Recent Wired Magazine profile of Dr. Regina Dugan, formerly the director of Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and currently an executive at Google (Wired Magazine article available here) led me to a Harvard Business Review article by Dr. Dugan about how DARPA approaches radical innovation projects.
DARPA’s approach to research and innovation is somewhat atypical; quoting the article, “DARPA brings together world-class experts from industry and academia to work on projects of relatively short duration. The projects’ intensity, sharp focus, and finite time frame make them attractive to the highest-caliber talent, and the nature of the challenge inspires unusual levels of collaboration. In other words, the projects get great people to tackle great problems with other great people“.
I worked on one of DARPA cybersecurity-related projects back in 2007-2008. The article brings back memories and puts the outstanding experience I had as part of that project in perspective.
I was a relatively junior contributor back then, still fresh out of an M.Sc. program and not yet on to my Ph.D. program, but oh boy how much I learned! Working on the DARPA project, I:
- Got exposed to the world-class leaders of the field,
- Got a sense of what it takes to foster important but unusual collaborations, and
- Learned what it feels like to work on huge, truly important, problems, solving which has the potential to change the world.
Having this experience early in one’s career is a blessing, but it has a dark side as well: knowing what this work feels like, it is very difficult to be satisfied working on smaller things. I’ve been fortunate to be able to work on grand challenges, such as creating tiny energy harvesting tags that help objects communicate, and building supercomputers that help develop drugs of the future. Tweaking an existing protocol to marginally improve its performance, or creating another sexting app just won’t do – one is always hungry for greater challenges.
The article also describes exactly the type of a professional I aspire to be:
- “Project leaders who can successfully lead DARPA-like efforts possess the skills of the best CEOs of science- or engineering-based start-ups. They need to have deep technical or scientific knowledge, be natural risk takers, and be thought leaders who can create a vision that inspires an entire community.”
Overall, wonderful article. Great perspective on radical technological innovation at a time when the technology R&D ecosystem seems to be largely focused on small and incremental improvements.