Why and how does DARPA work?

Program Managers

At the end of the day the ARPA Model depends on badass program managers. Why is this the case? PMs need to think for themselves and go up and down the ladder of abstraction in an unstructured environment. On top of that they need to be effective communicators and coordinators because so much of their jobs is building networks. There’s a pattern that the abstract qualities that make “great talent” in different high-variance industries boils down to the ability to successfully make things happen under a lot of uncertainty. Given that pattern, the people who would make good DARPA PMs would also make good hedge fund analysts, first employees at startups, etc. so digging into people’s motivations for becoming a PM is important. More precise details about what makes a PM good prevent you from going after the exact same people as every other high-variance industry. When ‘talent’ isn’t code for ‘specialized training’ it means the role or industry has not been systematized. Therefore, despite all the talk here and elsewhere about ‘the ARPA Model’ we must keep in mind that we may be attributing more structure to the process than actually exists.

DARPA program managers pull control and risk away from both researchers and directors. PMs pull control away from directors by having only one official checkpoint before launching programs and pull control away from performers through their ability to move money around quickly. PMs design programs to be high-risk aggregations of lower-risk projects. Only 5–10 out of every 100 programs successfully produce transformative research, while only 10% of projects are terminated early. Shifting the risk from the performers to the program managers enables DARPA to tackle systemic problems where other models cannot.

That is one excerpt from a new and excellent essay by Benjamin Reinhardt, one of the best pieces of this year, via Patrick Collison.

Note also that DARPA underpays staff, does not hire individuals with a significant web presence, deliberately stays small, and makes it easy to reallocate funds on the fly.  The program managers do not work there for any longer than four or five years, by design.


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