 4, 2024

Back in the 1980s, kids interested in technology tinkered in their parents’ garages. They built ham radios and minicomputers. Some may have called them nerds, but today, those budding engineers are icons of technical innovation. They embodied the hacker’s mindset, defined by a passion for understanding things by taking them apart. Not to destroy something good, but to make it into something great.

The essence of the hacker’s mindset is a sense of curiosity and persistence. We tend to recognize the end result of this mindset, which are innovative solutions such as an iPhone or a new drone. The problem is developing the hacker’s mindset in a lot of people all at once. It’s incredibly hard to build modern day MacGyvers in a school system that rewards test-taking over problem-solving. 

Harnessing a hacker’s mindset to work on national security problems is the central mission of Hacking 4 Defense® (H4D). H4D is a university-level course sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. It connects students with members of the defense and intelligence communities to think about some of the nation’s toughest problems in new ways. The H4D concept goes beyond single-use solutions – it is also harnessing talent by bringing together a generation of service-minded problem-solvers with government leaders, building a pipeline of talent that was not there before.

I sat down with Startup Defense’s Callye Keen recently for a conversation about H4D, among other things. We examined why nurturing curiosity and a willingness to work through friction are foundational to building wave after wave of talented, patriotic young Americans. This is the stream of solvers vital to America’s future. Here’s what we discussed:

Problem-centric as a way of life

BMNT’s entire focus is on problems. This is how we started our business and it continues to define our corporate culture, values, and norms. Everything we do is oriented around problems – validating problems, gathering information about problems, and not jumping to conclusions while searching for the right solution to a problem. 

H4D starts with people in the government who have problems that they hope to solve by bringing in fresh perspectives. Student teams provide that fresh look as they learn entrepreneurial techniques to validate critical assumptions about the problem. H4D also involves university teaching teams who recognize the value of real-world experience. These professors want students who can apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to search for and create solutions that can have a real impact. Finally, H4D includes industry mentors, people in the defense industrial base who work alongside those students. It’s a multi-tiered model that serves a variety of stakeholders.

Hacking for Defense was piloted at Stanford in 2015. The original idea was tied to the challenge of getting new perspectives on big problem sets. Government leaders kept getting the same answers to their questions. What they wanted was new and different answers to those questions, and for entirely new questions they weren’t yet asking themselves. Unfortunately for the government, there was no mechanism for reaching beyond the traditional network federally-funded partners. 

Fast-forward to today. The government is engaging with people who offer a fresh perspective, and who come into this work in non-traditional ways. That’s exactly what H4D offers: a path for people who may not thinking about the military, and who may not have any family members in public service . H4D offers a new path for someone who otherwise might never have considered serving the country. These are people who have skills to tackle some of the Pentagon’s hardest problems. They only need exposure to the community to understand that it’s an exciting and rewarding career path. 

Hacking for Defense students from George Washington University visit Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. U.S. Space Force photo by Amanda Ryrholm

Raising a generation of problem-centric solvers

Friction and challenge spark ingenuity. Modern technology has made us accustomed to the convenience of constant connectivity and engagement. However, this seamlessness has a downside. I believe it can keep us from doing hard things. Friction starts to scare us because we’re taught it’s a bad thing. 

Fear of friction hinders starting, scaling or building a new product, program, or idea. The real world is full of friction. If that scares someone, they won’t be able to build anything of consequence. H4D helps get people comfortable with friction and obstacles. By seeing how friction leads to learning and eventually innovation, students develop a more resilient mindset. H4D also places students into a national-security focused state of mind that cannot be replicated in other classroom situations.  

H4D is a long-term play for talent. We are developing and inspiring young people who, in 10 or 15 years, will be part of the next generation of leaders inside of the government. These are the people who will be making big, consequential decisions. Their work will be important domestically, and will also have far-reaching consequences for international peace and prosperity.

Putting ingenuity into action

While H4D can be positioned to address any kind of problem set, most young people want to do something that really matters. The Defense industry and startup ecosystem are attracting a huge number of smart people who care about this nation and who want to make a difference. H4D’s biggest impact is at the societal level. It changes how different communities interact with each other, reducing friction, sparking solutions, and increasing opportunities for people to work together. It is a pathway to bring some of the nation’s best and brightest into a career of public service, truly a win-win.

Learn more about H4D at www.h4d.us.

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