Hacking for Defense to solve national security challenges

An entrepreneurial education experience prepares students to solve some of America's hardest problems.

As the transition to a Trump administration continues, how the private sector and government will interact to support national security remains unclear. President Trump has signaled that cost savings is a priority for him, while operational leaders in the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community have said that speed is most important to the nation when confronting America’s adversaries.

For good reason.

The velocity and complexity of our national security threats grows daily. Today, a “bad guy” can use Bitcoin to buy an Amazon gift card and then use it to buy a commercial drone for less than $1,000. That drone can then be modified to carry and drop small explosive or biochemical ordnance (or both). Using impressionable young recruits found in gaming chatrooms, the bad guy can rehearse his plan in that virtual environment and then execute it globally in a distributed operation.

Our response to that scenario involves the U.S. government’s requirements, budgeting, and acquisition processes, which are largely disconnected, dysfunctional, and often disheartening – times a bajillion. Requirements originate from real needs, but by the time they manifest in a request for proposal (RFP), they’ve been contorted into milquetoast, center-of-the-fairway documents that look more like the directions to put together an entertainment center than a transparent presentation of a problem that must be solved. RFPs assume the parts, dimensions, and function of a problem are a given, and that would-be contractors need only assemble the solution as cheaply as possible.

That’s not problem solving.

The nature of the national security challenges America faces are not best served by an acquisition system designed solely for accountability, not agility. Many waivers that reduce time to acquisition are available to government contracting officers within the 2,000-page Federal Acquisition Regulations, and we should incentivize their use wherever possible.

Even that is not enough - we must also design new ways to solve our problems and deploy solutions, faster. We have – it’s called Hacking for Defense.

The National Security Technology Accelerator - MD5, is the U.S. government proponent for Hacking for Defense (H4D), and is led by Director Jay Harrison and Deputy Director and CTO Libbie Prescott. An experiential education endeavor, the course leverages graduate-level university talent to solve hard national security problems from the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community, with a goal to deploy solutions by the end of the semester.

H4D was developed at Stanford University by retired Army colonels Joe Felter and Pete Newell, who partnered with renowned Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Blank and Stanford professor Tom Byers, to create the H4D curriculum. The first class was taught in the spring of 2015 to great success, with four of eight student teams receiving additional funding for their work from either their government problem sponsor or venture capitalists.

Now, the course is being syndicated around the country. Matt Zais and I are teaching the first H4D class at the Security Studies Program (SSP) at Georgetown University, where four teams of three to five graduate students are working on problems provided by the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization, the U.S. Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group, and the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Georgetown H4D team presenting in class. Chris Taylor

Georgetown H4D team presenting in class.

Based on Steve Blank’s Lean Launchpad class, H4D uses Lean Startup methodology and focuses on three simple steps to find solutions. First, it frames hypotheses using the Mission Model Canvas. Second, it tests those hypotheses using beneficiary (customer) discovery to get as close to the problem as possible by speaking with at least 10 beneficiaries every week. Finally, H4D uses agile processes to develop minimum viable products to gain actionable insight about the problem sponsor and student team’s vision for a solution.

Using a “flipped classroom” (lectures are online and watched outside of class) and an inverted lecture hall, teams present in front of each other, instructors, problem sponsors, corporate partners, mentors, military liaisons, and venture capitalists every week. Each weekly session is streamed live on Periscope for Twitter @H4DGUSSP and Facebook Live at the Hacking4DefenseGeorgetown page – it’s Georgetown University’s own national security reality TV show.

The beauty of the H4D course and methodology is that it attracts high-potential graduate students to national service. It gives them the opportunity to form real relationships with real national security leaders to solve real problems – in real time. The class is tough and demands more of students than other classes, but with the support of their H4D network, the teams get a better education and a more impactful experience than their peers, which makes them far more marketable once they leave school.

Student teams get additional support from H4D’s corporate partners, like SAP NS2, Haystax, Govini, and Amazon Web Services, who offer domain expertise in cyber security, data and business analytics, entrepreneurship, and national security. Georgetown’s H4D class has already placed students as interns on the Defense Innovation Board through the leadership of its Executive Director Joshua Marcuse.

The Security Studies Program at Georgetown is in talks with MD5 to establish a National Security Innovation Fellows program for graduates of H4D to put their newly-learned skills to work at various federal agencies. To harness the talent available in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, next year Georgetown will open its H4D class to graduate students at other universities in the National Capital Region.

BMNT Partners, a Silicon Valley consultancy, applies the same H4D methodology to help government agencies and commercial businesses increase the speed with which they solve hard problems and deploy solutions.

Outdated acquisition and problem-solving processes put America at risk. Hacking for Defense offers a new methodology for leaders in government, industry, and academia to use to attack problems and deploy solutions within weeks and months, not years.

Imagine what could be achieved if every graduate student in America spent just one semester working on the nation’s hardest problems.

See you in class!

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