Departing DARPA exec leaves legacy of creativity

After one short year, Peter Lee hopes his changes will have a lasting effect

The head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Transformational Convergence Technology Office is leaving his post this week to move to Microsoft. Peter Lee was only at DARPA for a year, but in that time he introduced new and unorthodox thinking for developing new technologies and how to tap the right mix of people to manage agency projects. Beginning in October, Lee will become the managing director of Microsoft Research Redmond.

Lee came to DARPA from Carnegie Mellon University, where he led the school’s computer science department. DARPA director Regina Duggan had invited him to relocate and create the TCTO. “I thought I was coming to start a computer science research office. Instead, she gave me a mission that didn’t even mention computers at all,” he said.

One of the primary missions that Duggan gave Lee was to sacrifice some efficiency in favor of creativity. Lee was charged to go beyond the normal contractor community, to develop unusual programs or programs with unorthodox structures, and to examine different types of people as program managers.

“You could say that the office that I helped to create here is less efficient in some ways, in terms of business practice. But maybe more effective in some ways in terms of uncovering possible technological surprise,” he said.

With Duggan’s blessing, Lee quickly set about changing how the agency selected contractors and program managers. The TCTO developed crowdsourcing techniques to reach beyond the traditional defense contractor and academic communities to expand the search for fresh ideas.

Among the things the TCTO looks for in program managers is youth. Lee said that the new cadre of managers at DARPA are 10 to 20 years younger than is common for the government. Although it was necessary to be careful in selecting younger people to run multimillion dollar programs, youth brings with it an openness to new ideas, he said. 

Another change he instituted was to explore more short-term interactions. For example, over the past four months, DARPA had hosted a dozen top computer scientists, social scientists, behavioral scientists and economists who were developing new program concepts in an intense “Skunk Works” type operation. The agency has also hired very young, but highly accomplished, people for very short term program management assignments — some as short as 12 months — to “instigate and stimulate new ideas,” he said.

Lee made some administrative changes too, such as rewriting languages in broad agency announcement templates to make projects welcoming and open to a broad range of possible candidates — what Lee described as “unusual circles of innovators.”

He hopes that the key impact of this effort on DARPA culture will be more open and broad participation by people from many areas that are not traditionally attracted to Defense Department projects. Under his tenure, some of his officer's BAA’s set records for the number of responses. Lee believes that this is a sign that the agency has successfully reached beyond the communities that traditionally supported DARPA.

Competition sharpens the edge, he said. During the DARPA Network Challenge in December of 2009, he gave competing teams incentives to be adversarial and aggressive with each other. Lee said that the Network Challenge was successful in drawing in many participants from around the world. “Having that low barrier to entry, and building on the DARPA mystique to draw people in was one strategy,” he said.

Other approaches were less obvious and more mundane. In the BAAs, for example, he instituted a rule limiting the technical part of the document to five pages. That forced program managers to focus on stating the military problem to be solved and what the selection criteria for the awards were in a succint way. This brevity also prevented program managers from including their own preconceived notions about solving the problem.

“Simple things like that — which were really difficult cultural changes for this agency — made a huge difference because it ended up inviting a lot more interest and a much broader set of ideas and approaches,” Lee said. The new openness drew in participants such as major Silicon Valley technology companies, small application firms and top researchers from industry, academic and defense laboratories.

Another simple change that made a difference was an outreach effort about the agency’s goals. Teams went on weekly visits across the country to explain to researchers and companies about working with DARPA, the types of research and approaches favored by the agency and to spread the word about DARPA’s new openness.

“We never took for granted that people would already know about us. Instead we really tried to beat the bushes and make people aware of our existence and the kinds of problems that we are facing in the hopes that we would drum up more proposals and interaction,” Lee said.

There was also a goal within the TCTO’s strategic planning to increase the idea flow “by a factor of 10.” Efforts such as the Transformative Apps Program received more than 700 submissions. Lee said this was a huge number for a DARPA program and a sign that the TCTO’s outreach efforts were working. “We ended up getting some really stunning and startling concepts because of that,” he said.


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