If you frequently follow Israeli tech news, you have come to notice a pattern: Many of the startup nations' CTOs, CEOs, and other founders and c-level executives started their tech careers in the IDF’s intelligence unit 8200. Though Unit 8200 is dubbed “ the foremost technical intelligence agency in the world”, there are plenty, and we mean plenty, of other units that the startup nation stars served in. We sat down with a few to learn more about their IDF journey, and how, though not in 8200, it had a pivotal impact on their careers as tech entrepreneurs.
Jeremy Suard, Co-Founder and CEO at Exodigo
Suard served in Unit 81, a secret technology unit part of the Special Operations Division of the Military Intelligence Directorate, that focuses on building and supplying cutting-edge technologies to Israeli combat soldiers and spies. His army career lasted 8 years, and at the time of his release, he held the rank of Major. “I describe the unit as basically Q from James Bond, but with over 2000 engineers from all disciplines,” Suard told us. “The unit was actually kept secret until two years ago when it became known to the public as one of the biggest start-up hubs in Israel.” When we asked how Unit 81 shaped his path, he attested it to the atmosphere of the unit: “The culture in Unit 81 is extremely ‘entrepreneur minded’. Unlike the other units, we didn’t wear uniforms; there were leadership positions available that weren't always depended on higher rankings. You can have a twenty-year-old kid serving as a Project Manager for a specific mission who has 100 engineers working for him for a few months.” Suard went on in saying that it wasn't just the environment of the unit that equipped him with his entrepreneurial skills, but the work itself: “The missions we faced were on the edge of the impossible; the technology required for them was almost on the verge of science fiction. That, coupled with the short timelines we had to accomplish them, made for a recipe for quick yet in-depth learning. It teaches you everything you would need to know to be a founder of a successful startup. The ‘mission impossible’ attitude from my unit came with me as I transitioned into a founder and CEO– always trying to do the impossible.” Suard concluded that the army in general– not just specific units like 81–is an environment that pushed its soldiers to come together and overcome challenges. He said at Exodigo, they have a similar culture, in that they hire the very best, and push them to achieve the impossible.
Ofir Har-Chen, Chief Operating Officer at Hunters
Since he was a little boy, Har-Chen had always dreamt of being a pilot in the Israeli Air Force since his father was in the air force for many years. And so, throughout his childhood, he was very immersed in the aviation world. Unfortunately, it seemed that being a pilot wouldn't be in his cards as he had to drop out of the aviation course a few months after it started. From there, he went on to draft into the UAV unit (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). In that unit, his days were mostly spent taking part in operations and managing the war room. Such a service allowed him to cultivate skills that were instrumental to my career. In a conversation with us, he mentioned that one such skill was diligence: “Diligence and attention to detail were obviously crucial to our operations, since making even one single mistake could have led to catastrophic failures.” Another skill which he took from his army service was execution and identifying key problems: “Learning to identify and focus on the most important aspects of operations in order to get the job done, and then, being able to execute what needs to be done to do so, were very important in my army service and obviously, diligence, attention to detail, focus, and execution are core skills needed to move myself and my company forward. I use these skills every day to push myself and those around me.”
Ofir Shabtai, CTO & Co-Founder of Shield
At Shield, both co-founders are examples of entrepreneurs who took a different route from the classic Unit 8200 one. Ofir Shabtai explained that he and his fellow co-founder, Shiran Weitzman, both grew up in Beit She’an (a town just south of Tiberius on the Jordanian border), and both went to Military School as teenagers. Shabtai explained that though he was always interested in programming, which back then they used to simply say ‘computers’, he felt that going into a tech unit wasn't the right move for him. And so, he joined Golani, one of the IDF’s infantry brigades, in their Commando unit.
“I believe that such a move, though not focused on tech, contributed to my ability to become a better developer in my early career.” What stuck with Shabtai from his army experience was the thick skin it built him, becoming tougher, overcoming challenges, and building his mental strength. “Most people assume developers just need to be smart, but in actuality, we need to remember that it is a tough and challenging role. There are hard deadlines, much criticism, and can sometimes even be repetitive, so one must be mentally strong to succeed in such an environment.” Shabtai explains that he believed that the first years of his career were shaped by who he was when he finished his army service: “The characteristics I acquired during my period in the army were extremely helpful to me when I started my first startup before starting Shield. And of course, they proved invaluable when we embarked on the difficult task of bootstrapping at Shield.” Shabtai emphasizes the difficulty of bootstrapping in particular: “Bootstrapping is not the normal route that startups take. Call it luck, call it talent, call it stupidity but we took that route and grew organically (without external investment) to over 30 people and millions of dollars in ARR. I equate bootstrapping is like basic training Bootcamp, only we did that for over 3 years [instead of a few months like in the army]! It is a constant uphill battle, but one that I had experienced during the army. And it is the values I got there, that were the most influential contributors to my success with Shield.
Moti Gorin, V&P of R&D at Lili
Gorin served in the Giva'ati infantry brigade under their anti-tank unit, known as Orev Giva'ati, and it was there that he learned the skills that made his professional career such a success.
He explained that serving in a combat unit presented soldiers with a number of challenges, and Gorin find them to be very similar to those encountered in the R&D world. Especially when you are a team lead, manager, or like in his case, VP. “Some examples of similar challenges I faced then–during my survival– and now– as VP of R&D– is the ability to make decisions in real-time in an uncertain and stressful work environment. Such a skill leads to a lot of creative solutions.” As Gorin went on to become a commander in the unit, his leadership skills learned there also had a large influence on his career. “Leading combat soldiers built my behavioural resilience and developed my managerial skills. This includes leading by example, keeping open lines of communication 24/7, sharing constructive feedback, and encouraging them to reach their full potential. It requires detailed planning, understanding, and meeting goals and working together– all of which are aspects that are very present in my day-to-day as a VP of R&D.” Gorin emphasizes that the biggest thing he has learned, both in his military and high-tech career is that teamwork makes the dream work. “My experience both in a special combat unit and a startup company has taught me that teamwork is crucial for a positive development culture. We all work together, we are all honest, we rely on each other, and we will do whatever it takes to get things done. All with a huge smile on our faces.”
Luiza Katsiashvili, Computer Vision Data Scientist at vHive
Katsiashvili took even more of a different path than most. She actually completed her studies, as a reserve student, before drafting into her service. This means that her university education was geared towards where she would be serving and as what. Katsiashvili studied applied mathematics at Bar Ilan University and then served in the Technology and Maintenance Corps at the army’s headquarters for five years. She specified in Industry and Management and the Performance Research Division. “As part of my role, I built simulation models for different weapons for diverse combat scenarios,” she explained. She would then have to analyze the results and make conclusions and insights that would impact the future of IDF fighting. She also taught a programming course on how to build simulations and flow processes. Katsiashvili explained, “The Intelligence units have a lot of diverse high-tech roles, and they have the infrastructure to prepare soldiers for their release and promote them in the technological fields. In the world I come from, I was the only mathematician in my unit who knew how to program. The rest of the units have more specific roles, but you need to work toward them.” She explains that even so, most military units are not built to serve as a technological springboard into the high-tech world, but there are many positions in the IDF that give the opportunity to develop technologically and apply advanced programming methods. “Of course, all this is based on the desire of the soldiers to acquire new capabilities and their commanders to promote their development in the field.” Skills like seeing the bigger picture, working in a dynamic environment with many unknown variables, learning to understand the ultimate goal, being able to analyze processing and draw conclusions from large amounts of data, and of course, working under pressure are all things she took with her from her army service when she transitioned into high tech.
So, next time you pass someone off because they didn't serve in Unit 8200, think again. You never know what their military experience might have taught them–technical or not.