Former combat soldiers fight tech's human capital shortage
Cyber4s, a new program that helps turn former IDF fighters into much-needed tech workforce, concludes its second cohort with five women among the graduates
When an Israeli combat soldier finishes his or her mandatory service, they often find themselves working in the restaurant, hospitality, or agriculture industries, among others. Usually, they are working an entry-level position that does not require a degree or unique skills, saving money to go traveling, enroll for university, or pursue another young person's goal. However, a new program threatens to change this traditional trajectory, hoping to set the 20 something-year-olds on a course leading into the Israeli tech ecosystem.
A recent report from the Israel Innovation Authority and Start-Up Nation Central revealed that there are 13,000 tech job openings in Israel and that over 60% of Israeli tech startups are reporting difficulty in recruiting employees for their R&D departments. Scale-Up Velocity, a not-for-profit organization, was launched by Start-Up Nation Central to develop impactful initiatives and solutions for the high-tech industry’s human capital shortage. It already operates several successful programs targeting less represented groups in tech such as Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab men and women. However, by mid July, its newest program, Cyber4s will conclude its second edition of 40 graduates, all former IDF combat soldiers.
“I never thought that in six months I’ll be able to go over so much material. Programming languages, databasing, a lot of things that include everything, both the server and client sides,” said Noa Vered Shalom (22), a former soldier in the Air Defence Corps, and one of the first five women to attend Cyber4s. “It was intense, sitting every day and even during the weekend to go over everything, doing homework and projects, writing code nonstop.” The program is not the first time the former Patriot battery fighter showed interest in tech. She learned computer science in high school and “even as a little girl I knew I wanted to work with computers when I grew up. I did not know what but I knew that is the field for me.”
“For me, our biggest success so far, and it might not seem phenomenal to some, but it is incredible that we grew from zero to five women participants,” said Maty Zwaig, Scale-Up Velocity CEO. Zwaig perhaps understands best the challenges of women trying to move from the military to a tech environment, she is a former Lieutenant Colonel in the intelligence corps and a former VP of Digital and Technologies at Ness. “I think it is indicative of how challenging it is to preserve women in the industry, but I am sure that in the next class we will have even more.”
On her part, Vered Shalom said the staff fully supported her and the other girls in the program, and that she did not feel discriminated against or looked down on by anyone. She is, however, already planning what she will do with her newfound skills. “Getting into the industry, becoming a developer, could be front-end could be back-end although I prefer front-end. Getting a computer science degree is not urgent but I see myself doing it in the future. And hopefully, keep growing in this industry and not staying at the same place.”
Covid’s silver lining
The scarceness of talent in the Israeli tech industry is not new. For years local startups and international companies have been complaining about it, about the market and the entitlement some workers show when considering a workplace. However, the industry also often resisted hiring potential employees who did not go through the traditional route, meaning serving in an elite intelligence unit or earning a computer science degree from a top university.
“For years, it was clear to me that there are so many people who can easily enter a high-tech career track if we grab them at the right point, after their service or after their big trip when they are figuring things out,” Zwaig said. “The military is a body that holds information on most of the population, and in fact, thousands of people suited for the high tech industry complete their service, but often, and we know this from speaking with the military, are offered training that is not helpful to their post-military life, or they just feel lost and not sure what they want to do. They think they have nothing to offer to the tech world.”
The program offers a six-month fullstack-cyber boot camp created by Scale-Up Velocity, Israel National Cyber Directorate, the IDF Profession for Life Directorate as part of a broader “Combatants for High-Tech (Lochamim l’High-Tech), and with input from the leading companies about their needs and wants. The program already won the IDF’s Chief of Staff Award for Ingenuity and its graduates man positions in top companies.
Just like the rest of the industry and the rest of the world, Cyber4s had to adapt to the new reality inflicted by the coronavirus. But while it created major obstacles like having the classes online, it also kept its target audience grounded. “Covid actually created a unique opportunity for us because soldiers who just got out of the military were stuck here since they could not fly anywhere, most of them have not signed up for academic studies yet, there were no jobs in security or restaurants, so with the military, we quickly launched the program,” Zwaig said.
“You get to do really cool things”
Former paratrooper Ofir Danan (23) did manage to get away before Covid hit, spending three months in South America, however unlike Vered Shoham he did not think of a career in tech before signing up for the program. ”I did a complete 180 with my life because of this course. I was thinking about continuing to bartend, save some money, study economics or industrial engineering and see what happens.” But like his cohort, he was also astonished at the personal progress he made. “You learn something completely new to you, that if six, seven months ago you would have come up to me and said ‘Ofir you are going to understand these terms, write in these programming languages and understand code,’ I would probably not have believed you.”
“I prefer the front end, I enjoy working on it, it is more visual and you can better experience the things you create from scratch,” Danan explained about what he enjoys most in the course and emphasized the real-world experience he gained. “We had different projects, including with external companies like IBM, Orbs, or others, and they accompanied us while we worked on their real-world projects and technology. You get to experience things that are more than just the front-end which I liked, you get to know the back-end, you learn about cybersecurity and you get to do really cool things.”
Danan spent much of his service on the Israel-Gaza border commanding over a sniper platoon during the tense period of protests along the fence following the move of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in the summer of 2018. He said that being part of a group of battle-tested soldiers, even after they finished their service, helped during the course. “Wherever in the world, you put a group of former infantry soldiers together and they will probably get along. There is a certain vibe and understanding of our shared experiences that help us better understand each other. No matter what, there is a kind of a connection.“
“Bottom line, it is all about who you are as a person”
“I have 30 years of experience in intelligence and I saw all kinds of people I can tell you that those guys that were commanders and are battle-tested will become the most influential managers in the organization in a few years,” said Boaz Gorodissky, the CTO and co-founder of XM Cyber, a risk-based vulnerability management company, which developed a platform that enables companies to respond to risks on their systems.
XM Cyber is one of the companies already benefiting from the course, after hiring three Cyber4s alumni. “Bottom line, it is all about who you are as a person, and quality people can learn new skills,” Gorodissky said. “So if you have the patience you can build yourself a high-level workforce, and our experience with those guys from the program is very positive. The program gave them the right basic tools.”
Gorodissky, an intelligence veteran, had previous encounters with Scale-Up Velocity’s work. His company already took in a few Ultra-Orthodox women who were trained by it, and his satisfaction from his newest recruits was clear. “I placed each of the three guys in a different workgroup, two of those groups had work they were familiar with from the course so they were able to fit in,” he said. “However one of them joined a group that was completely different from what he learned in the course and he had to adapt. But the course also gave them tools for independent studying and they have a will to succeed, self-discipline and they come to put in the work.”