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What to do When You Don't Want to Own a Startup

14 months ago I would have thought you were crazy if you told me I would be the project manager on a startup project hacking drones for the army.

Today I signed away my interest in exactly that to Loki Labs, a team of security researchers and engineers founded by veterans specializing in national defense.

After joining as a last-minute team member and feeling rather outgunned in the hackathon-experience category, I didn't expect to be a key member of the team moving forward, even after we won. But one-by-one, all of the veteran hackers (or veteran competitors) on our team decided that they did not want to be part of our $15,000 follow-on contract. They had other projects in progress, they had jobs in national defense starting soon, they had degrees to finish. I considered dropping out too. After all, who was I to be on, let alone lead, a project on drone security when I had never even competed in a hackathon before? But as more team members dropped, the pressure not to be another person abandoning the team also intensified. In the end, I decided that I would do my best to contribute what I could, and that's all anyone could ask of me.

Our final team moving forward looked very different from the 10-person competition team we started with. There was:

  • A recently graduated computer science major with a passion for airplanes and ham radio; neither an expert in cybersecurity nor drones, he was still fast to pick up on new ideas and a huge technical asset

  • A joint Master's student in aerospace engineering and foreign policy. How did he get involved? I'm still not sure, but his engineering background an interest in ways that different foreign governments were using drone or counter-drone technology helped us keep our research relevant and poised for rapid adoption

  • A veteran and cybersecurity expert who joined us as a mentor, but found that his passion for the project drew him in as a co-competitor. He was an incredible asset for our team, both in setting and achieving technical goals over the course of our project, and providing his experience in start-ups and government contracts to negotiate the scope of follow on work and the hand-off at the end of the project.

  • And me, a Bachelor's student in electrical engineering with a budding passion for cybersecurity, but a lack of experience in drones or start-ups.

After finally working out all of the details, we finally signed our contracts in January to begin six-months of work for NSIN (formerly MD5), the National Security Innovation Network and the organizer of the original competition.

And somehow at the end of all that, I found myself as the de-facto project leader.

How did this happen? Because I wanted to see results. I believed in the project we were working on, so I pushed for our team to make decisions on the type of contract and the scope of work that we would be doing. I volunteered to be the point of contact with NSIN, and took on budget management and accountability duties. I set timelines and goals for our team, and while we didn't meet all of those goals, we at least had some sense of guidance. I think if I would do it over I could do it better, but it was a great way for me to practice project management in a low-stakes environment. I learned a lot about myself as a leader, and I learned more about how to motivate and include team members. I learned how to break high level goals into smaller assignments that I could delegate to others, and I learned how to take the small accomplishments from my team and piece together our high level achievements.

Through the spring and into the summer, we met regularly, often virtually, to expand the types of exploits we demonstrated at the competition, to improve the user interface, and to build our pitch for why this idea should receive continued funding at the end of our contract period.

We got to test some some interesting parts of our project. In an attempt to show that we could connect to (read: potentially hijack) a drone without a controller, we were invited by Dr. Robin Murphy, a drone expert, to come out during one of her test flights and show what we could do without the knowledge of some of the other participants.

While I harbor no resentment for the team members who chose not to continue with us after the competition, I do think that severely set us back. No one on our team was prepared to take on an independent project of this magnitude, and none of us had the real desire to see it through to end. Personally, I knew that I would be leaving College Station, and did not feel that I would have the time to dedicate to this project. In fact, I think as a team we lacked the time to dedicate to the project even during the contract. We did our best, and produced some interesting results.

As our contract period drew to an end, we didn't feel like we had accomplished all we set out to, and we hadn't used up all of our contract allotment. However, NSIN had our backs throughout the process, and offered us extensions so we could wrap up what we were working on and find a way to ensure the continuation of the project, even if individually we could not see it to the end.

Through our team member with experience in the start-up world, we were connected with a budding cybersecurity firm looking to compete for defense contracts. We negotiated the terms of handing over our project. Our six month project turned in to a nine month project, and it took a few more weeks after that to officially hand it over. And that was it. That was the closest I came to having my own start up. While part of me wishes that I could have taken this project further, I know that it was not the right time for me. I still had a great experience, and the skills I learned are more valuable that the contract payouts could ever be. Maybe next time an opportunity like this comes along I will be more prepared, and maybe it too will turn into something bigger than I could ever imagine.

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