Upon finishing Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s book Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle I remember being deeply impressed and deeply critical- did I finally understand just what made this country and its people uniquely positioned to dominate the tech industry for the foreseeable future? Or did I just fall for a well-argued piece of propaganda? Seeing as it was the first book you see on every shelf in every bookstore in Ben Gurion I was leaning a bit towards a (very persuasive) piece of propaganda. But what Senor and Singer were saying wasn’t wrong: Israel is uniquely positioned in the tech market, second only to Silicon Valley and Israelis do seem uniquely suited to this kind of work. I buy it too. After living in Tel Aviv for four months I can confidently say at least 90% of the people I met under the age of 35 were working in tech.
How did that story go again? Moses went to Pharaoh and said “Let my people go, that they may work for Intel?” Something like that. Whatever it was– it must’ve worked! Today’s Israelis are clearly gifted from birth with an elevator pitch, seed funding from Aleph, and a team of round-the-clock Indian programmers. Hmm… maybe not. What they do have though, is compulsory military service, some of which (i.e. cyber security) is highly related to the types of lean startup tech jobs these after-army Israelis are getting (and creating!) in the private sector.
Check this out: 8200 Graduates are not like 23 year olds in Texas or Norway
In the article, Nadav Zafrir (Team8 CEO and former 8200 commander Brigadier General) explains, “In general, military service, beyond its necessity for the nation’s security, and I’m not being cynical, makes a significant contribution to the Israeli economy.” True, this makes a lot of sense, and probably also means that even if one day- in a highly hypothetical future- there were deemed to be no more existential threat to the state of Israel, service would likely continue to be compulsory in some capacity. Even today, does every kid in Israel really need to be drafted into the army? Need is a strong word, but if you look at it in part as a training program for civilian life and the private sector, it likely does help Israel’s economy continue to run smoothly. Later, Zafrir continues, “If anything is very lacking it the cyber security industry, it’s very talented and experienced people. In Israel, thanks to Unit 8200, there is a wellspring of talents joining the industry at a very young age.”
Not everyone, of course is 8200 material. But surely there are undiscovered entrepreneurs with the next billion dollar idea out there who happen to live somewhere where rather than being drafted to the military at 18 they go to college and take modern dance credits and The Philosophical Origins of Seinfeld. Ok, so not exactly a sob story (and no offense to Seinfeld, sounds like a great class), but it begs the question- how can other countries in literally any other geopolitical situation create an innovation hub and technical talent pool that mirrors Israel’s? As my Ulpan teacher would say, we can’t know. I’ll think about it and get back to you, but maybe it’s time we Americans rethink the way we fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars for undergraduate education that often has little to do with what we end up doing. But hey, at least it’s fun.