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Tony Tether On Technology Leadership and Lessons Learned From DARPA

Dr. Tony Tether was the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, from 2001 till his retirement in 2009.

DARPA is widely known for being the principle agency in DoD for research and development. DARPA is charged with investing in projects that aim for high-payoff. They fund innovative ideas, develop solutions, provide demonstrations of concepts and systems and take any other prudent action required to move the right ideas from concept to reality.

In this OODAcast we examine some of Dr. Tether’s formative experiences, including a very unique job he held while awaiting entry to Stanford. He was a door to door salesman and while doing that learned the importance of quickly assessing challenges that were not being addressed and then forming an ability to express what needs to be done and how to do it quickly. As we hear in the discussion, this type of approach, very consistent with the famous “Heilmeier Catechism”, ended up producing a wide range of DARPA breakthroughs, including one that is now in every cell phone in the globe (next time you use your cell phone’s mapping and location services, remember to thank the Fuller Brush company!).

Dr. Tether also walks us through a brief history of DARPA and dives deeper into the questions Heilmeier is so famous for articulating as a requirement before funding advanced capabilities:

  • What is the problem you want to solve? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares? If you’re successful, what difference will it make?(transition)
  • What are the risks and the payoffs?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the midterm and final “exams” (go/no go criteria)to check for success?

Other topics we discussed with Dr. Tether include:

  • Recent proposals to double the funding of DARPA and why that may be a bad idea
  • Concepts around cybersecurity and mitigating risks to enterprises and the nation of intellectual property theft
  • Leadership in an age of converging technology

Slides Dr. Tether Reviewed in this OODAcast are at this link: Dr. Tether Presentation

Podcast Version:


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Bob Gourley is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of OODA LLC, the technology research and advisory firm with a focus on artificial intelligence and cybersecurity which publishes OODALoop.com. Bob is the co-host of the popular podcast The OODAcast. Bob has been an advisor to dozens of successful high tech startups and has conducted enterprise cybersecurity assessments for businesses in multiple sectors of the economy. He was a career Naval Intelligence Officer and is the former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Find Bob on Defcon.Social