Todd Branchflower was one my Lean LaunchPad students entrepreneurial enough to convince the Air Force send him to Stanford to get his graduate engineering degree. After watching my Secret History of Silicon Valley talk, he became fascinated by how serendipity created both weapon systems and entrepreneurship in World War II – and brought us federal support of science and Silicon Valley.
In class I would tease Todd that while the Navy had me present the Secret History talk in front of 4,000 cadets at the Naval Post Graduate School, I had yet to hear from the Air Force Academy. He promised that one day he would fix that.
Fast-forward three years and Todd is now Captain Todd Branchflower, teaching electrical engineering at the Air Force Academy. He extended an invitation to me to come out to the Academy in Colorado Springs to address the cadets and meet the faculty.
Out of the airport the first stop was in Denver – an impromptu meetup at Galvanize and a fireside chat with a roomful of 200 great entrepreneurs.
U.S. military academies
Then it was on to Colorado Springs and the Air Force Academy. All officers in the U.S. military need a college degree. The Air Force Academy is one of the four U.S. military service academies (academy is a fancy word for 4-year college.) The oldest is the Army’s U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York, founded in 1802 to educate Army officers. The next military college was the Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland, set up in 1845 to train Navy officers. The Coast Guard Academy opened in New London Connecticut in 1876. The Air Force, originally part of the U.S. Army, wasn’t an independent military branch until 1947, set up their academy in 1955 in Colorado Springs. Only ~20% of officers go through a service academy. Over 40% get the military to pay for their college by joining via the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program. The rest get their college degree in a civilian college or university and then join their branch of the military after a 10-week Officer Training School.
Given my Air Force career I came thinking that sharing the Secret History of Silicon Valley talk with 1000 soon to be Air Force Officers would be the highpoint of the visit. And it was as much fun as I expected – a full auditorium – a standing ovation, great feedback and a trophy – but two other things, completely unexpected, made the visit even more interesting.
First, I got to meet the faculty in both electrical/computer engineering and management and share what I’ve learned about Lean and theLean LaunchPad class. In their senior year all Air Force cadets on the electrical engineering track have a two-semester “Capstone” class project. They specify, design and build a project that may be of use. Unfortunately the class operates much like the military acquisition system: the project specification has minimal input from real world users, the product gets built with a waterfall engineering process, and there’s no input on whether the product actually meets real world needs until the product is delivered. This means students spend a ton of time and effort to deliver a “final” product release but it’s almost certain that it wouldn’t meet real world users’ needs without extensive rework and modification.
I was surprised how interested the faculty was in exploring whether the Capstone class could be modified to use the Customer Development process to get input from potential “customers” inside the Air Force. And how the engineering process could be turned Agile. with the product built incrementally and iteratively, as students acquire more customer feedback. Success in the Capstone project would not only be measured on the technical basis of “did it work?” but also on how much they learned about the users and their needs. I invited the faculty to attend the Lean LaunchPad educators’ course to learn how we teach the class.
We’ll see if I made a dent.
Table for 4,000
In between faculty meetings I got a great tour of the Academy facilities and some of the classes. As on any college campus there are dorms, great sports facilities (sports are not optional), classrooms, etc. The curriculum was definitely oriented to practical science and service. However not on too many other college campuses will you find dorms arranged in squadrons of 40 of 100 students each, where students have to make their beds and have full-time hall monitors, and simultaneously eat lunch with 4,000 other cadets in one dining room (an experience I got to participate in from the guest tower overlooking the dining hall.) All the hierarchal rituals were on display; freshman have to run on the main quad walking on narrow strips, carry their backpacks in their hands, daily room inspections, etc.
And I saw things that made this uniquely an Air Force college – they had their own airfield, flying clubs, the Aero Lab with three wind tunnels, heavy emphasis on engineering and aeronautics, etc. (And it was fun to play “what aircraft is that” with those on static display around the grounds.) But the second surprise for me was the one that made me feel very, very old – it was the Academy’s Cyber Warfare curriculum.
I visited the Cyber 256 class and got a look at the syllabus. Imagine going to college not only to learn how to hack computers but also actually majoring in it. The class consisted of basic networking and administration, network mapping, remote exploits, denial of service, web vulnerabilities, social engineering, password vulnerabilities, wireless network exploitation, persistence, digital media analysis, and cyber mission operations. In addition to the class in Cyber Warfare, there was also a cadet Cyber Warfare Club and an annual National Security Agency Cyber Warfare competition. The Air Force competes with other military branches and National Guard units; the instructor proudly told me that the Air Force has won for the last two years. I only wish I had taken a picture of the huge trophy in the back of the classroom.
We do what?
On the plane ride home I had time to process what I saw.
When I was in the military the battle was just ending between the National Security Agency (NSA) and the military branches over who owned signals and communications intelligence. Was it the military (Air Force, Navy) or was it our intelligence agencies? In the end the NSA became the primary owner, the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) owned and built the spacecraft that collected the intelligence and the military branches had organizations (Air Force Security Services, Army Security Agency or Naval Security Group) that manned the collection platforms (airplanes, listening posts, etc) which all fed back into the National Security Agency.
Cyber Warfare has been through the same battles. While each of the military branches have Cyber Warfare organizations reporting into a unified military Cyber Command, the head of the National Security Agency is its director, making the NSA the agency that owns Cyber Warfare for the U.S. Cyber Warfare has three components:
1) Computer Network Attack (CNA) – shut down an enemies ability to command and control its weapon systems in a war (i.e. Chinese satellite and over the horizon radar systems targeting U.S. carriers) or prevent potential adversaries from creating weapons of mass destruction, (i.e. Stuxnet targeted at the Iranian nuclear weapons program),
2) Computer Network Defense (CND) – stop potential adversaries from doing the same to you.
3) Computer Network Espionage (CNE) – steal everything you can get your hands (China and RSA’s SecureID breach, hacks of Google and AWS.)
While the U.S. complains about the Chinese military hackers from the PLA’s GSD 3rd Department (the equivalent of our National Security Agency,) and their 2nd Bureau, Unit 61398 tasked euphemistically for “Computer Network Operations,” we’ve done the same.
Unfortunately, potential adversaries have much softer targets in the U.S. While the military is hardening its command and control systems, civilian computer systems are relatively unprotected. Financial institutions have successfully lobbied against the U.S. government forcing them to take responsibility in protecting your data/money. Given our economy is just bits, the outcome of a successful attack will not be pretty.
- Thanks to the Air Force Academy, its faculty, cadets and Captain Todd Branchflower for a great visit
- The Lean LaunchPad class may find a place in the military
- We should be glad that the military is taking Cyber Warfare seriously, you should wish your bank did the same