Israeli Storied 8200 Unit Mulls Giving Officers Time-out in High-tech

Program aims to stanch exodus of career soldiers for pay and glory of the private sector

Graduates of Unit 8200, the IDF's technological spearhead.
Moti Milrod

What do you do when you’re an army unit that has some of Israel’s best and brightest serving in it? Too often they are tempted by the fame and fortune of starting up companies or taking serious roles in them. It means fat paychecks and stock options, your picture in the media and if you are a huge success maybe a congratulatory phone call from the prime minister.

Staying in the army means a chance to work on cutting-edge technology and ensuring the country’s security, but it also means working anonymously on projects you can’t even tell your friends and family about.

At 8200, the most storied of the Israel Defense Forces elite high-tech units, the dilemmas facing career officers are hard, but now the army is weighing a plan to let them have the best of both worlds.

Top officers at 8200 are considering a program that would let career soldiers go off for a limited time to work for a high-tech company and later return to their old jobs. The plan is still being developed at 8200 headquarters and hasn’t won official approval, but if is does it will likely be implemented at several Signals Corps units.

The program aims to address one of the biggest problems 8200 faces today, which is retaining its best career soldiers. Studies have shown that competition from the startup sector for soldiers is a major contributor to this problem.

Draftee graduates of 8200 form a disproportionate percentage of Israel’s startup entrepreneurs and the rest are hired away for key jobs. Among Israel’s flagship tech companies, Check Point, Nice Systems and Verint were all started by 8200 alumni. Graduates are still ubiquitous and they form a social network of their own in the high-tech industry.

Pay difference tempting

The career officers who oversee them can’t help but be envious, especially as IDF salaries of 7,000 to 20,000 shekels ($1,986-$5,675) a month are low, compared to the private sector.

In addition, conversations with senior 8200 officers revealed that it’s not just money that lures them away to the tech sector, but the experience and challenges of working for a startup and the personal challenges it provides.

Two years ago, 8200 sought to solve the problem by setting up a startup of its own that would work side-by-side with the unit, but the plan was dropped because it wasn’t financially feasible and presented legal problems.

Officers say the newest plan is simpler and has the advantage of not only letting key officers put a foot in the startup waters, but because they will be required to return after a set period of time, they will bring back to the army new skills, knowledge and thinking. It will also take the edge off the salary difference between the army and the private sector, they add.

The 8200 officers designing the program said they don’t believe it will be hard to convince executives and investors in startups to take on soldiers for limited terms because, if for no other reason than that the unit’s abilities are so highly valued, many will be anxious to tap its talent pool.