‘Hacking for Defense’ class puts Stanford’s relationship with military center stage

Dec. 10, 2017, 1:10 p.m.

Alongside all the tech companies and consulting firms present at career fairs, Stanford students looking for employment are liable to encounter another major industry when talking to recruiters: the defense sector.

Although anti-war activism in the Vietnam era severed many of the university’s ties with the U.S. military, the relationship between the two has seen a revival over the years. The Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC), for instance, returned to Stanford in 2013 after a 45-year hiatus. A ban on on-campus recruiting was similarly lifted in 2011. As a result, national security and defense institutions are more visible on campus now than they were just a decade ago.

A relatively new class, MS&E 297, adds yet another wrinkle to that ongoing narrative – and one that not everyone is happy about.

Hacking the defense industry

Named “Hacking for Defense: Solving National Security issues with the Lean Launchpad,” MS&E 297 pairs Stanford students with partners in the military or adjacent industries, building a relationship between the two meant to produce innovative technology solutions to defense issues.

Based on the “lean startup” model, which emphasizes an iterative process of need-finding and problem-solving, the class seeks to apply Silicon Valley entrepreneurship to military-industrial contexts.

Small teams of students “take a hands-on approach requiring close engagement with actual military, Department of Defense and other government agency end-users,” the ExploreCourses class listing explains.

First offered in spring 2016 and then repeated a year later, “Hacking for Defense” was founded by three men intent on bringing together the dual cultures of tech startups and the military: Joe Felter, Ph.D. ’05, a Pentagon advisor-cum-Hoover Institution researcher; Peter Newell, a former colonel involved in government consulting; and Steve Blank, a Stanford professor and eight-time startup founder whose work paved the way for the “lean startup” methodology.

Using their combined connections in Stanford, the military and the tech industry, the trio launched the class within a year of its conception.

The founders saw benefits in it for both student participants and government partners.

“My interest was to get Stanford students engaged in national service and exposed to parts of the U.S. government where their traditional academic path and business career would never take them,” Blank explains on his blog.

Yet at the same time, Newell noted in an interview with the California Sunday Magazine, “We have to be in a position to recognize an emerging problem much faster and to deliver that problem into the hands of people who can actually combine the right technologies to solve it.”

The class was a success, quickly spreading to other colleges and even getting spun off into a second course, the Department of State-partnered “Hacking for Diplomacy,” within a year.

Students found the work – and the military partnership itself – challenging but rewarding.

“These problems that you tackle are pretty broad; they’re pretty general,” explained former class participant Gerardo Rendon Gonzalez, ’17 M.S. ’18. “So it’s up to the team to narrow down [the problem], to find specific pain points … and then develop prototypes, and iterate, and ultimately try and deploy a solution that solves that pain point.”

Rendon Gonzalez’s team, for instance, worked on reducing inefficiencies in how Navy SEAL trainers track progress among their candidates. After over one hundred “customer” interviews and an analysis of inefficiencies in the current training process, the students developed a mobile web app that made the process quicker and easier.

Other groups worked with different military partners, like the U.S. Transportation Command and the Department of Veteran Affairs.


The militarization of Stanford?

But not everyone thinks that “Hacking for Defense” is a step in the right direction for Stanford’s relationship with the defense sector; in fact, some students skeptical of the military say that such a relationship shouldn’t exist in the first place.

“The ‘Hacking for Defense’ class, as it actually involves civilians in military development, is basically embedding military functions within a civil institution,” said Dan Walls, Ph.D. ’18, a member of the group Students for Alternatives to Militarism.

He elaborated, saying, Stanford “shouldn’t serve the needs of violent organizations like the U.S. military.”

In response, university spokesperson E.J. Miranda wrote in an email to The Daily that “the ‘U.S. military’ does not have input into Stanford University policies or planning.”

“The University does no classified research,” Miranda added, “and accordingly, ‘Hacking for Defense’ only uses unclassified information.”

But the argument that “Hacking for Defense” brings military violence to Stanford’s campus doesn’t just come from Walls. In an article outlining the origins of the class, the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center notes that “Newell was trying to make Soldiers [sic] more lethal and safe” while “Blank was trying to help entrepreneurs build great companies.”

“Each saw the overlaps in the other’s approach,” it continues.

When The Daily reached out to the courses’ founders and professors for this article, it was redirected to talk with Miranda.

Part of the debate comes down to what purpose, exactly, Stanford exists to fulfill. In an interview with The Daily, Air Force ROTC cadet Kalvin Parker ’18 said that “the same goals that Stanford wants are hopefully the same as what the military wants and the nation wants from its leaders.”

Yet Walls disagrees, saying that a civilian-military partnership “would seem to go against the educational values of Stanford.

Walls is skeptical of other aspects of the class, too. The notion that Silicon Valley tech culture should play a role in military practices, for instance, seems to him like a recipe for disaster.

“Startups use language like ‘failing fast,’ like ‘iterating,’” he explained. “So it seems like a very short-term kind of approach that lends itself to the current outlook on U.S. interventionism, which is very scary.”

After all, he added, for a class project like 2016’s ominously-nicknamed Skynet  – wherein students used computer vision to help autonomous drones better identify enemy combatants – “you’re talking about people’s lives.”

But the founders of the class see things differently, viewing the course as a way to draw top students to a sphere of national service that they might not otherwise consider, while also giving them a bigger stake in whether or not the U.S. gets involved in conflicts overseas.

“When we ended the draft, we ran a giant science experiment and I think the evidence is in,” Blank said in an interview with Wired. “It has given free range to the executive and legislative branches to run our foreign engagements without involving the body politic – we are now in perpetual wars.”

But Walls questions the notion that the class’ ethos makes civilians more skeptical of military engagement. A draft, he explained, ideally gives all citizens a stake in whether or not their country goes to war (although in practice even that isn’t always the case). “Hacking for Defense,” meanwhile, embodies a very different dynamic – one Walls says is more akin to war profiteering.

“Creating a startup that produces technology that is used by the military,” he explained. “That is actually a reason for you to support going to war, because you’re making money off of it.”

The question of profit comes up repeatedly in discussions about “Hacking for Defense,” and is clearly a moral dilemma that the professors are aware of. Newell told Nextgov that the point of the class was not to create new companies or make money, and the USAASC article clarifies that acquiring long-term funding isn’t the point of the course.

Yet all the same, students in the class do make money from their military partnership.

Said MS&E professor Steven Weinstein of the class: “I think we saw … 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.”

“We are eager to take this beyond the scope of Hacking for Defense,” said Olga Musayev, J.D. ’17, in a video documenting her work on the Skynet drone team. “We are exploring several different options for funding, from several different federal agencies.”

The potential to make a profit after the fact informs the content of the class and helps attract students.

Nextgov states that instructors chose project topics “that could serve both the commercial and public sectors,” and one student on Carta specifically recommends the class for those with “any inclination of contracting for the government.”

Walls sees this as further indication of a distressing capitalist-military codependency between Palo Alto and Washington.

“[The Department of Defense is] not necessarily recruiting people to enlist out of [Stanford],” Walls said. “They’re recruiting people to join tech ventures and basically profit off of war.”


A look back

“Hacking for Defense” is not Stanford’s first tango with the military. In fact, prior to the peak of student protests against the war in Vietnam in the late ’60s, the ties between the two were considerably closer than they are even today. Research, including on classified projects, was often contracted out to Stanford scientists, and ROTC had a strong presence on campus.

A large-scale student movement against the war – and against Stanford’s connections to it – ended much of this, at least for several decades. It was called the April 3rd Movement.

“Inspired by the civil rights movement and hardening antipathy toward the war in Vietnam, student activists were challenging Stanford on many fronts,” writes former Provost Richard Lyman in his book “Stanford in Turmoil.” “Sit-ins and campus demonstrations targeted admission policies, University governance, the draft, ROTC and classified research.”

Things only escalated as Lyman began calling in police to break up protests, while antiwar activists burnt down the naval ROTC building and damaged several other university buildings.

Although Lyman took a strong stance against the activists, and still does, he concedes that the “campus unrest” sped up the process of change, ultimately leading to substantive policy reversals including the elimination of ROTC from the campus, a moratorium on classified research and a break from the Department of Defense-affiliated Stanford Research Institute.

“Governance at Stanford was not revolutionized,” Lyman writes, “but it was substantially altered.”


The military at Stanford today

Some of the changes brought about by the April 3rd Movement remain in place now. As Miranda noted, for instance, these days “Stanford has relatively few DoD contracts and does not do classified research.”

Yet many other Vietnam-era reforms have since been reversed. ROTC, for instance, came back to campus in 2013 at the behest of the Faculty Senate.

A Daily article last year discussed the context of that reversal, paraphrasing Dustin Noll, Stanford Office for Military-Affiliated Communities specialist, as attributing ROTC’s return to “a paradigm shift in the nation’s attitude toward the armed forces and the military-industrial complex.”

The program is smaller than it once was, but it’s still encountered some resistance from students who oppose the military. For example, Army ROTC member Pablo Lozano ’18 says he was once called a “baby-killer” while wearing his uniform at school.

The university defended the ROTC program, noting that the actual military training is carried out off-campus and that government scholarships for participants are used to pay for school.

“Active military students, student veterans and members of Stanford ROTC add a highly-valued voice to the university community,” said Miranda. “The life experience and points of view that they bring from previous career paths or military service provide an important perspective in discussion seminars, student groups and campus activities.”

ROTC aside, a subtler method by which the defense industry maintains a presence on campus is through professional recruitment. After the ban of on-campus military recruitment was lifted in 2011, branches of the military – as well as adjacent organizations like the CIA and the State Department – returned to Stanford, seeking potential future employees.

Defense contractors are also a major presence. The most recent fall career fair, for instance, had booths representing Aerojet Rocketdyne, Aerovironment Inc., BAE Systems, Boeing, the Institute for Defense Analyses, Karem Aircraft Inc. and Lockheed Martin, in addition to divisions of the Air Force and Marine Corps themselves.

Wall suggested that this is because “there’s a lot of vested money interests in keeping [the relationship between Stanford and the military] going.”

In response, Miranda stated that all of Stanford’s military contracts are signed in compliance with the school’s “Openness in Research” policy, which prohibits secret and anonymous contracts and requires that the results can be disclosed.

The “Hacking for Defense” class capitalizes on the rhetoric of military recruitment. Posters advertising its most recent run featured a finger-pointing Uncle Sam proclaiming “I Want You,” and some students now see it as a path by which to begin a career in the defense sector.

“It was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken, and it turned me onto a whole new career path,” one former student wrote on Carta.

“Your chance to serve as a civilian,” another student commented.

“Definitely after taking this class and realizing how much potential there is to make a positive impact, using data science, using technology in the Department of Defense, I’m more inclined to want to work in related fields,” explained Rendon Gonzalez ’17 M.S. ’18. “Not necessarily for the military specifically, but for the Department of Defense and … any other related work they might be doing [such as contracting].”

The founders of the course likely wouldn’t be surprised by that sort of student response.

“We did a survey of the students before and after the class,” Blank told Wired. “When they came in, they said they were primarily there for the interesting problems. When they left, after all this interaction with the members of our armed forces, they answered that their prime motivation was to help our national defense.”

The pivot from “solving interesting problems” to “helping our national defense” is a profound one, of the sort that both Students for Alternatives to Militarism and the April 3 Movement were – and are – skeptical.

And for Walls, it prompts an important question about Stanford at large: “What do we want this institution to really be?”


Contact Brian Contreras at [email protected] ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Brian Contreras was the Daily's Investigations Editor during the '19-'20 school year. Before that, he was a Managing Editor of the news section. A graduate of Stanford's class of 2020, he studied Science, Technology, and Society with a minor in Anthropology. Brian hails from Washington, DC and is pursuing a career in tech journalism. Contact him at briancontreras42 'at' gmail.com.

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