Every year I take a trip to the future.
It is my chance to peer into the living laboratory of a state that continues to attract some of the brightest students and daring entrepreneurs across the globe, who are either building or working for some of the most impactful companies in the history of the humankind.
And yes, it is also a state challenged with calamitous problems – many of their own making- that could well sink the Golden State before the rising sea tides.
I am talking about California: land of sunshine, vast beaches, and apricots. It is the home to Silicon Valley – the most productive region on the planet, a global center for high technology and innovation, generating millions of jobs and trillions in economic value.
Now, before you groan too loudly and disturb the person sitting next to you in the chaise lounge chair on Miami Beach please hear me out.
California is a weird – if not wild – state. Think Dick Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Doors, and Disney. It is a massive, eclectic state; a mix of diverse culture and personalities always on the precipice of the next big – if not seismic – thing. It is a state with brown outs, de-funded police, plans for all-electric cars by 2035 AND where it is darn near impossible to build anything big without a blizzard of conflicting permits and the weight of government trying to squeeze the life out of your project.
It is a golden state with clean air and cars on well-maintained roads that run as quietly and fast as attack submarines. Gas is expensive, well over $5.00 per gallon, and you are billed for your energy consumption based on income.
And yet, people from all over the world continue to come to the state. Why? One answer: California’s amazing Universities. I asked my Uber driver this same question. He is a student from Peru studying at San Jose State who drives a Tesla and he told me he wanted to work at either Google or Apple. The secret sauce he said: California universities.
So yesterday, I visited one such University that is snuggled along the Santa Cruz mountains midway between San Francisco and Palo Alto. The school is enormous – well over 8,000 acres – brimming with incredibly smart students from all over the world. Here, the future is dreamed up and I was given a front row seat to watch the sausage made.
The course is called Hacking for Defense and approximately 35 or so students sat among retired and active-duty military and government types, working on big problems posited by sponsors seeking answers that might well change the way we defend democracy. The program is run by a young former army ranger with a PhD and unlimited gusto.
The students formed into small teams and interviewed active-duty military personnel and others on the front line defending our nation. They are charged with creating products in a short time span that can survive the valley of death, while crossing the chasm (read Geoffrey Moore if you need more background) to create new products which will upend the status quo.
I sat in an auditorium classroom listening to really smart students present complex solutions to even more complex problems facing some of the most accomplished mentors in the world. It was tough, rigorous, and exhilarating. The students took their turns standing before their peers and wise military and civilian operators, along with retired and active-duty commercial executives, to make their pitches. I have briefed military pilots on board aircraft carriers and 4-star generals & admirals, and not felt that much pressure. To sum it up – they were amazing.
Steve Blank the program’s founder and serial entrepreneur, opened and closed the class and exhorted the students to be zealous in seeking answers and obsessive in interviewing customers to better chart their course. He inspired me to want to do my job better and never be satisfied with just good enough. If only every American felt this way.
I left the class thinking that I could have easily been standing in front of students at the University of South Florida or Montana State and been just as impressed. That’s because this generation of young people – Generation Alpha – are curious, smart and driven. They don’t want to sit in a cubicle for 12 hours or be told how to think, but they are just as ready to grab the mantle of power as those generations preceding them to make a real dent in the Universe. This generation is ethical, hard-working and capable of working with people who think differently and are different. And this is what it will take to solve some of the most pressing problems facing our military and society in general.
The challenge is to make sure that as this next generation of college-educated types start new companies, we also give ample opportunities to those who take a different route. Perhaps, like my son, they join the military out of high school, or take on a trade.
America is not curling up into a ball and withering away. This is a good thing, as our adversaries are also not going away. Perhaps though, this next generation will find new ways to defend America and espouse the benefits of Democracy to everyone. Benefits like living in a place where the person who drives the truck or puts produce on the shelves is paid a wage that can support a family and help them manage the stress of modern-day life without going nuts. A place where we can feel pride in our work, our neighborhoods, our community, and our nation.
The students I met yesterday and those I encounter each day that I go to work give me that hope. I glimpsed the future, and it is good.