I had the privilege of speaking at the Lotos Club in New York City this week about mad science innovation and how DARPA has managed to pull it off successfully for more than half a century.

One of my audience members asked me a great question: how does DARPA select the program managers who make the magic happen?

I was able to ask that very question of DARPA director Arti Prabhakar at the DARPA Robotics Challenge in Miami in December. Here’s what she told me:

“Obviously, our program managers have to come in the door with technical depth and the basis for technical judgement. And by the way, that’s not just about technology. It’s also about technologists because, again, we don’t have labs labs, so our program manager’s aren’t going to go build it themselves. They’re going to be betting on the people in all these different kinds of organizations, and the only thing we know when we embark on a project is that something different is going to happen than what we think at the beginning. That’s the nature of research. It’s the nature of taking risk in order to reach for big impact. So I’m looking for a program manager who’s going to have that kind of technical judgement about both people that do technology and the technology itself.

“That’s number one.

“Number two is I need dynamic range. I need someone who can understand bits and atoms but can also understand what difference it makes and be able to navigate that seamlessly. That’s a very precious commodity, a hard to find capability, but something that I really treasure.

“I’m always looking for people who are driven and passionate, who come in to work every morning to get something big done. You know, that sounds obvious, but there are lots of reasons that people go to work in the morning. I need the ones that are driving for off-scale impact.

“And then, finally, I’m looking for people who are confident without being arrogant, because you have to be confident to get things done. But at the end of the day we need to understand that, really, our job is the public service. We have the great privilege of serving our country by making these investments in new technologies, and appreciating and understanding that that’s our role is also pretty important.”

You can watch the full video (17 minutes) of my conversation with Dr. Prabhakar above or at: http://youtu.be/eczASSkiTPQ.