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Vying for talent, IAI jabs at darker side of Israeli tech sector

Amid fierce competition, weapons maker’s new recruitment ads appeal to potential candidates to opt for a sense of purpose over money

Ricky Ben-David is The Times of Israel’s Tech Israel editor and reporter.

Boaz Levy, the CEO of Israel Aerospace Industries, speaks to The Associated Press at the Dubai Air Show in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. Israel took part in the Dubai Air Show for the first time after the United Arab Emirates and Israel normalized relations in 2020. (AP/Jon Gambrell)
Boaz Levy, the CEO of Israel Aerospace Industries, speaks to The Associated Press at the Dubai Air Show in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. Israel took part in the Dubai Air Show for the first time after the United Arab Emirates and Israel normalized relations in 2020. (AP/Jon Gambrell)

The Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), a major state-owned aerospace and aviation manufacturer and weapons maker, launched a biting ad campaign this week aimed at recruiting software developers, engineers, and programmers — while taking a jab at the Israeli tech industry and some of its darker sides.

The ads are circulating online and have also been spotted on billboards across the country. They feature smiling or laughing models and their job titles, such as software engineer, alongside satirical texts that congratulate them on very questionable career achievements.

One ad calls for “Applause for Ron, a software engineer” whose work has contributed to “thousands of people getting addicted to online poker.” Another says “Hats off to Alma,” a graduate who made the dean’s list and whose work supports a video game company that has “thousands of kids” hooked. A third ad reads: “Respect to Maya, senior engineer” who is credited with aggressive online sales tactics that fight cart abandonment (when potential customers start a checkout process on an e-commerce site but abandon the online order before completing it).

The campaign is aimed at enticing talented developers and engineers — professions in high demand and short supply in Israel — away from companies in industries like online sales tech, entertainment and pornography, and online games and gambling where some Israeli firms have thrived. These companies develop products like software platforms, data analytics services, chatbots, and player systems for businesses that can be considered harmful.

Some companies in these industries, like a mobile games developer, have been accused of questionable practices related to kids’ games. Others simply work in industries that appear to exploit human frailties yet are still celebrated as successful unicorns or public companies.

Still others are part of the dark underbelly of Israel’s startup ecosystem, as The Times of Israel has documented.

They are among a substantial minority of Israeli companies that engage in fraudulent and/or unethical activity, like the now-banned binary options industry.

These are separate from the tech industry’s more celebrated sectors like cybersecurity, enterprise software, fintech, and life sciences. But many compete for the same pool of tech talent, as do the multinational corporations based in the country.

Tech talent shortage

Israel is laboring under an acute shortage of tech talent that the Israel Innovation Authority and other organizations, as well as the tech industry itself, have been warning about for several years. According to the latest official data by the Innovation Authority, Israel has about 13,000 open positions, as stated in a 2021 report tracking “human capital.” The next report is due out in the coming weeks.

Observers and industry experts believe that number to be much higher today. The shortage is creating fierce competition among tech companies to recruit and hire for these roles at ever-increasing salaries.

The IAI is also competing for that talent, and doing so against a thriving tech industry that can offer attractive working conditions, office perks, yearly bonuses and — again — higher salaries.

The average monthly salary in the tech industry was calculated at about NIS 28,000 ($8,260), according to February data (in Hebrew) by the Central Bureau of Statistics. But tech companies can often offer more.

The overall average monthly salary for an employee in Israel is about NIS 12,000 ($3,859).

On Twitter, where members of the tech industry —  founders and CEOs, VCs, developers, product managers, sales and marketing reps and others — increasingly engage, reception of the IAI campaign was mixed.

Some commentators focused on the uproar, noting that the campaign achieved its goal of generating conversation. Others objected to how the ads painted the entire tech industry in a negative light.

Another group of commentators took aim at IAI’s activities — weapons-making. “I think we know which industry kills more people every year,” wrote one person.

Gili May, chief relations officer at IAI, told The Times of Israel in a phone interview that the company is happy with the debate the ads are generating, and even welcomes the criticism.

“The conversation has been so broad and effective, not only in the high-tech sector, in all sectors. Some people took it in negative ways, some in positive ways. All the feedback is ok,” said May.

IAI engaged in deep research before launching the campaign, May explained. “We found that the issues of ‘meaning’ [or purpose] at work, contribution to the country, the depth and broadness of the technology — all of these are very important for the potential candidates. And we have all this at IAI.”

IAI didn’t set out to crack jokes at the expense of the tech sector, claimed May. “The high-tech sector is very important, it has its own contributions to the State of Israel. We wanted to take a few areas, and in a creative way, look at the issue of purpose. These things are very important to Generation Z and Generation Y [also known as millennials].”

IAI has 600 positions to fill, May said. “I won’t be able to compete with a salary at a startup that just raised a Series A and has funds for new engineers. But, we have good salaries compared to the market, and we have [purpose] and… we are here to stay.”

A tech-y punching bag?

The Israeli tech industry has been under the spotlight in recent months, and not just because of the eye-popping funding rounds, the mounting number of unicorns, the tech valuations, or the IPOs — all of which have taken a downturn since the beginning of the year.

The focus on the sector, and its rapid growth, comes amid the changes it is effecting on Israeli society.

Some of the perks and excesses commonly found in the industry were skewered expertly this past year in a series of skits by the satirical TV show “Eretz Nehederet” (A Wonderful Land), which took aim at some of the tech sector’s most comical tendencies — including offices outfitted with vast gymboree-like spaces, video games, free food, beer on tap, live music, and a “work is like family” mentality meant to maximize employees’ time within company walls.

Nadir Hackerman and Didi from fictitious tech company Webos speak to a potential new tech hire in a November 2021 segment on ‘Eretz Nehederet.’ (Screenshot)

Another skit lampooned the rising prestige of service in the military’s tech units at the expense of combat units, a segment that hit particularly hard and raised questions about changing values.

The skit’s plot consisted of an “ambush” at a hitchhiking spot by two tech entrepreneurs who plan to lure one of the soldiers, who serves in an intel-gathering unit, with a ride and offer him a cushy job at their tech firm.

The comedy bit sparked a spirited debate in the Israeli press and on social media on the merits of service in IDF combat roles versus the technological corps, such as in the intelligence-gathering division Unit 8200.

Left: IDF combat soldiers take part in a drill in December 2021; Right: An IDF soldier from the C4I Corps types on a computer. (Israel Defense Forces)

Numerous alumni of the elite tech unit have gone on to lead successful companies specializing in cyber matters, and service in Unit 8200 is seen as giving its veterans a clear leg up over others when applying for work in the often highly lucrative tech sector. This has led to frustration among combat soldiers, who risk their lives to protect the country only to find they are at a disadvantage when entering the job market. Some need to work menial jobs for years while studying and building up enough experience to even be considered for low-level tech jobs.

Values and money

In the running ad campaign, IAI appeals to potential candidates to follow a higher sense of purpose rather than high wages. To “Ron,” the IAI ad says, “instead of gambling on your career, give us a winning hand [as part of] the Hetz [Arrow] missile project,” in reference to the state company’s family of anti-ballistic missile systems. “Alma” was told, “instead of playing with your career, [rock it] in the development and production of the most advanced UAVs in the world.”

A different ad, one of two that uses the same picture of a man but with different titles and responsibilities, tells “Tzahi, a Unit 8200 veteran” whose work contributed to “exposing adolescent [boys] to pornography,” that “instead of fantasizing about a career, realize [that dream] in the Beresheet 2 project at IAI.”

The Beresheet 2 initiative, co-developed by IAI and the SpaceIL organization, is a follow-up to the Beresheet mission in 2019 that tried and failed to land a spacecraft on the moon. The spacecraft, Beresheet, got close to the lunar surface but crash-landed moments before it was set to touch down. Beresheet 2 is set for 2024 with an expanded mission to land two spacecraft on the moon.

Though it may not offer tech wages, the IAI is by no means struggling. Its sales of missiles, drones, aircraft and systems for naval and ground forces among other products totaled $4.5 billion in 2021, the highest figure since the company was founded in 1953. On Thursday, the company said its net income for the first quarter of 2022 (Q1 2022) was approximately $78 million, an increase of 58% compared to Q1 2021.

IAI also said its order backlog (customer orders that have yet to be fulfilled) grew to $14 billion.

A LORA ballistic missile, produced by the Israel Aerospace Industries defense firm, is test-fired at sea on June 2, 2020. (Israel Aerospace Industries)

May said IAI is “not just the weapons, we do so much more. We let people sleep safe[ly] at night in Israel. Every threat — our radar finds it. The most sophisticated and longest layer of defense, Arrow 3 — countries are racing to buy this,” he noted.

The campaign has so far been a success, May said, adding that the number of CVs coming in has increased about fivefold. IAI recruiters went from receiving 100-200 CVs on a normal day to about 600-700 daily after the campaign launched on Sunday, May said.

The company is now gearing up for the second phase of the campaign, which will see the ads placed in bars, cafes, and entertainment venues.

Itamar Sharon contributed to this report.

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