Tech under fire: How one firm handles the Gaza war

Tech under fire: How one firm handles the Gaza war

Beersheba branch of cyber-security firm EMC went through surreal experiences during conflict with Hamas, says Orna Berry

Some of the attendees at the Beersheba tech event (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Some of the attendees at the Beersheba tech event (Photo credit: Courtesy)

For Orna Berry, the most surreal moment of the war in Gaza came when she was on a conference call with executives at an EMC facility in Virginia. “We were discussing a major deal, and we were interrupted at least six times by the Red Alert siren (warning of an incoming rocket), so we had to stop what we were doing and take cover.” That, and the blanket she kept in her car. “I needed it for when a siren went off while I was driving, so I would have something to crouch on when taking cover and not ruin my business attire.”

Eventually, said the director of EMC-RSA’s operations in Israel, she moved the conference calls down into a protected area — but the blanket is still in her car. “It took the folks in the US a little getting used to what was going on, but if they were flustered, they didn’t let on,” she said.

That’s to their credit, said Berry. While the heads of a large company like EMC could perhaps be forgiven for having retrospective doubts about whether it was wise to set up a major facility in Beersheba, a frequent target of Hamas rockets during conflicts like this, Berry said that the company “has been nothing but supportive. They know we have a difficult situation to deal with, but they are very confident in our ability to get the job done.”

Berry spoke to The Times of Israel in an exclusive interview at Jerusalem Venture Partners Beersheba-based Cyber-security Incubator, during a special event organized by JVP, where over 120 entrepreneurs from the south and around the country came to promote their ideas and get advice and mentoring from some of the top talent in tech and the investment world. Among the mentors were executives from Deutsche Telekom and Lockheed Martin, as well as from Israel’s new Facebook R&D center, investors from JVP, Canaan Partners, and other firms — along with Berry and other EMC staff.

The Red Alert alarm went off dozens of times in Beersheba over the past month or so, sending residents and workers — including those employed at companies located in the Beersheba Advanced Technology Park (ATP) — scrambling for cover. EMC isn’t the only multinational with a facility at the park. Deutsche Telekom, SingTel, and Lockheed Martin also have facilities there, and they were also forced to deal with a reality that was probably significantly different than executives in their head offices expected when they rented space at ATP.

Dr. Orna Berry (Photo credti: Courtesy)
Dr. Orna Berry (Photo credti: Courtesy)

That was the case at EMC as well, said Berry — but life went on. “We actually hosted several delegations and signed two contracts with visiting executives, and it was business as usual. When they saw we felt secure in how to handle the situation, they did, too.” The facility even hosted an EMC employee from the US who is in Israel on a long-term project. “He’s not Jewish and has never been to Israel before. After initial misgivings, he got used to the routine of moving down to the shelter when needed — and in fact, his mother was visiting as the war broke out.” She, too, managed to deal with things, Berry said.

The situation did require some adjustment on the part of the company. Most of the Beersheba facility’s 100-some employees live in the area, and many of them felt nervous leaving their kids at home. With summer camps and activities canceled, parents began bringing their kids to work, so Berry set up an activity center for them. “We also sent kids to the week-long programs we run in Herzliya (farther from Gaza) for employees there, and either sent the parents to work there — where we put them up — or brought them home every few days. And on Fridays we took the families who elected to remain and bring their kids to work on trips to less vulnerable parts of the county.”

Several dozen of the firm’s workers were also called up for active military duty, and the company did its best to take care of them as well, said Berry. Reservists’ kids were also treated to outings, and the company put together treat packages for families and soldiers.

EMC was the first multinational to come to Beersheba, establishing itself in the ATP in 2011. Since then, the facility has turned into an important one for the company, said Berry. “The Beersheba facility does much of the big data scientific research for all of EMC, and we also are, together our main EMC facility in Herzliya, an important hub for the company’s cyber-penetration testing, in which workers try to hack into systems and determine their weak points.” That’s an important activity at EMC, one of the biggest cyber-security companies in the world.

Whether the EMC brass like it or not, their Israel organization sits on the front lines. Had the company known what was in the future, would it have agreed to open the Beersheba facility? “We’re very committed to the ATP and have been from the beginning,” said Berry. “We believe Beersheba is going to become a major hub for tech, and especially cyber-security. I was a strong advocate of this move. Had the war occurred in 2011, I think it might have been harder to sell executives on the idea of the ATP facility — but they haven’t second-guessed us in any way. They believe in what we are doing, and they have faith in us.”

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