Meet the female alums of the Israeli Army’s elite tech training school

Courtesy of Perion

It’s no secret that women can have a hard time breaking into the tech sector. But when Nofar Diamant and Dana Gutkind interviewed for their jobs at Perion Network, a Holon, Israel-based technology company, they were snapped up immediately. They didn’t even need to sell their experience—which was convenient, since they’re not allowed to talk about it.

That’s because the two women are both alumni of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF’s) elite Unit 8200, which is a leader in areas like electronic intelligence gathering and cybersecurity. People who have served in the unit are among the most sought-after hires in the tech world.

(Tech) soldiers for hire

Those who work in 8200 have passed rigorous testing and security clearances, often having been spotted for possible recruitment in high school. Because military service is compulsory in Israel—men serve for three years and women serve for roughly two years— Unit 8200 has its pick of a broad and impressive talent pool.

The unit has become legendary in tech circles. Business Insider called it the “greatest tech school in the world.” The advanced training that soldiers receive there has produced an array of successful startup founders and employees, and the unit even has its own alumni association and annual conference. Last year, Perion sponsored the conference in an effort to put the company in front of the pool of 8200 alumni looking for their next gigs. Perion also encourages its employees to recruit friends and family members who might be a good fit for the firm—including any 8200 alumni who might be on their contact lists.

The Josef Mandelbaum, CEO of Perion, which helps online publishers and app developers increase revenues and customer engagement, puts it this way: The Israeli army has already done the screening and training. Not to mention that that the unit’s technology “is 10 years ahead, from a technical standpoint, from what you see as consumers today,” he says. So, even if they can’t talk about what they did, execs like Mandelbaum know that some of the knowledge and expertise honed by the former soldiers’ advanced training is bound to rub off in areas like software engineering and team leadership. He says most of Perion’s current platforms and security measures have had 8200 alumni involved in development.

“Those problem-solving skills, as well as leadership and managerial skills—I’d hire 8200 graduates over a Harvard or Stanford graduate for those types of jobs, any day,” he says.

An avenue for women in tech

Mandelbaum won’t disclose how many of those alumni he’s been able to hire beyond saying the number is “in the tens.” He also admits a “personal bias” toward hiring women to foster diversity at his company, saying that since he took the helm at Perion in 2010, the company has shifted from fewer than 30% women to roughly double that ratio (56%).

Now 23 years old, Diamant has worked at Perion for three years. She says that her time in the IDF’s Unit 8200 gave her leadership skills as well as technical training. The quality assurance engineer says she didn’t feel as though being a woman was a disadvantage during her service—in fact, it helped teach her to overcome typical pressures women face to be unrelentingly “nice.”

“It helped me to be more mature and distinguish between being nice and doing what I really think will be best,” she says.

In Gutkind’s case, the 38-year-old software engineer says that her service helped foster an intense attention to detail and affinity for planning. “The same way you don’t start building a building without a specific plan, we now do software work the same way. It all started in 8200,” she says.

Making the shift

Of course, there are still adaptations that need to be made in the shift to a civilian workplace, Mandelbaum says. The business world is more about consensus-building than making unilateral decisions. That can be frustrating to people with a military background, who may be accustomed to making the call themselves, even in situations that could have grave consequences, he says. Army roles often have short-term focus—complete the task at hand and move on. At Perion, as at many companies, much of the work requires long-term thinking.

But, most of all, the employee needs to be a good fit for the culture. Mandelbaum looks for great skills and people others like working with. He also finds that 8200 alumni seem to have an affinity for ongoing learning and teaching others—other qualities he values.

“There are always going to be good times and bad times a company goes through,” he says. “If you have that attitude, more often than not we’ll come out stronger and better.”

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