Washington gives national security innovation a boost

Photo: U.S. Department of Defense
Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

Two good things just happened in Washington – these days that should be enough of a headline.

First, someone ideal was just appointed to be Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense.

Second, funding to teach our Hacking for Defense class across the country just was added to the National Defense Authorization Act.

Interestingly enough, both events are about how the best and brightest can serve their country – and are testament to the work of two dedicated men.

Soldier, Scholar, Entrepreneur

Joe Felter was just appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia. As a result, our country just became a bit safer and smarter. That’s because Joe brings a wealth of real-world experience and leadership to the role.

I got lucky to know and teach with Joe at Stanford. When we met, my first impression was that of a very smart and pragmatic academic. And I also noticed that there was always a cloud of talented grad students who wanted to follow him. (I learned later I was watching one of the qualities of a great leader.) Joe had appointments at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), where he was the co-director of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project and at the Hoover Institute where he was a research fellow. I learned he’d gone to Harvard to get his MPA at the Kennedy School of Government in conflict resolution. But the thing that really caught my attention: his Stanford Ph.D thesis in Political Science had the world’s best title: “Taking Guns to a Knife Fight: A Case for Empirical Study of Counterinsurgency.” I wondered how this academic knew anything about counterinsurgency.

This was another reminder that when you reach a certain age, people you encounter may have lived multiple lives, had multiple careers, and had multiple acts. It took me a while to realize that Joe had one heck of a first act before coming to Stanford in 2011.

As I later discovered, Joe’s first act was 24 years in the Army Special Operations Forces (SOF), retiring as a Colonel.
His Special Forces time was with the 1st Special Forces Group as a team leader and later as a company commander. He did a tour with the 75th Ranger Regimentas a platoon leader. In 2005, he returned to West Point (where he earned his undergrad degree) and ran the Combating Terrorism Center. Putting theory into practice, he went to Iraq in 2008 as part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, in support of a Joint Special Operations Task Force. In 2010 Joe was in Afghanistan as the Commander of the Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team. At various points his Special Forces career took him to countries in Southeast Asia where counterinsurgency was not just academics.

Ironically, I was first introduced to Joe not at Stanford but through one of his other lives – that of an entrepreneur and businessman – at the company he founded, BMNT Partners. It was there that Joe and I along with another retired Army Colonel, Pete Newell, came up with the idea of creating the Hacking for Defense class. We combined the Lean Startup methodology – used by the National Science Foundation to commercialize science  – with the rapid problem sourcing and solution methodology Pete developed on the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq when he ran the US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force.

My interest was to get Stanford students engaged in national service and exposed to parts of the U.S. government where their traditional academic path and business career would never take them. (I have a strong belief that we’ve run a 44-year experiment with what happens when you disconnect the majority of Americans from any form of national service. And the result hasn’t been good for our country. Today if college students want to give back to their country, they think of Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or Americorps or perhaps the U.S. Digital Service or the GSA’s 18F. Few consider opportunities to make the world safer with the Department of Defense, State Department, Intelligence Community or other government agencies.)

Joe, Pete and I would end up building a curriculum that would turn into a series of classes — first, Hacking for Defense, then Hacking for Diplomacy (with the State Department and Professor Jeremy Weinstein), Hacking for EnergyHacking for Impact, etc.

Hacking For Defense

Our first Hacking for Defense class in 2016 blew past our expectations – and we had set a pretty high bar. (See the final class presentations here and here).

Our primary goal was to teach students entrepreneurship while they engaged in national public service.

Our second goal was to introduce our sponsors – the innovators inside the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community –  to a methodology that can help them understand and better respond to rapidly evolving asymmetric threats. We believed if we could get teams to rapidly discover the real problems in the field using Lean methods, and only then articulate the requirements to solve them, then defense acquisition programs could operate at speed and urgency and deliver timely and needed solutions.

Finally, we also wanted to show our sponsors in the Department of Defense that students can make meaningful contributions to understanding problems and rapid prototyping of solutions to real-world national security problems.

The Innovation Insurgency Spreads

Fast forward a year. Hacking for Defense is now offered at eight universities in addition to Stanford – Georgetown, University of PittsburghBoise StateUC San Diego, James Madison University, University of Southern Mississippi, and later this year University of Southern California and Columbia University. We established Hacking for Defense.org, a non-profit to train educators and provide a single point of contact for connecting the DOD/IC sponsor problems to these universities.

By the middle of this year Hacking For Defense started to feel like it had the same momentum as when my Lean LaunchPad class at Stanford got adopted by the National Science Foundation and became the Innovation Corps (I-Corps). I-Corps uses Lean Startup methods to teach scientists how to turn their discoveries into entrepreneurial, job-producing businesses. Over 1,000 teams of our nation’s best scientists have been through the program. It has changed how federally funded research is commercialized.

Recognizing that it’s a model for a government program that’s gotten the balance between public/private partnerships just right, last fall Congress passed the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act, making the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps a permanent part of the nation’s science ecosystem.

It dawned on Pete, Joe and me that perhaps we could get Congress to fund the national expansion of Hacking for Defense the same way. But serendipitously, the best person we were going to ask for help had already been thinking about this.

The Congressman From Science and Innovation
Before everyone else thought that teaching scientists how to build companies using Lean Methods might be a good for the country, there was one congressman who got it first.

In 2012, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Il), ranking member on the House Research and Technology Subcommittee, got on an airplane and flew to Stanford to see first-hand the class that would become I-Corps. For the first few years Lipinski was a lonely voice in Congress saying that we’ve found a better way to train our scientists to create companies and jobs. But over time, his colleagues became convinced that it was a non-partisan good idea. Rep. Lipinski was responsible for helping I-Corps proliferate through the federal government.

While Joe Felter and Pete Newell were thinking about approaching Congressman Lipinski about funding for Hacking for Defense Lipinski had already been planning to do so. As he recalled, “I was listening to your podcast as I was working in my backyard cutting, digging, chopping, etc. (yes, I do really work in my backyard,) when it dawned on me that funding Hacking for Defense as a national program – just like I did for the Innovation Corps – would be great for our nation’s defense when we are facing new unique threats. I tasked my staff to draft an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act and I sponsored the amendment.”

(The successful outcome of I-Corps has given the Congressman credibility on entrepreneurship education among his peers. And it doesn’t hurt that he has a Ph.D and was a university professor before he ended up in Congress.)

Joe Felter and Pete Newell mobilized a network of Hacking for Defense supporters. Joe and Pete’s reputations preceded them on Capitol Hill, but in part a testament to the strength of Hacking for Defense, there’s now a large network of people who have experienced and believe in the program, and were willing to help out by writing letters of support, reaching out to other members of Congress to ask for support, and providing Congressman Lipinski’s office with information and background.

Congressman Lipinski led the amendment. He brought on co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle: Representatives Steve Knight (R-CA 25), Ro Khanna (D-CA 17), Anna Eshoo (D-CA 18), Seth Moulton (D-MA 6) and Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH 1).

On the floor of the House, Lipinski said, “Rapid, low-cost technological innovation is what makes Silicon Valley revolutionary, but the DOD hasn’t historically had the mechanisms in place to harness this American advantage. Hacking for Defense creates ways for talented scientists and engineers to work alongside veterans, military leaders, and business mentors to innovate solutions that make America safer.”

Last Friday the House unanimously approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act authorizing the Hacking for Defense (H4D) program and enabling the Secretary of Defense to expend up to $15 million to support development of curriculum, best practices, and recruitment materials for the program.

This week the H4D amendment moves on to the Senate and Joe Felter moves on to the Pentagon. Both of those events have the potential to make our world a much safer place – today and tomorrow.

About Steve Blank

Steve Blank is a retired serial entrepreneur-turned-educator who is changing how startups are built and how entrepreneurship is being taught. He created the Customer Development methodology that launched the lean startup movement, and wrote about the process in his first book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany. His second book, The Startup Owner's Manual, is a step-by-step guide to building a successful company. Blank teaches the Customer Development methodology in his Lean LaunchPad classes at Stanford University, U.C. Berkeley, Columbia University and the National Science Foundation. He writes regularly about entrepreneurship at www.steveblank.com.