Run, Shoot and Code II
In the first installment of my previous post Run, Shoot and Code I outlined how the experiences and skill sets learned through the harsh reality of combat training were transferable to startup success. I used examples of graduates from the IDF’s combat units (in particular the infantry) and highlighted how risk assessment, leadership under fire, and pivoting in the field are all learned aptitudes which could propel future entrepreneurs’ endeavors upon their discharge from the military. In this post I will highlight some of the potential challenges (and objections) to this line of thinking as well as what I believe the IDF can do to help cultivate further tech leadership outside the intelligence community.
Lack of (coding) experience
I’d like to address the first concern which programmers and other graduates of units such as 8200 would point out: they would dismiss the lack of coding (technical) experience of those who serve in combat units. What would a Golanchick possibly know about launching a successful startup? True, a young private (ha’pash) enters an intelligence unit and gathers experience over the years by the work he or she does (intelligence gathering, pattern recognition) that by the time they complete their service they have accumulated some five plus odd years of practical training. Many young soldiers in intelligence sign on and extend their mandatory service (two years for women, three years for men). Your average combat unit soldier finishes his mandatory three years and leaves the service, unless they extend their time to enroll in officer school.
I’m going to make a bold statement (which might elicit some negative feedback) but I don’t necessary believe you need a strong technical background (and years hunched over a keyboard coding) to launch and run a successful tech company, Yes, a smart founder would be wise to bring people on board who have a strong technical background to complete their knowledge, but a lot of success in launching and growing successful companies is managing people; a skill set which is best learned in the field. The aptitudes and skill sets previously mentioned could potentially be more important in determining a founder’s success in their ability to build a team, raise capital, understand the market, and ultimately execute. These (learned and earned) skills can all trump someone’s raw ability to understand technology.
Lack of feeder system (the intelligence units have created)
It is hard to launch an endeavor without a network, and the graduates of some of the top intelligence units have developed a feeder system (similar to the Ivy Leagues here in the States) in which soldiers discharged from their service are recruited to top tech companies or rocket ship growth startups (usually by former commanders or comrades they served with). 8200 in particular has developed a strong alumni network both in Israel and the United States (the fact it is the largest unit in the IDF helps the network’s size tremendously). On top of the robust engaged alumni community that exists there are plenty of opportunities for access to capital and mentorship such as Team8; (an accelerator/fund connected to 8200 focused on cybersecurity) and the 8200 Social Program (focused on social enterprise).
I would make the argument that having a cushy network limits the opportunities for innovation, ideation, and creation. Entrepreneurs learn the hard way, (learned many times in a combat unit), and need to create a network around their idea in order to succeed. In addition, developing a network opens an entrepreneur to meeting new people and being exposed to new ideas. As Israeli based Systematic Inventive Thinking (SIT) reveals, the idea of “subtraction” or limitation is what drives innovation. Creating a network utilizes the life experience combat soldiers develop while in the field; solving problems with limited resources.
Lack of exposure to modern technology
Soldiers who serve in highly specialized intelligence units and have access to the most cutting-edge technology have to learn very quickly how to use this sophisticated technology. Basic soldiers are tasked with immense responsibility (at a young age) which accelerates their learning process. They quickly adapt and learn how to master this technology because they have no other choice given the weight of these responsibilities. As commanders in the IDF like to remind young soldiers “every rule is written in blood”.
I would be the first to propose that the exposure combat units have to (more basic) technology under combat stresses is the best of both worlds and incubates a “diamond from the coal” mindset. This acceleration process proves most effective under the most extreme of circumstances. Yes, the technology in the following examples is not as cutting edge as what the intelligence units are using, but the practical experiences and lessons learned the user absorbs are far superior to that of one sitting at a desk in an office in the middle of Israel:
-The life of your average soldier in the armor is one of backaches, no glory, and callused hands but one that supports the infantry (and is responsible for the most enemy kills). Israel’s armored divisions are some of the world’s finest; and the operators in the tanks have to understand how to navigate these multi-ton machines. The leadership and hands-on technical skills learned by operating sophisticated armor in rapidly changing field environments (with limited mobility and visibility) are easily transferable to the startup world.
-I was tempted to lump Israel’s small but effective Navy with its Air Force because they are very different from the “green” army and both branches think alike. (I’m going to write a separate piece about the Israeli Air Force in an upcoming Medium post.) The Israeli Navy began its humble roots from the inception of the country, it’s glory being eclipsed by the infantry and Air Force’s victories in Israel’s many wars. The Israeli Navy, similar to many other navies across the world demands a high level of technical expertise. The rough-and-tumble life of a sailor has not changed much in over a millennia; what has changed is the rapid integration of technology as well as the threats Israel is facing which are met by vessels such Israel’s ultra fast Sa’ar 6-class corvette.
-Finally, while much of the principles of infantry fighting has not changed since WWI, the foot soldier is who actually wins wars. From my personal experience commanders in the infantry have some of the highest levels of emotional intelligence; there are also units in the IDF which are more advanced in utilizing technology. Special forces units such Maglan utilize sophisticated intelligence gathering (knowledge and technology) and need to have a broad understanding of multiple disciplines in order to execute their complex missions.
Grooming the future leaders in tech cannot be done without more awareness from within the IDF. My goal with this article has been to highlight trends I saw in the hopes the IDF’s leadership seriously considers more of an emphasis on helping the transition from combat unit graduates to tech entrepreneur post-service. Similarly, there is internal positive movement in the direction of creating an innovation mindset in all branches of the IDF such as the IAF Innovation Project. Below are some ideas on how the IDF can help soldiers graduating combat units make the transition from foot soldier to entrepreneur:
There are many wonderful organizations such as the Friends of the IDF which provide academic scholarships for graduates of IDF combat units. It would be interesting however to see a fellowship program (something akin to The Thiel Fellowship) or even an accelerator which would mentor soldiers from the same unit around an idea after their discharge from the military. A possible idea could be to spend the last three months of mandatory service working to solve a real problem that the IDF or that particular unit are facing (it’s better than as’ask, the vibe at the end of service where nothing really gets done). In addition, many startups are formed by tightly knit comrades from the same unit. As a result, they already know their behavior under extreme stress and pressure. These ideas might be a bit out of the comfort zone of the military leadership, but are worth considering as the IDF already has the human capital at its service.
The IDF (and the security and intelligence community) have an understanding and appreciation of the value intelligence gathering and cyber units bring to the table. The tech community and foreign investment has flocked to Israel because of its tech prowess. A solid start would be to raise awareness around the skill sets those exiting combat units have gained, as opposed to the hyperfocus on intelligence units. In this way the IDF brass’s appreciation of these skill sets would set an example.
Like the final trek a young infantry soldier embarks on to earn his beret, the masa, as the cliche states begins with putting one foot in front of the other. The Startup Nation has grown at an exponentially pace, and in order for its growth to continue at this pace, more entrepreneurs with relevant experience (aside from technical skills) need to enter the Israeli ecosystem. I believe the experiences learned in a combat role; assessing risk, leadership under fire, and changing course on the fly are all skill sets which are vital for the continued growth of the Startup Nation. I’ll close with a quote from former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi (who came thru the ranks of the infantry) and best states what we need to do; “The way I see it, if you can’t prepare your men for battle, you’re not fit to lead them into one.”