Beki Grinter

A New DARPA

In academia, academic management, computer science, research, social media on March 28, 2010 at 3:00 pm

The new DARPA director Regina Dugan recently testified before the House Armed Services Committee. Her remarks are here. One of the exciting things for the academic community is her commitment to changing the modus-operandi at DARPA. The report speaks to her solicitation process to get feedback from Universities about the challenges doing research for DARPA.

She said many interesting things, and people are excited about her vision of DARPA.

Not only is it true that to innovate, we must make. It is also true that to protect, we must produce.

We asked ourselves the following question: What is the fundamental technical challenge in making new things? And we concluded: It is in the seams. The seams between each ‘stage’ of development… design, prototyping, early production runs, limited and large-scale manufacturing. Seams between stages require extensive rework and are the source of production delays, surprises and cost overruns.

I was struck by how well this reads for Software Engineering. Many years ago, I wrote a paper with a colleague, James D. Herbsleb about how any way you chose to organize software development projects there were always going to be seams. The ones she’s picked here most map to our product structure discussion. But any way you slice the problem, the seams are always the place to look. It’s in the seams between different organizational groups that you can conveniently hide the more problematic of metrics (and hey if you design a metrics program that lays people off as a result, then from there on out you have got people who want to hide problematic metrics… we wrote about that too). Perhaps it’s harder in software development because not only are there the seams but the nature of what is being built has this wonderful ephemeral quality.

One of the things I learnt from Lucent was that if a piece of software is large enough then it’s very hard to describe. For example, the 5ESS toll switch’s software was impossible to express in a single architectural diagram, so it was expressed in multiple ones. Seams then between the architectures themselves.

And then there’s this

Which brings me to my last point: Because this type of massive innovation – in essence the democratization of innovation – has both risks and opportunity.

We often talk about globalization as a world without boundaries. But if you speak with a sociologist for even a few minutes, they will tell you that as long as humans are involved, there are boundaries. There are boundaries between men and women, between people in and out of uniform, between socio-economic classes, religions… What is different in a globalized world is that those boundaries, or edges, no longer conform to geographic lines on a map. Our ability to define these edges, from a technological and a policy perspective, has not yet evolved. Nowhere is this felt more acutely as a threat than in the cyber world. Nowhere is this felt more acutely as an opportunity than in the global mindshare of democratized, crowd-sourced innovation.

This nails some of my concerns with Tom Friedman’s idea of a flat world (some of my other concerns with Tom Friedman focus on his writing style, I’m not alone, and  the sample of people he tends to interview, those involved in strategy rather than those involved in tactics). It’s all very flat until you put humans in the picture. And I think the boundaries and seams are related… well put it this way, boundaries like these can certainly contribute to the creation of complex seams. We wrote about that too…

And

Social networks are powerful. They are poised to transform our society. There are many examples of emergent, coordinated behavior in social networks, as in the contributions to Wikipedia or Trapster or North Korea Uncovered, as well as social networks used as tools to organize large groups of people with common interests, as in the 2008 US presidential campaigns and in the protests following the 2009 Iranian presidential election.

I agree… (and I’ve written about that too… sorry that’s getting a little tiring, but I actually only write about things I find really interesting or important). This report highlights some more ways that social networks are powerful. My favourite example here is North Korea Uncovered, which is a mashup where people identify locations of interest in North Korea. Is a country that has long been secretive is having those secrets revealed by social networks? And I’ll add, what’s the relationship between this type of open detective work and the professional practice of spymanship?

And finally

Forty years ago, the Internet was but a dream. We wondered… what’s possible? Today, the Internet is commerce… it is a communal mind… the Internet is both vulgar and sublime. It has become a reflection of us, the human race…a vast, networked mirror that shows what we are and what we will become.

I love the idea that the Internet is both vulgar and sublime. And perhaps I will write about that one day…

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  1. Wow. This woman sounds pretty awesome. It’s unclear to me that innovation is being democratized (that is a loaded and idealistic word) but what we *recognize* as innovative practice is being redistributed and is taking different shapes.

  2. I think it’s a “tip of the iceberg” sort of democratization (so not really completely democratic). And she mentions that it’s both an opportunity and well she doesn’t say threat (yay, bit worn out with the whole threat culture). But, from DARPA’s perspective you can imagine both sides. That’s why I highlighted North Korea Uncovered because that’s really easy to imagine both ways…

    I am more curious about DARPA than I’ve been in, well, the entire time I’ve been aware of their existence.

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