We have just finished our 6th annual Hacking for Defense course at Stanford.
What a year. As the pandemic subsides, it finally feels like the beginning of the end.
This was my sixth time teaching a virtual class during lockdown – and probably the 15th or more for our students. Hacking for Defense is made up of teams of students who work to understand and resolve national security problems. Although the course was held entirely online and although they suffered from zoom fatigue, the 10 teams of 42 students collectively interviewed 1,142 beneficiaries, stakeholders, requirement writers, program managers, industry partners, etc. – while concurrently interviewing a number of minimally viable Products.
At the end of the quarter, each of the teams held a final “Lessons Learned” presentation. In contrast to conventional demo days or Shark Tanks, which read: “I'm that smart and it's not a great product, please give me some money,” a Lessons Learned presentation tells the story of the 10-week journey of a team and the hard-won learning and discovery. For everyone, it's a roller coaster tale that describes what happens when you discover that everything you thought you knew on the first day was wrong and how they eventually got it right.
This is how they did it and what they delivered.
How do you get out of the building if you cannot exit the building?
This course is based on conducting face-to-face interviews with customers / beneficiaries and stakeholders, but due to the pandemic, teams now had to all conduct their customer searches on a computer screen. This seems like a fatal stake through the heart of the class. How would video customer interviews work? After teaching remotely over the past year, we've learned that video conferencing is actually more efficient in finding customers. It increased the number of interviews the students could conduct each week.
Many of the people the students had to speak to were housed at home, which meant that they were not surrounded by porters. While students failed to get the context of standing on a naval ship, visiting a drone control station, or watching someone try out their app or hardware, the teaching team's assessment was that remote interviews were more than an adequate substitute. When the Covid restrictions are over, we plan to add remote customer discovery to the students' toolkit. (See here for a detailed explanation of remote customer identification.)
We changed the class format
During distance learning, we made two important changes to the class. Before that, each of the teams presented a weekly ten-minute summary, consisting of “We thought this, we did this, we found that, we will do it next week.” While we kept this rhythm, it was closed for all the other teams Tiring to stare at your screen and watch every other team present. So we split the weekly student presentations into thirds – three teams presented to the entire class, then three teams each went to two zoom breakout rooms. During the quarter we switched teams and instructors through the main room and breakout sessions.
The second change was the inclusion of alumni guest speakers – students who had attended the class in the past. They offered insights into what they understood right and wrong and what they would have liked to know.
Lessons Learned Presentation Format
For the final Lessons Learned presentation, many of the eight teams presented a two-minute video to provide context for their problem. This was followed by an 8-minute slide presentation that described their customer journey of discovery over the 10 weeks. While all teams used the Mission Model Canvas (videos here), Customer Development, and Agile Engineering to create Minimal Viable Products, each of their journeys was unique.
At the end of the class, all teams realized that the problem presented by the sponsor had turned into something bigger, deeper and much more interesting.
All presentations are worth seeing.
Team Fleetwise – vehicle fleet management
If you cannot see the Fleetwise 2 minute video, click here
If you cannot see the Fleetwise slides, click here
This course is part of a bigger idea – Mission-Driven Entrepreneurship. Rather than having students or faculty bring their own ideas, we ask them to work on societal issues, whether it's State Department or Defense Department issues or nonprofits / NGOs or the oceans and climate or something that students love. The trick is we're using the same Lean LaunchPad / I-Corps curriculum – and the same class structure – experiential, hands-on – this time driven by a mission model rather than a business model. (The National Science Foundation, the National Security Agency, and the Common Mission Project helped promote the worldwide dissemination of the methodology.)
Mission-oriented entrepreneurship is the answer to students who say, “I want to give something back. I want to make my community, my country or my world a better place and at the same time be challenged to solve some of the most difficult problems. ”
Agrippa project – logistics and sustainability in the Indo-Pacific
If you cannot see the 2-minute video of Project Agrippa, click here
If you cannot see the Project Agrippa slides, click here
It started with an idea
Hacking for Defense originated in the Lean LaunchPad class I first taught at Stanford in 2011. I've observed that teaching case studies and / or how to write a business plan as a graduate entrepreneurship course was not the practical chaos of a startup. In addition, there was no entrepreneurship class that combined experiential learning with the lean methodology. Our aim was to convey both theory and practice.
The same year we started the course, it was accepted by the National Science Foundation to train Principal Investigators who wanted to receive a federal grant to commercialize their science (an SBIR grant). The NSF stated, "The class is the science" method for entrepreneurship. Scientists Understand Hypothesis Tests ”and renamed the class NSF I-Corps (Innovation Corps). The class is now taught in 9 regional locations, supports 98 universities, and has trained over 1,500 science teams. It was adopted by the National Institutes of Health as an I-Corps at NIH in 2014 and by the National Security Agency in 2015.
Team Silknet – detection of threats from ground stations
If you cannot see the 2 minute video from Silknet click here
If you cannot see the Silknet slides, click here
Origins of Defense Hacking
In 2016, during a brainstorming session with Pete Newell of BMNT and Joe Felter at Stanford, we discovered that students at our research universities had little connection with the problems that their government tried to solve or the bigger problems civil society was grappling with. When we thought about how we could motivate the students, we found that the same Lean LaunchPad / I-Corps class would provide a framework for this. That year we started both Hacking for Defense and Hacking for Diplomacy (with Professor Jeremy Weinstein and the State Department) at Stanford.
Flexible team fingerprints – improving cybersecurity
If you cannot see the 2-minute flexible fingerprint video, click here
If you cannot see the slides for the flexible fingerprints, click here
Goals for the Hacking for Defense Class
Our main goal was to teach students about Lean Innovation while they were in the public sector. Today, when college students want to give back to their country, think of Teach for America, the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, or maybe the US Digital Service or the GSA's 18F. Few consider ways to make the world a safer place with the Department of Defense, intelligence, or other government agencies.
In class, we saw students learn about the country's threats and security challenges while working with innovators within the DoD and intelligence community. At the same time, the experience would introduce the sponsors, who are innovators within the Department of Defense (DOD) and Intelligence Community (IC), a methodology that could help them understand and better respond to rapidly evolving threats. We wanted to show that defense acquisition programs can work at high speed and urgency and deliver timely and needed solutions if we could use lean methods to get teams to quickly discover the real problems in the field and only then formulate the requirements to address them to solve.
Ultimately, we wanted to familiarize the students with the military as a profession and help them to better understand their expertise and their role in society. We hoped it would also show our sponsors in the Department of Defense and Intelligence that civilian students can make a meaningful contribution to problem understanding and rapid prototyping of solutions to real problems.
Team Neurosmart – Optimizing the performance of specialist providers
If you cannot see the 2-minute Neurosmart video, click here
If you cannot see the Neurosmart slides, click here
Mission-oriented at 50 universities and further expanded in scope and scope
What began as a class is now a movement.
Starting with our Stanford class, Hacking for Defense is now offered at over 50 universities in the USA, as well as in Great Britain and Australia. Steve Weinstein started Hacking for Impact (Non-Profits) and Hacking for Local (Oakland) at U.C. Berkeley and Hacking for Oceans at Scripps and UC Santa Cruz. Hacking for Homeland Security was started at Colorado School of Mines and Carnegie Mellon University last year. Next comes a version for NASA.
And to help companies recover from the pandemic, the teaching team held a series of Hacking For Recovery courses last summer.
Our Hacking for Defense team continues to seek ways to adapt and apply the course methodology for wider impact and public good. For example, Project Agrippa ran a new Hacking for Strategy initiative inspired by her experience in the Stanford Technology, Innovation and Modern War class taught by Raj Shah, Joe Felter and I last fall. This all-star team of 4 students and a JD / MBA developed new ways to logistically support naval forces in the Indo-Pacific region. Your recommendations were based on findings from 242 ! Interviews (a national H4D class record.) After personal briefings with Marine Corps and Navy commanders and staff from key commandos from California to Hawaii, they became interested in working together in the future, confirming our hypothesis that Hacking for Strategy would be welcome in addition to our courses. Its premise is that America's security requires not only maintaining a technological edge, but also leveraging these cutting-edge technologies to develop new operational concepts and strategies. Stay tuned.
Team AngelComms – Rescue of shot down pilots
If you cannot see the AngelComms 2 minute video, click here
If you cannot see the AngelComms slides, click here
Team Salus – Patching of operating systems to keep them safe
If you cannot see the 2-minute video from Salus, click here
If you cannot see the Salus slides, click here
Team Mongoose – Disposable infrastructure for hacker tracking
If you cannot see Mongoose's 2 minute video, click here
If you cannot see the Mungo foils, click here
Team engagement – preparing pilots for critical decisions with high commitment
If you cannot see the Engage slides, click here
What's next for these teams?
After graduation, Stanford students in these teams can choose between jobs in startups, corporations and consulting firms. Most apply to H4X Labs, an accelerator focused on building dual-use businesses that sell to both government and commercial companies. Many will continue to work with their problem sponsor. Several will join the new Stanford Gordian Knot Center, which focuses on the intersection of politics, business and technology.
In our post-class survey, 86% of students said that the class had an impact on their immediate next steps in their careers. Over 75% said they had changed their mind about working with the Department of Defense and other ESG organizations.
It Takes A Village
Although I wrote this blog post, this course is a team project. The secret to the success of Hacking for Defense at Stanford is the extraordinary group of dedicated volunteers who support our students in so many critical ways.
The teaching team consisted of me and:
Pete Newell, retired Army Colonel and former Director of the Army Rapid Equipment Force, now CEO of BMNT.
Joe Felter, retired Army Colonel; and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania; and William J. Perry Fellow at the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation.
Steve Weinstein, 30-year veteran of Silicon Valley technology companies and Hollywood media companies. Steve was CEO of MovieLabs, the joint research and development laboratory for all major film studios. He heads H4X Labs.
Tom Bedecarré, founder and CEO of AKQA, the leading digital advertising agency.
Jeff Decker, a Stanford researcher focusing on dual-use research. Jeff served in the US Army as the leader of a light infantry unit for special operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Our teaching assistants that year were Nick Mirda, Sally Eagen, Joel Johnson, alumni of Hacking for Defense, and Valeria Rincon . Special thanks to the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) and Rich Carlin and the Office of Naval Research for supporting the program in Stanford and across the country, as well as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. And our course advisor Tom Byers, Professor of Engineering and Faculty Director, STVP.
Thanks to Mike Brown, Director of the Defense Innovation Unit, for the extraordinary closing speech.
We have been fortunate to have a team of mentors (VCs and entrepreneurs) and an exceptional group of military liaison officers from the Hoover Institution's National Security Affairs Fellows program, the Stanford Senior Military Fellowship program, and other accomplished military personnel. This diverse group of experienced experts volunteers to coach the teams. Thanks to Todd Basche, Rafi Holtzman, Kevin Ray, Craig Seidel, Katie Tobin, Jennifer Quarrie, Jason Chen, Matt Fante, Richard Tippitt, Rich Lawson, Commander Jack Sounders, Mike Hoeschele, Donnie Hasseltine, Steve Skipper, LTC Jim Wiese, Col Denny Davis, Commandant Jeff Vanak, Marco Romani, Rachel Costello, Lt. Col. Kenny Del Mazo, Don Peppers, Mark Wilson and LTC Ed Cuevas
And of course kudos to our problem sponsors in DoD and IC: MSgt Ashley McCarthy, Jason Stack, Col Sean Heidgerken, LTC Richard Barnes, George Huber, Neal Ziring, Shane Williams, Anthony Ries, Russell Hoffing, Javier Garcia, Matt Correa, Shawn Walsh and Claudia Quigley.
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