By: Milica Cosic, Reporter
This spring, Georgetown graduate students have a unique opportunity to break out of the traditional classroom setting and take advantage of a fully immersive, collaborative, and innovative course called Hacking for Defense (H4D). Originally conceived at Stanford University, H4D enlists small teams of 3-5 students to solve a real-world emerging threat or security challenge provided by problem sponsors inside the Department of Defense (DoD) and Intelligence Community. Each team will work closely with their assigned problem sponsors, mentors, and military liaisons, and will have 13 weeks to solve a real problem and bring a deployable product or service “to market.” In a past class, four of eight teams received additional funding to continue their work from either their problem sponsor or an investor.
The course will be led by Professor Chris Taylor, who joined Georgetown’s Security Studies Program as an adjunct professor in 2014 to teach “The Business of National Security.” Professor Taylor is a two-time national security industry CEO and entrepreneur. Prior to working in the private sector, Professor Taylor spent 14 years in the U. S. Marine Corps as an enlisted infantryman and Force Recon Marine. He holds an MBA from the College of William & Mary, and an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School.
Professor Taylor recently sat down with the GSSR to discuss Hacking for Defense and the challenges and opportunities students will encounter in the new spring course.
What inspired you to teach this class?
In the 20th century, America gained its national security dominance by creating and protecting intellectual property that gave us a substantial technology advantage over our adversaries. We did so by attracting the very best talent from around the world and asking them to invent amazing things–then we walled off those inventions from our enemies and kept them secure to extend our national security gains. But, in the 21st century, that is far more difficult to do, if not impossible. Our adversaries now take advantage of globalization and the ubiquity of the Internet and social media. In two clicks, I can now find any number of resources online to allow me to compete with, or defeat, various American technologies. Today, critical information that was once easier to protect is stolen and leaked—revealing some of our most valued advances. And the availability of things like 3D printing and open-source code make it much easier for people with poor attitudes and a penchant for violence to leap up the innovation value chain and create their own set of weapons and tools to disrupt or attack us. The velocity of change in technology and global information flow requires us to adopt new ways of deploying useful new tools into the hands of end-users tasked with keeping America safe. H4D seeks to do that in weeks and months, not years. I am grateful to SSP’s Associate Director, Dave Maxwell for his leadership and support, and to LTC Matt Zais from U.S. Army Cyber Command for agreeing to co-teach H4D. I’m inspired by Jay Harrison and Libbie Prescott (also a Georgetown SSP Adjunct!) for their determined efforts at MD5. I am continually inspired by Pete Newell, Joe Felter, and Steve Blank at Stanford, who created the curriculum and taught it, first – and who continue to develop it. I am inspired by moving the needle, and this class does just that.
Why was Georgetown selected as the next University to offer this course?
That’s easy. Georgetown lives in the belly of the beast. It makes perfect sense to harness the full talent of one of America’s finest universities located in the epicenter of the national security ecosystem to solve hard national security problems. Georgetown has it all; We have security studies, public policy, business, systems engineering, computer science, medical/biomedical, law, and engineering/maker students who have passion for solving the insolvable, in one way or another. Georgetown’s proximity to national security leaders and the national security industry make it the perfect place for H4D.
The course description emphasizes the unique value in entrepreneurial-led innovation in national security. Why is this so important?
I’m always careful about using the term “innovation” because it means different things to different people. What we are really doing is solving problems using tools that successful entrepreneurs use. The complexity and speed of our national security challenges increase every day. Eventually, that runs directly into the US government’s requirements, budgeting, and acquisition processes which are cumbersome and favor established players who rely on a 4k HD demand signal from the government to spend a lot of resources on hard problems—there has to be a clear business case. But, those processes don’t align with the timelines of technology change and end-user need, nor do all of our required solutions emanate from a clear business case. There is a chasm between complete Google/Apple/Tesla-esque problem solving and national security industry problem solving. H4D seeks to bridge that gap. It’s not that the national security industry or those in government aren’t smart—we are fortunate to have such amazing talent in our country. It’s that the system in which they work cannot deliver everything America may need to protect itself. So, in order to advance our solutions dominance, H4D forces a relentless customer discovery and validation process that aligns real need with exceptional “good enough” deployable solutions. We can no longer afford to move everything through a process that takes 1-5 years to yield a solution for a problem that requires an answer today.
What are some of the biggest challenges students will face in the course? Where do the greatest opportunities lie?
I’m not going to lie – the workload is stiff. We expect 10-15 hours per week of your time to commit to excellence and to do the hard work of discovery, validation, creating a minimal viable products (MVPs), and pivoting smartly, if necessary, when you learn more. The opportunity is this—you get to work on real national security problems, for real national security leaders, in real time—and have a real impact. Choosing experiential learning is ALWAYS better than reading one more book or writing one more paper. H4D will expose you to tools to help you have an immediate and positive effect in any organization you join after school, and give you an unfair advantage in the marketplace over your peers who chose to do something else.
What are the characteristics and skills required to be a successful student in this course?
Team. Work. This entire class is team-based; you self-organize as a team, you apply as a team, you are admitted as a team. None of the problem sets can be solved by one or two people. As a team member you should have a passion for problem solving, for speaking to people and eliciting meaningful information, for critically thinking at the speed of business, and not letting perfect be the enemy of good enough right now. We want committed students who want to be part of something different—who want to impact our national security. We need diverse student teams with different perspectives on how to attack a problem. And, we want teams who want to apply what they discover, build a solution that can be deployed, and create rich, impactful relationships with members of the national security community.
Are there any particular aspects of the course that students should consider when applying?
We use an open-university forum—Hacking for Defense is open to ALL Georgetown graduate students regardless of citizenship or program. We want access to every bit of Georgetown graduate talent. We use a flipped classroom—you will watch your lectures on your time, work with your team outside the classroom, and then brief us inside the classroom. We use experiential learning—you will spend a lot of time with your problem sponsors in the DoD and Intelligence Community asking questions, listening well, and validating everything. We also use an inverted classroom—every week you will present your beginning hypothesis, what you did that week, what you learned, and how it impacted your hypothesis. You’ll then share what actions you will take over the next week as a result of that learning. We use a relentlessly direct teaching style; you may be uncomfortable with it in the beginning, but that will pass as you realize that the goal is to elicit greatness from you and your team. Most of all, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leverage resources from your liaisons, mentors, and corporate partners to learn and solve real problems. Don’t pass that up. Come join our little insurrection.
Can you share a word of advice for students who are interested in taking the course?
Review our course website at www.hacking4defensegu.com and then do it. Just jump in. Sign up, choose a problem for which you have passion, organize a team with other like-minded students, and bring the heat to one of these nasty problems. Be the “Man in the Arena”. Don’t choose easy; choose greatness. Choose to make a difference.