We just finished our 6th annual Hacking for Defense class at Stanford.
What a year. With the pandemic winding down it finally feels like the beginning of the end.
This was my sixth time teaching a virtual class during the lockdown – and for our students likely their 15th or more. Hacking for Defense has teams of students working to understand and solve national security problems. Although the class was run completely online, and even though they were suffering from Zoom fatigue, the 10 teams of 42 students collectively interviewed 1,142 beneficiaries, stakeholders, requirements writers, program managers, industry partners, etc. – while simultaneously building a series of minimal viable products.
At the end of the quarter, each of the teams gave a final “Lessons Learned” presentation. Unlike traditional demo days or Shark Tanks which are, “Here’s how smart I am, and isn’t this a great product, please give me money,” a Lessons Learned presentation tells the story of a team’s 10-week journey and hard-won learning and discovery. For all of them it’s a roller coaster narrative describing what happens when you discover that everything you thought you knew on day one was wrong and how they eventually got it right.
Here’s how they did it and what they delivered.
How Do You Get Out of the Building When You Can’t Get Out of the Building?
This class is built on conducting in-person of interviews with customers/ beneficiaries and stakeholders, but due to the pandemic, teams now had to do all their customer discovery via a computer screen. This would seem to be a fatal stake through the heart of the class. How would customer interviews work via video? After teaching remotely for the last year, we’ve learned that customer discovery is actually more efficient using video conferencing. It increased the number of interviews the students were able to do each week.
Many of the people the students needed to talk to were sheltering at home, which meant they weren’t surrounded by gatekeepers. While the students missed gaining the context of standing on a navy ship or visiting a drone control station or watching someone try their app or hardware, the teaching team’s assessment was that remote interviews were more than an adequate substitute. When Covid restrictions are over, we plan to add remote customer discovery to the students’ toolkit. (See here for an extended discussion of remote customer discovery.)
We Changed The Class Format
While teaching remotely we made two major changes to the class. Previously, each of the teams presented a weekly ten-minute summary consisting 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 weekly student presentations into thirds – three teams presented to the entire class then three teams each went into two Zoom breakout rooms. During the quarter we rotated the teams and instructors through the main room and breakout sessions.
The second change was the addition of alumni guest speakers – students who had taken the class in the past. They offered insights about what they got right and wrong and what they wished they had known.
Lessons Learned Presentation Format
For the final Lessons Learned presentation many 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. While all the teams used the Mission Model Canvas, (videos here), Customer Development and Agile Engineering to build Minimal Viable Products, each of their journeys was unique.
By the end the class all 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.