Hacking for Defense @ Stanford 2020 Lesson Learned Presentations

We just finished our 5th annual Hacking for Defense class at Stanford.

What a year.

At the end of the quarter each of the eight teams give a final “Lessons Learned” presentation. Unlike traditional demo days or Shark Tanks which are, “here’s how smart I am, please give me money,” a Lessons Learned presentation tells the teams’ stories of a 10-week journey of hard-won learning and discovery. For all the teams in a normal year it’s a roller coaster narrative of what happens when you discover that everything you thought you knew on day one was wrong and how they eventually got it right.

But this year? This year was something different. 32 students were scattered across the globe and given a seemingly impossible assignment-  they had 10 weeks to understand and then solve a real Dept of Defense problem – by interviewing 100 beneficiaries, stakeholders, requirements writers, et al while simultaneously building a series of minimal viable products – all while never leaving their room.

Watching each of the teams present I was left with wonder and awe about what they accomplished

Here’s how they did it and what they delivered.

Our keynote speaker for this last class was ex Secretary of Defense General Jim Mattis who gave an inspiring talk about service to the nation.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

If you can’t see the four videos of General Mattis click here for the entire talk.

How Do You Get Out of the Building When You Can’t Get Out of the Building?
This year the teams had to overcome two extraordinary pandemic-created hurdles. First, most of the students were sequestering off campus and were scattered across 24 time zones. Each team of four students who would have spent the quarter working collaboratively in-person, instead were never once physically in the same room or location. Second, this class – which is built on the idea of interviewing customers/beneficiaries and stakeholders in person – now had to do all their customer discovery via a computer screen. At first this seemed to be a fatal stake through the heart of the class. How on earth would customer interviews work via video?

But we were in for two surprises. First, the students rose to the occasion, and in spite of time and physical distance, every one of them came together and acted as a unified team. Second, doing customer discovery via video actually increased the number of interviews the students were able to do each week. The eight teams spoke to over 945 beneficiaries, stakeholders, requirements writers, program managers, warfighters, legal, security, customers, etc.

A good number of the people the students needed to talk to were sheltering at home, and they weren’t surrounded by gatekeepers. While the students missed the context of standing on a navy ship or visiting a drone control station, or watching someone try their app or hardware, the teaching teams’ assessment was that remote interviews were more than an adequate substitute.

We Changed The Class Format
Going remotely we made two major changes to the class. Previously, each of the eight teams presented a weekly ten-minute summary of; here’s what we thought, here’s what we did, here’s what we found, here’s what we’re going to do next week.  While we kept that cadence it was too exhausting for all the other teams to stare at their screen watching every other team present. So we split the class in half – four teams went into Zoom breakout rooms where they met with a peer-team to discuss common issues. The remaining four were in the main Zoom classroom; one presenting as three watched and listened to the instructor comments, critiques and suggestions. We rotated the teams through the main room and breakout sessions.

The second change was the addition of guest speakers. In the past, I viewed guest speakers as time filler/entertainment that detracted from the limited in-class time we needed to listen to and coach our students. But this year we realized that our students had been staring at their screens all day and it was going to fry their heads. They deserved some entertainment/distraction. But in true Hacking for Defense practice we were going to deliver it in the form of edification and inspiration. Joe Felter and I got out our rolodex’s and invited ten distinguished guest speakers. Their talks to this year’s Hacking for Defense class can be seen here.

Lessons Learned Presentation Format
Each of the eight teams presented a 2-minute video to provide context about their problem. This was followed by an 8-minute slide presentation describing their customer discovery journey over the 10-weeks. All the teams used the Mission Model Canvas, (videos here) Customer Development and Agile Engineering to build Minimal Viable Products, but all of their journeys were unique.

By the end the class all of the teams realized that the problem as given by the sponsor had morphed into something bigger, deeper and much more interesting.

All the presentations are worth a watch.

Team Omniscient – An Unclassified Imaging Analyst Workbench

If you can’t see the Omniscient 2-minute video click here

If you can’t see the video of the Omniscient team presenting click here

If you can’t see the Omniscient slides click here

 Mission-Driven Entrepreneurship
This class is part of a bigger idea – Mission-Driven Entrepreneurship. Instead of students or faculty coming in with their own ideas — we now have them working on societal problems, whether they’re problems for the State Department or the Department of Defense, or non-profits/NGOs, or for the City of Oakland or for energy or the environment, or for anything they’re passionate about. And the trick is we use the same Lean LaunchPad / I-Corps curriculum — and kept the same class structure – experiential, hands-on, driven this time by a mission-model not a business model. (The National Science Foundation, National Security Agency and the Common Mission Project have helped promote the expansion of the methodology worldwide.)

Mission-driven entrepreneurship is the answer to students who say, “I want to give back. I want to make my community, country or world a better place, while solving some of the toughest problems.”

Team Protocol OneEnsuring JTAC to Pilot Communication

If you can’t see the Protocol One 2-minute video click here

If you can’t see the video of the Protocol One team presenting click here

If you can’t see the Protocol One slides click here

It Started with an Idea
Hacking for Defense has its origins in the Lean LaunchPad class I first taught at Stanford in 2011. I observed that teaching case studies and/or how to write a business plan as a capstone entrepreneurship class didn’t match the hands-on chaos of a startup. And that there was no entrepreneurship class that combined experiential learning with the Lean methodology. Our goal was to teach both theory and practice.

The same year we started the class, it was adopted by the National Science Foundation to train Principal Investigators who wanted to get a federal grant for commercializing their science (an SBIR grant.) The NSF observed, “The class is the scientific method for entrepreneurship. Scientists understand hypothesis testing” and relabeled the class as the NSF I-Corps (Innovation Corps). The class is now taught in 9 regional locations supporting 98 universities and has trained over 1500 science teams. It was adopted by the National Institutes of Health as I-Corps at NIH in 2014 and at the National Security Agency in 2015.

Team SeaWatch Maritime Security in the South China Sea

If you can’t see the SeaWatch 2-minute video click here

If you can’t see the video of the SeaWatch team presenting click here

If you can’t see the SeaWatch slides click here

Origins of Hacking For Defense
In 2016, brainstorming with Pete Newell of BMNT and Joe Felter at Stanford we observed that students in our research universities had little connection to the problems their government was trying to solve or the larger issues civil society were grappling with. Wondering how we could get students engaged, we realized the same Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps class would provide a framework to do so. That year we launched both Hacking for Defense and Hacking for Diplomacy (with Professor Jeremy Weinstein and the State Department) at Stanford.

Team TimeFlies – Automating Air Force aircrew scheduling

If you can’t see the TimeFlies 2-minute video click here

If you can’t see the video of the TimeFlies team presenting click here

If you can’t see the TimeFlies slides click here

Goals for the Hacking for Defense Class
Our primary goal was to teach students Lean Innovation while they engaged in a national public service. 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 US Digital Service or the GSA’s 18F. Few consider opportunities to make the world safer with the Department of Defense, Intelligence Community or other government agencies.

Next, we wanted the students to learn about the nation’s threats and security challenges while working with innovators inside the DoD and Intelligence Community. And while doing so, teach our sponsors (the innovators inside the Department of Defense (DOD) and Intelligence Community (IC)) that there is a methodology that can help them understand and better respond to rapidly evolving asymmetric threats. That 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, could defense acquisition programs operate at speed and urgency and deliver timely and needed solutions.

Finally, we wanted to familiarize students about the military as a profession, its expertise, and its proper role in society. And conversely show our sponsors in the Department of Defense and Intelligence community that civilian students can make a meaningful contribution to problem understanding and rapid prototyping of solutions to real-world problems.

Team AV Combinator –  Autonomous Vehicle Safety Standards

If you can’t see the AV Combinator 2-minute video click here

If you can’t see the video of the AV Combinator team presenting click here

If you can’t see the AV Combinator slides click here

Mission-driven in 35 Universities
What started as a class is now a movement.

Hacking for Defense is offered in over 35 universities, but quickly following, Orin Herskowitz started Hacking for Energy at Columbia, Steve Weinstein started Hacking for Impact (Non-Profits) and Hacking for Local (Oakland) at Berkeley. Hacking for Conservation and Development at Duke followed. Steve Weinstein subsequently spun out versions of Hacking for Oceans at both Scripps and UC Santa Cruz.

And to help businesses recover from the pandemic the teaching team will be offering a Hacking For Recovery class this summer.

Team Anthro Energy next generation lightweight flexible batteries

If you can’t see the Anthro Energy 2-minute video click here

If you can’t see the video of the Anthro Energy team presenting click here

If you can’t see the Anthro Energy slides click here

Team HelmsmanNavigating in GPS denied areas

If you can’t see the Helmsman 2-minute video click her

If you can’t see the video of the Helmsman team presenting click here

If you can’t see the Helmsman slides click here

Team Election Watch Open Source Tool to Track Political Influence Campaigns

If you can’t see the Election Watch 2-minute video click here

If you can’t see the Election Watch slides click here

What’s Next for These Teams?
When they graduate, the Stanford students on these teams have the pick of jobs in startups, companies and consulting firms. Recognizing the ability of these teams to produce real results, 38 members of the venture and private equity community dialed in to these presentations. Every year they fund several teams as they launch companies. This year a record 6 of the 8 teams (Anthro Energy, AV Combinator, Election Watch, Helmsman, Omniscient and Seawatch) have decided to continue with their projects to build them into dual-use companies – selling both to the Dept of Defense and commercial businesses.) Most are applying to H4X Labs, an accelerator focused on building dual-use companies.

Student Feedback
While Stanford does a formal survey of student reviews of the class, this year we wanted more granular data on how remote learning affected their class experience.

While we had heard anecdotal stories about how the class affected the students perceptions of the Department of Defense we now had first hand evidence. The same was true for the life-changing experience of actually doing customer discovery with 100 people. The results reinforced our belief that the class, scaling across the county was helping to bridge the civilian/military divide while teaching students a set of skills that will last a lifetime.

Student feedback on the class is here

It Takes a Village
While I authored this blog post, this class is a team project. The teaching team consisted of myself and:

  • Pete Newell retired Army Colonel and ex Director of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force and CEO of BMNT.
  • Joe Felter retired Army Colonel and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania
  • Steve Weinstein 30-year veteran of Silicon Valley technology companies and Hollywood media companies.  Steve was CEO of MovieLabs the joint R&D lab of all the major motion picture studios. He runs H4X Labs.
  • Tom Bedecarré the founder and CEO of AKQA, the leading digital advertising agency.
  • Jeff Decker a Stanford social science researcher. Jeff served in the U.S. Army as a special operations light infantry squad leader in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Our teaching assistants this year were Nate Simon and Sam Lisbonne both past graduates of Hacking for Defense, and Valeria RinconA special thanks to the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) and Rich Carlin and the Office of Naval Research for supporting the program at Stanford and across the country as well Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. And our course advisor – Tom Byers, Professor of Engineering and Faculty Director, STVP.

We were lucky to get a team of mentors (VC’s and entrepreneurs) who selflessly volunteered their time to help coach the teams. Thanks to Todd Basche, Teresa Briggs, Rachel Costello, Gus Hernandez, Rafi Holtzman, Katie Tobin, Robert Locke, Kevin Ray, Eric Schrader, Mark Rosekind, Don Peppers, Nini Moorhead, Daniel Bardenstein.

We were privileged to have the support of an extraordinary all volunteer team of professional senior military officers representing all branches of service attending fellowship programs at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and Asia Pacific Research Center (APARC) at the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) as well as from the Defense Innovation Unit. These included COL Smith-Heys, COL Liebreich and LTC Campbell – Army, CAPT Sharman, CAPT Romani – Navy, CDR Malzone – Coast Guard, LT COL Lawson, LT COL Hasseltine and LT COL Cook – USMC, LT COL Waters and LT COL Tuzel – Air Force and Mr. Smyth -State Dept.

And of course a big shout-out to our problem sponsors. At In-Q-Tel – Mark Breier/Zig Hampel, U.S. Army – LTC Leo Liebreich, U.S. Air Force – LTC Doug Snead/ MAJ Mike Rose, Joint Artificial Intelligence Center – Joe Murray/MAJ Dan Tadross, Special Operations Command Pacific – MAJ Paul Morton, United States Africa Command – Matt Moore, and from the Office of Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff – MAJ Jeff Budis.

Be sure to check out the other Hacking For Defense classes in universities in the U.S. and the U.K.

Thanks to everyone!

One Response

  1. Steve – always value your insightful and innovative distributions. This one is a topper – read it and consumed it fully – remarkable how this program has evolved. Will continue to look for interesting stuff from Steve Blank – and it is clear that you (again) have started a new chapter continuing to make a difference and contribute.

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