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Why I joined Vannevar Labs || Jonathan Deng

See original post on Medium


This spring, while working at Google, I went to a talk by Jonny Kim. Jonny is a Navy SEAL, Harvard Medical School graduate and astronaut.

One thing that Jonny said changed my life:

Whatever you do, you have to be doing it for the right reasons. You have to be all in, otherwise you’re just lying to yourself.

There was very little to complain about with my job at Google. To me it represented a goal I had since I started in tech: to work with the smartest people, on software products that touch the most people, with the best engineering tools available.

Frankly though, I was missing a sense of purpose and my journey to find that sense of purpose in my work led me to Vannevar Labs. I like to start every new job with a clear mission, and this is my attempt to lay out my reasons for joining.

Why work in defense?

In Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism, Maria Mazzucato argues that not all societal benefits can be provided solely as the result of market capitalism. Instead, government should pursue policies that align value creation with the fulfillment of public good.¹ Essentially, government should take bold bets on efforts for the good of society and align both public and private actors with those goals. Capitalism should be a tool to create a better future instead of creating more stuff for us to pay money for.

One public good that has been greatly challenged recently is our society’s ability to respond effectively to crises.

National defense is our ability to respond to crises that result of foreign affairs. I believe that as the United States begins to recede as the sole superpower on the world stage, the post-WWII rules-based order that we are used to will be heavily challenged. How can we defend ourselves when we are no longer dominant?

I believe that the actions we take today will determine whether the shift to a multipolar world occurs with competition or conflict.² I want to work on the building blocks to ensure this transition occurs peacefully, and I think this requires that the defense industry build not just better fighters or tanks (a tactical advantage), but technology that ensures we can understand our rivals and preserve our ability to act (a strategic advantage).³

Why work in defense software?

When I was in the U.S. Army, we always worked in two paradigms:

When we deployed to combat, we concentrated on counter-terrorism and nation-building. This assumed that we’d have the ability to deploy overwhelming amounts of force against an inferior foe while operating from safe havens in massive forward operating bases with support from the host country.

When we trained back at home, we focused on scenarios involving facing a near-peer rival in a conventional land war in Europe. The assumed that we would face an opponent using similar military hardware and doctrine to us.

Both of these scenarios seem anachronistic to me as I think about how the future of great power competition will play out, with more of a focus on deterrence, strategy, and operating in the cyber and information domains.

As Christian Brose puts it in The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare, future advantage will come from being able to understand what is going on and acting on it at scale. This is something the U.S. military already does in its operations, but in the future the situations faced by the military will be so complex and numerous that many of them will have to be handled by software. My goal is to build software that creates a more complete understanding of the strategic situation, with all of its nuances, and takes actions that are in line with our society’s values.

Why work at Vannevar Labs?

With such a big problem, I wanted to join a team that was working on a meaningful portion of the problem and had some traction in solving it, while still having a lot of opportunities to build.

Vannevar builds defense software for the world that we find ourselves in today. Instead of building incremental improvements on existing platforms, Vannevar works directly with military operators to determine their software needs and build solutions that allow give them the understanding to prevent and deter conflict in the future.⁴ I think there is a very large available problem space that involves customizing recent breakthroughs in technology (Deep Learning, NLP models, CV) into products that solve the problems of defense users. I am very excited to have the honor to help.

[1] Both Mazzucato and Marc Andreessen (It’s Time to Build) argue that we should expect more from society and government to generate the will to build things that improve society, instead of things that are merely profitable.

[2] I base a lot of my thinking around this on the concept of Thucydides’ Trap, developed by Professor Graham T. Allison at Harvard.

[3] In his interviews prior to investing in Anduril, Elad Gil details how the consolidation of the defense industry into 5 “primes” has taken away our country’s ability to respond to novel threats in creative ways. This Fast Company article was my primer on how Silicon Valley and the DoD could work together better.

[4] Obligatory Sun Tzu quote: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”


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