(Bloomberg) -- Sam Gussman arrived four years ago at Stanford University hoping to eventually parlay an engineering degree into a product manager job at Google or Facebook Inc.
Working for the National Security Agency or other intelligence bureaus never crossed his mind. For Gussman, the government didn’t seem like the the place for the most exciting, cutting-edge research in human computer interaction -- his area of interest. Plus, it did no on-campus recruiting, unlike the many tech startups that e-mailed him daily about job opportunities and happy hours.
That career plan changed dramatically after Gussman took a new graduate class at Stanford’s engineering school called Hacking for Defense, or H4D, where he got to tackle real-life national security challenges. There he met with U.S. military officers and studied the mental duress soldiers face during combat and then worked on software that distinguishes insurgents from civilians in video feeds from drones. Suddenly government work was “super cool.”
The course, which debuted in spring 2016, aims to harness the speed and flexibility of Silicon Valley innovation to help solve some of the most urgent and complex challenges confronting the country’s defense and intelligence agencies.
As the U.S. faces increasingly tech-savvy adversaries like the Islamic State and Russian hackers, a group of retired military officers and Steve Blank, an academic and entrepreneur, saw an opportunity to link millennials’ desire for a sense of purpose in their work with the government’s struggle to innovate quickly.
“The U.S. government doesn’t have dog-friendly offices or competitive pay, but they have an endless list of interesting problems that no tech company can match,” said Blank, 63, who founded eight startups and took four public.
The class is limited to about 30 students, separated into eight groups of four. The teams each pick a current national security challenge from a list shared by the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies. Some recent examples: The U.S. Special Operations Command wanted improved wearable sensors and apps for divers. The U.S. Army Cyber Command wanted better data mining and machine learning techniques to defeat enemy use of social media. The 75th Ranger Regiment sought new ways to spot explosives in potentially booby-trapped areas.
Students follow Blank’s Lean LaunchPad methodology to find technological solutions that people -- preferably both military and civilian -- would pay to use.
For Pete Newell, a retired U.S. Army colonel and a co-developer of H4D, the course is about changing the military’s mindset and the ability to quickly apply technology to warfare. The fact that the military and the government use public funds reduces room for experimentation and trial and error, a critical part of innovation, said Newell, whose last military job was investing $1.4 billion in combat technology.
"Nobody has been called on by Congress for failing to be innovative enough, but for spending too much of taxpayer dollars."
As part of the class, dozens of government officials, military officers, defense contractors, and intelligence agents served as sponsors and made themselves available to students who collectively conducted more than 800 interviews with them.
Gabriele Fisher, a computer science major, said her nightly homework "was to basically play 20 questions with NSA agents" on the group messaging app Slack. Fisher said she quickly learned to avoid asking open-ended questions, for example about the merits of tracking emoji use on Twitter to verify accounts associated with Islamic State. Tight-lipped operatives answered yes-or-no questions and ignored her team’s request for the NSA’s classified dataset on Islamic State’s online presence, she said.
In the end, all of the student teams helped their sponsor agencies move closer to a better solution for their problems, mostly by devising tools that better integrate existing technologies, rather than creating entirely new systems. One team developed a small geolocator buoy for Navy Seal divers. Another coded a web-based tool for the NSA that detects fake accounts on Twitter.
"There’s no company or startup that works on problems as interesting as those that the government wrestles with," said Gussman, who graduated in June and is now applying for grants to continue work with the Defense Department on how drones, computer vision, and augmented reality can be used to solve national defense challenges. "Plus with the government, my input can directly help save lives."
At least half of the students from that inaugural class continue to work on their projects or with the government. One group built a company called Capella Space, and secured $200,000 in angel funding to manufacture small cube satellites that can monitor activity on the ground through bad, cloudy weather. The company is scheduled to put the first U.S. commercial synthetic radar satellite in orbit late next year.
Blank describes H4D as the "21st century tech" version of the Reserve Officers Training Corps., a college-based officer training program for the U.S. Armed Forces. His goal is to have at least 50 other universities offering the course within three years, turning H4D into a form of national service. H4D is currently also taught at Georgetown University and the University of California, San Diego and a handful more will offer the course next spring.
In September, Stanford began offering a sister course called Hacking for Diplomacy, which is sponsored by the State Department and asks students to come up with tech solutions to foreign policy challenges. Secretary of State John Kerry and former foreign ministers from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Ukraine have met with the class throughout this academic quarter.
Blank, a former college dropout, said the biggest hurdle to innovation in government or defense is the scrutiny of public spending that leaves too little room for failure.
“You know what they call failure in Silicon Valley? Experience," Blank said. “In Washington, one would have to take his or her uniform off.”
Register or login for access to this item and much more
All Information Management content is archived after seven days.
Community members receive:
- All recent and archived articles
- Conference offers and updates
- A full menu of enewsletter options
- Web seminars, white papers, ebooks
Already have an account? Log In
Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access