Debunking the “8200”, “81” and other #### ex-Israeli Army Intelligence myth

I’m a known and pretty vocal advocate of self learning, self starting, and inquisitive entrepreneurial spirit. As such, I’ve witnessed over my years in the security industry, a lot of occasions where the halo or myth surrounding some so-called “elite” units in the Israeli Army Intelligence has blinded people.
Such blindness comes from a very small percentage of people who capitalized on what used to be highly selective knowledge and experience in a narrow field of practice. But that was almost 20 years ago. Companies like Checkpoint, Nice, and Amdocs, were all started by alumni of such intelligence units, who basically applied their specific experience from the army signals intelligence unites to building firewall systems, telecom and spy/monitoring technologies.

Nowadays, the reality could not be further from this. What used to be a very specific skill-set and knowledge, is mostly open, and freely accessible to anyone with the right aptitude to pick up and master. Back in the days you had to earn your “hacker cred” in order to get access to the forums where people were sharing knowledge, today most of that “exclusive/unique” knowledge is wide open and available.

And today I ran across an article that infuriated me because of its ignorance. Enter: “The cyber labor market in Israel, the cyber guild“. In this article, the author claims, again, that the “ex-#” alumni phenomenon is filling the Israeli market and basically owning it to a point where non-guild members are shunned out. It claims that whereas information and knowledge should (or is?) open, in the guild market it matters more where you came from than what you actually know and have experience with.

I respectfully call BS on this. It’s just not the reality anymore. Yes, there is an obvious alumni network effect, but such that is just as common with other alumni organizations (think Ivy-league Universities, local schools, or any other melting-pot where people get to know one another). But the “guild” part is just wrong. It’s actually the complete opposite. After the initial success of the early founders, the “Ex-#” units basked in the glow and enjoyed a fairly long streak of alumni that only had to mention their unit’s name (or even not that – just to keep things more hush-hush) in order to nail a high-paying job. However, with such high expectations, the failures became more apparent. And then the realization – that 8200, which is the largest unit (people-wise) in the Army, does not actually employ thousands of talented programmers and hackers. That a huge percentage of it are grunt workers, pushing papers, poring over analyst reports, and operating the collection and dissemination processes and technologies. Glorified IT support in most cases. And with that, the sham evolved. The “friend brings friend” system worked most of the time when the initial friend was one of the actually few talented alumni, who brought their few talented friends. The rest ended up blowing the bubble out of proportion, and infusing the industry with the glorified IT technicians. And the industry balked fairly quickly. I have personally witnessed companies hurting and buckling under the cost of incompetent alumni recruitment, and eventually realize their mistake and quietly ditch those. I have personally interviewed tens (if not hundreds) of people, and very quickly realized (again – after making a few trust mistakes myself) that my gut feeling and personal assessment of ones personality is more consistent than their alleged history in a “famous” unit.

I have personally mentored extremely talented people who had to fight for their place, had to learn programming languages and platforms, gain their experience in the real world, and become some of the more sought after talents out there. At the same time I’ve seen the “ex-#” alumni stagnate at dead-end jobs because they could not scale beyond their alleged field of expertise. The market is highly capitalistic out there. It won’t tolerate too much of the halo effect, and albeit huge efforts in fueling that effect through several alumni organizations, and alumnus in executive positions, this doesn’t really hold. If you are looking for innovation and “thinking outside the box” maybe try to look for people who have not been indoctrinated in a very strict environment to perform a very narrow task. Look for people with broad experience, from different paths of life, who share core traits – curiosity, innovation, drive, and the ability to say “I don’t know”. That’s how the modern market operates. There is no guild. And if you are led to believe so – try to see who/what is it that gave you that impression. You’ll be quick to learn that it is mostly self-serving marketing created to favor the less talented who need to rely on riding the coattails of the successful few. Who by the way – were mostly self-taught and would have made it without having the “ex-#” experience 😉

2 thoughts on “Debunking the “8200”, “81” and other #### ex-Israeli Army Intelligence myth

  1. Hey friend,
    Thank you, such a well written article.
    Gary Zukav wrote in his book “the dancing Wu Li Masters” about the difference between technicians and scientists. Technicians are highly train people who’s job is to apply known techniques and principles. they deal with the known. Scientists are people who seeks to know the true nature of reality, who deals with the unknown. Many people who work in the “units” are technicians. Don’t get me wrong – they are bright, smart, and intelligent – but also chosen to work there because they can deliver a very segmented, narrow analysis of whatever they are being given to analyse. And yes, you can have a lot of narrow analysis of big data – especially in big-data.

    Security is all about opening up bravely to the unknown which we barely grasp via our limited senses and minds. Security is about stepping beyond the unthinkable and realising the nature of the now. To do so, to shed off your concepts and definitions is a gift of love and is something which is rarely encouraged or done in an army, a place build upon command and control.

    IF you’re looking for a person who will give you a better insight and provide you an added value to your security organisation you should look for brave heroes of the heart, not for those who subdue themselves to become a product of “a” unit – regardless how glamorous that unit is.

    Namaste
    Eh’den

  2. Hey, good post, lots of sound logic and facts. I’m not really looking to contest this and argue, just throwing my two cents in:

    There an inherent problem with ‘debunking a myth’ based on anecdotal evidence. Of course you’re going to find both sides of the story. I absolutely agree with the very simple reality: when you have tens of thousands of people out of a unit, not all of them will be all-stars. You’re going to get your “cyber-analysts”, your “cyber-defenders” or “cyber-operators” who served in the help desk and did nothing different than dozens of other places.

    However, I see a different question as the important one, trying to be pseudo-scientific about it: what is the ‘ratio’ of hi-tech/security top-talent (leaving out the question of measuring that) ex-intelligence vs all other backgrounds top-talent.

    I have a unique point of view here – I have spent years in both environments, in and out of the intelligence branch, in positions that allowed me to work with so many professionals in and out of the ‘myth’.
    I know my opinion is just my own observation, you don’t have to take it or believe it – but imho, I have seen this very clearly: the concentration of top-talent/’really smart people’ in intelligence far exceeded that of any other place I have been in so far.

    Have I met incredibly smart people that are non-ex-intelligence? absolutely.
    Have I met incredibly stupid people that are ex-intelligence? damn right.

    It’s just that the ratio is so strongly in favor of ex-intelligence that I cannot dismiss it as a myth.
    A very likely explanation for me is the intelligence branch’s priority over any other branch in the selection of young talent, and the unmatched intense training for those high potential people. simple factual formula – not a marketing sham.
    It’s not that intelligence “produces” the best people, it actually “consumes” the best people to begin with, and the selection process does a very good (but not perfect) job at that.

    Have I seen the 8200/81-branding overused and abused for a high-paying job? no question about it. that’s actually fair play, imho. I haven’t seen anyone ashamed to write Harvard on their CV

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