The Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service has found a novel way of quickly solving urgent problems facing the U.S. military and intelligence communities. It is offering a class in which graduate students form interdisciplinary teams that systematically apply “lean startup” strategy to the challenges. The class is called “Hacking4Defense,” and Monday night I sat in on a session. It was fascinating.
Having taught national security classes at Georgetown, Harvard and other places over the years, I can testify to the fact that the Georgetown course is really different. It adopts methods devised in Silicon Valley for facilitating business startups to identify sponsors for innovative security solutions in the government — sponsors who can increase the likelihood a good idea will be implemented and fielded faster than traditional processes would allow.
The U.S. government proponent for this class is the MD5 National Security Technology Accelerator at the National Defense University. The first course was offered at Stanford in the Spring of 2016 taught by entrepreneur Steve Blank, retired Army colonels, Pete Newell and Joe Felter, and Stanford professor Tom Byers, but standing up a class at the leading university in the nation’s capital has special significance because most of the agencies likely to sponsor novel security solutions are headquartered in and around Washington. Hacking4Defense has already attracted support from Army Cyber Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, the Air Force Research Lab, the National Reconnaissance Office, and a variety of other federal agencies. Government contractors are engaged too.
What they all see is that it isn’t enough to understand how new technology might be applied to emerging threats. You need to know how government acquisition processes work so that solutions can be tested, certified and fielded fast. So at the class I attended, half the discussion was about the application of cutting-edge technologies to operational challenges, and the other half was about the intricacies of finding partners in the military bureaucracy that could help push solutions through the system.
For instance, a representative of the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Threat Defeat Organization was present to advise students on the complexities of combining augmented reality technology with facial recognition software so they could be used to find terrorists in crowds. Students were routinely using acronyms for government organizations and processes that many security experts don’t know even after spending decades in the field.
Several of the projects developed in the Georgetown course have already attracted public and private sponsors to carry them forward after classes have ended. And therein lies the relevance of lean startup methods to solving security problems. Hacking4Defense students are in effect launching enterprises that must find funding to be sustained. Lean startup strategy was conceived to increase the odds of such enterprises succeeding by constantly testing business hypotheses through interaction with potential users and investors.
The traditional approach to starting a business involves putting together plans largely in isolation, which helps explain why most startups ultimately fail. As Steve Blank pointed out in a 2013 Harvard Business Review essay, a smarter approach is to immediately start refining ideas through interaction with the marketplace and the investment community. Georgetown instructors Chris Taylor and Matt Zais have adapted that approach to fit the federal environment, especially the military community.
They certainly seem to have the right backgrounds for the job. Taylor is a two-time defense industry CEO, and a former enlisted Marine with a graduate degree from Harvard. Zais is deputy head of the Strategic Initiatives Group at U.S. Army Cyber Command, and holds a Ph.D. from Princeton. The class environment is very demanding, but the rapport between the students and the professors is obvious. The students realize that they are participants in a unique learning experience, and actively engage in critiquing each team’s progress.
Although the teams must satisfy a template of tasks in order to get a good grade, in a sense they are competing with each other in the class. The level of discussion is extraordinarily sophisticated, not just in assessing the maturity of relevant technologies but in grasping the bureaucratic factors that might facilitate or impede the success of a project. Although I taught at Georgetown for nearly 20 years, I have never heard students presenting and fielding questions in class at the level of insight each team exhibited Monday. And, they do all of this while the class is live-streamed to the world on Periscope and Facebook Live.
Georgetown deserves credit for supporting such an innovative offering. In the past, some universities have shied away from coursework that got too close to the business of warfighting. But with the future of our civilization increasingly called into question by the way in which new technology has empowered extremists of every stripe, that view now seems outdated. Georgetown has found a way of helping defend democracy that gives its students unique insight into how the business world really works.