DARPA Program managers have a tenure of four to five years

Program manager turnover means that there is also turnover in ideas. The transient nature of most people at DARPA enables ideas to be revisited.

Explicitly temporary tours of duty may also be an answer to Why do people become DARPA Program managers? If you have many options in life, it’s more palatable to go into a position that is explicitly designed around the expectation that you can have maximum impact in a few years and then go do something else.

The transient nature of program managers also makes them more immune to most of the effects of People giving out grants try to derisk them as much as possible because there’s only one clear objective - make the program work. They are still subject to giving the grant to people they trust but my hunch is that the trust and exposure are more solvable problem than wanting to be able to show that their money was ‘well spent’.

Abstractly, the explicitly temporary nature of program managers allows DARPA to maintain alignment with program managers because Alignment between people playing different games can happen on finite time scales. Unlike many organizations there’s no implicit tension between the knowledge that most people will leave eventually and the uncertainty about when.

People and organizations are all playing some game that has different ways of gaining status and power. Maybe there’s something about the transient nature that doesn’t allow them to play long-term games or figure out how to game them. There’s something to the fact that the program managers are not just transient, but they are transiently changing games. An academic who becomes a program manager isn’t going to worry about publishing papers. A military officer who becomes a program manager isn’t going to worry about impressing their direct superiors. Playing a completely different game enables them to focus on the job at hand.

The transient nature of program managers was only codified in the 90’s because program managers were sticking around for much longer than five years. This codification suggests that the transient nature of program managers is more than just a historical artifact.

Speculatively, there’s something about a culture that knows people have an explicitly short tenure that might actually maintain quality. You see this in lab groups, (possibly military units?), and fraternities that maintain the same culture for decades. Intergenerational culture is like a standing wave.

ARPA-E and IARPA program managers also have explicitly temporary positions.

::New:: Program manager tenures are often shorter than the length of successful programs. New program managers often take over a program from a departing program manager in addition to creating their own program. The most famous of these lineages may be J.C.R. Licklider -> Ivan Sutherland -> Robert Taylor. Common multigenerational programs (The Management of Innovation) may also help enforce quality and culture transmission. People want to make sure that their baby, the program they poured blood sweat and tears into for the past five years, is left in good hands. The continued success of the program you started depends on both the quality of the person you help hire to continue it and embedding them in the culture that


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