Classy Classes: MS&E 298 ‘Hacking for Diplomacy’

Sept. 26, 2016, 7:05 a.m.

Professor of political science Jeremy Weinstein, serial entrepreneur Steve Blank, consulting professor of management science and engineering Joe Felter and Movielabs CEO Steven Weinstein are teaching a new course, Hacking for Diplomacy (MS&E 298), with the new State Department representative to Silicon Valley, Zvika Krieger.

The class will bring together people with different skill sets to solve problems facing various divisions of the State Department. Students will choose from problems ranging from space collision avoidance to counterterrorism efforts.

Weinstein urges students of all backgrounds and majors to attend the information session and mixer on Tuesday in Tresidder West Lounge so that they can meet other students interested in solving the same problems. Later, students will create teams of four and submit their applications, which are due this Saturday at 3 p.m.

“We are looking for people who are super energized and enthusiastic about solving these problems,” Weinstein said. “[We want people who can] think about the range of policy and technical capability that they need and can demonstrate to their problem sponsors that they’re the right team for them.”

Zvika Krieger, who was tasked with securing official sponsorships from different offices from the State Department, describes the enthusiasm from the State Department in working with Stanford students.

“We were surprised at how much excitement there was for the class,”  Krieger said. “We even have different [government] sponsors calling me up and asking me how [they] can increase [their] chances of being selected. We have sponsors flying out here before they even know if their challenges will be chosen to try to recruit students to pick their challenge.”

Students will also be provided mentors who are either current or former State Department employees based in Silicon Valley at companies such as Salesforce and Google to better help them develop their ideas.

Every week, teams of four will present their minimal viable product to a panel of faculty and mentors, who will critique their solutions. The products will range, as they vary from problem to problem.

“In some cases, students are going to get very far down the path of working with their colleagues from the inside of government [in] developing a minimal viable product, whether it’s some form of technology or social media strategy,” Weinstein said. “It really could be on the pathway to implementation. I think we saw, in Hacking for Defense, a number of teams that went very far down the path and ultimately were on the receiving end of seed funding from the Department of Defense’s Innovation Unit to take their ideas forward.”

Krieger also hints that there will be senior members from the State Department sitting in as guest critics from time to time.

“This is for real; it’s not practice,” Krieger said. “[The class allows students] to dive in and get exposed to people in the State Department. What’s unique about it is that it also lets you pull back the curtain on what it’s like to be a diplomat or a foreign service officer at the State Department.”

Students will also get to hear from serial entrepreneur and pioneer behind Engineering 245 Steve Blank, who will be teaching his Lean Launchpad methodology, a robust model for testing hypotheses.

Rather than create a business plan, the Lean Launchpad methodology requires students to develop business model hypotheses and test them by getting out of the classroom to engage with customers and stakeholders, such as those in the State Department, in order to gain a deep understanding of the viability of their solutions.

“No business plan survives first contact with customers,” Blank said. “And most entrepreneurs knew that you wrote a business plan and then threw it away. I realized what we were lacking was a systematic approach. I took my customer development process, paired it with Alexander Osterwalder’s business model canvas, and one of my students agreed and said, agile development was the missing piece.”

In addition, faculty will be teaching students how to execute their ideas beyond the course.

“There are a number of sponsors that actually have funding that is for students to pursue their ideas,” Krieger said. “There’s an entire section of the course dedicated to how [to] execute your idea and how to not let it just be theory.”

However, lectures are minimal because the class is focused on hands-on learning.

“Both Hacking for Defense and Hacking for Diplomacy offer Stanford students for the first time a way to do some type of national service while working on some of the most interesting problems that the country has, while learning lean startup methodology,” Blank said. “[This combination] of those three things all in one class is creating an opportunity few students will ever get. And you can only get it at Stanford.”


Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly excluded Steve Blank from the list of instructors in the first paragraph. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Anne-Marie Hwang at amhwang ‘at’

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