lean startup for defense technologies

New Stanford course teaches Defense innovation

Despite being a one-time beacon of technology innovation, the Department of Defense, and U.S. government as a whole, has been outpaced by private industry. 

In wartime, the military attracts and leverages “some of the most innovative folks on the planet,” Steve Blank, an instructor for the new Hacking for Defense course at Stanford University, told GCN.  "It’s just that when they get back to peacetime, they collapse back to one of the most bureaucratic organizations on the planet."

“In contrast, Silicon Valley -- because it’s a matter of ... commercial survival -- has been standing up innovation 24/7 for the last 50 years and not defaulting back to peacetime.”

That urgency to quickly get technology into the field is what’s behind Hacking for Defense. It’s described as a cross-disciplinary class that gives students hands-on experience with lean innovation to help them deliver “rapid-fire innovative solutions to address threats to our national security.”

Additionally, the course offers students an opportunity to be part of the nation’s defense without joining the service.

Private-sector technology innovators are taking temporary positions with groups such as U.S. Digital Service to help civilian agencies update their technology.  “There’s AmeriCorps, there’s Peace Corps, but there really was no way to help technical folks give back directly to DOD or [the intelligence community] without putting on a uniform,” Blank said.  And that was one of my intents on [creating the class].”

As lean and agile tech companies are folded into larger organizations, the innovators are moving there as well. “When we have another war…where are we going to find the people” who can rapidly deploy new technology, retired Army colonel and course instructor  Pete Newell asked.  “I’ll tell you where you find them. We find them on the other side of the battlefield where insurgents…have perfected the lean methodology.” 

Hacking for Defense, which began at the end of March, gives students actual national security problems and teaches them how to apply lean startup principles. They work in teams to discover and validate customer needs and build iterative prototypes, Blank explained in a blog. Students address  topics from protecting soldiers from inexpensive commercial off the shelf drones to data mining, machine learning and data science to disrupting and countering social media use by groups such as the Islamic State.   

“We’re getting to the point where technology is moving faster than we can make decisions,” Newell said.  Problems have already changed and technology has evolved by the time the average acquisition cycle is finished, meaning that obsolete or clunky tools are deployed to the battlefield. That doesn’t help soldiers win the fight.

Building an agile, responsive and resilient approach to national security “requires new ways to think about, organize and build and deploy national security people, organizations and solutions,” Blank said.

The Hacking for Defense team aims to open-source the class to other universities and create a 21st century version of a tech ROTC so it can help provide hundreds of solutions to critical national security problems.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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