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Three days, 50,000 square feet, 250 engineers, military officials, entrepreneurs, and designers...and one place—Austin’s startup incubator, Capital Factory.
A team huddles together in a conference room with open laptops and portable whiteboards to start brainstorming ideas. The challenge? Hack into a U.S. Navy ship.
“'Cool problems’ is a term I heard a lot,” says Booz Allen's Alison Jarris, one of the hackathon organizers. “I think younger technologists weren’t really aware of the challenges facing the Navy, like making software for its fleets more secure. That increased awareness is now making them think about potential careers in Navy—sans the uniform.”
HackTheMachine, a joint project executed by Booz Allen and the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Cyber Warfare, put hackers to the test in February 2017. They were challenged to penetrate the security systems of U.S. Navy warships, to eventually create products that would improve cybersecurity measures on naval vessels.
This exercise put our embrace of collective ingenuity to the test.
“A single Navy operator controls multiple ships and if the system that controls the fleet were to be hacked, an array of damaging consequences could follow. That’s a very real problem for the Navy, and they needed to bring together talent from military and the technology community to help find solutions,” Alison says.
By the end of the event, hackers identified vulnerabilities in the custom-built boat-in-a-box simulator that criminals could potentially exploit.
So, what exactly is a hackathon?
A mashup of “hack” and “marathon,” these events evoke a certain scene in our imaginations: college students huddled around laptops in dorm basements, spending days and nights coding and building new software.
Though not completely off base, “hackathon” is more broadly defined today. Technologists use the term to describe a number of different types of gatherings that vary in scope, size, and execution. But, for the most part they all contain an assortment of cross-discipline teams, a shared challenge, and an element of competition. Typically, that’s a cash prize, or a mechanism to scale prototypes.
“We fully embrace our client’s missions. That means making client support as inclusive and collaborative as possible. We've made hackathons a key part of how we maintain that ideal.”
- Brian MacCarthy, head of Booz Allen's San Francisco Strategic Innovation Hub
What they do well is bring together professionals across skill sets to solve major problems. Think social problems like poverty and homelessness or even health obstacles such as electronic health records and policy for medical providers. And they aren’t solely the domain of hard-core techies.
“I assumed you had to be a developer or coder to participate,” says IT Strategist Anastasiya Olds, talking about her first hackathon. “It was a collaboration between Booz Allen and the Holocaust Museum. I have a very functional systems delivery background but was able to contribute right away.”
Booz Allen has been taking advantage of this model to allow employees a new avenue to showcase their skills while creating solutions for some weighty issues. Through the years, we’ve crossed private-public sector lines to collaborate on numerous other issues:
What we’re doing with hackathons is embedding partnerships into problem-solving. With every one, the world gets a little smaller, and more people come together.
"We fully embrace our client’s missions. That means making client support as inclusive and collaborative as possible," says Brian MacCarthy, head of Booz Allen’s San Francisco Strategic Innovation Hub. "We've made hackathons a key part of how we maintain that ideal."
Back in Austin, 250 HackTheMachine participants take off their villain caps after an epic, 72-hour electronic assault on Booz Allen’s Boat-In-ABox, a fully functional model of the networked systems that equip today’s connected maritime vessels.
Their 3 days of simulated evil-doing was exhausting but satisfying. It bore substantial fruit: 10 winning solutions that could potentially improve safety and efficiency of maritime cybersecurity, use data science to create safer oceans, and harness next generation design for position, navigation, and timing alternatives.
The U.S. Navy’s biggest win of the week end, however, did not come from the HackTheMachine participants. It was the number of participants. A huge shortage in the current cyber workforce means that creatively engaging such a large number of tech industry and academic talents was a major win.
Is it possible to engage America’s young, innovative, willing-to-take-a-risk entrepreneurs in the mission of solving the government and military’s most difficult challenges?”
With HackTheMachine and other hackathons, Booz Allen has answered that question for the U.S. Navy and other clients looking to tap the tech community’s vital pool of talent.