Israeli high-tech through American eyes

I moved to Israel three years ago, knowing little Hebrew, leaving behind a comfortable life in the U.S. in search of a different type of life, hoping to find knowledge, meaning and personal fulfillment. Three years later, after gaining extremely thick skin, almost-fluent Hebrew, and a variety of life-changing experiences under my belt, I finally feel grounded in my adoptive country. A big part of this is because I have a stable job that I enjoy. I’m a Product Content Writer at Soluto, and everyday I get to do a few things I love: come up with ideas, collaborate with others, read, research, and write.

There are no clear statistics about the number of olim (immigrants) who leave Israel after just a couple of years, but personal experience tells me the number is high. Many attribute it to a lack of stability especially in the realm of careers. Many olim find out that they have to reinvent themselves and their career paths when they move here, and to do so is challenging.

Since I spent the majority of my life in the U.S., my mentality is still mostly American. I see things that Israelis may not see: cultural differences that intrigue me, make me laugh and make me think. There are so many differences between Israeli and American workplace cultures, especially in high-tech. I’ll discuss a few things I see in the Israeli tech scene that I believe reflect Israeli culture as a whole. In essence, what’s actually Israeli about Israeli high-tech?

Israeli innovation

You’ve probably heard of the book Start-up Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer that discusses in great detail why Israel has the highest number of startups per capita in the entire world. We’re a geographically tiny country that garners the world’s political attention with the population the same as New York City. We hear about Israeli innovation all the time, but does it really exist?

Yep, it definitely does. The numbers support it: $4.8 billion in venture capital funding of Israeli startups in 2016, an 11% increase from the previous year. The world watches Israel to see when the next big “exit” will be – the two most famous being Waze and Mobileye.

I see innovation here at Soluto too. When I started, I heard a couple of terms that I’ve become familiar with: the Lean Startup method and MVP. These two ideas are based on the assumption that bureaucracy and top-down management slow down innovation, so the best way to get products to market is by testing, releasing, getting feedback and repeating this cycle. This way, time, money, and energy aren’t poured into huge product releases that customers don’t even like. MVP or a “minimum viable product” is the most pared-down version of a product that customers will actually use. In Soluto-speak, it’s our way of trying something out to see how users react, then taking that feedback to improve upon the original product, feature or content.

I think innovation exists in Israel because Israelis are flexible, open to new ideas and don’t look to authority to initiate or get things done. Americans tend to be more hesitant of change and want to do things “by the book” or check with an authority before starting a project. I think the American tech sector has changed this old-fashioned way of thinking, but traces of it still do exist in the U.S. At Soluto, every single idea I’ve brought to the Head of Product or a Product Manager was met with the same attitude: “Sure, let’s try it.” This is a very Israeli mentality and I think this attitude gives way to creativity and innovation.

Communication styles

You might have seen the viral post a couple years ago from an Intel training for Americans with tips on how to work with Israelis. Some of the tips hilariously – yet accurately – included: “expect to be cut off regularly during a presentation” and “visitors are often taken [a]back by the tone and loudness of the discussion.” It’s safe to say that American and Israeli communication styles differ greatly – in the workplace and in tech.

I happen to like the Israeli communication style better in many ways. It’s direct and honest. It makes communication easier because people say what they mean – you don’t have to guess. American communication can be more veiled, nuanced and layered. This indirect style of communication can derail true teamwork and progress in the workplace.

Hebrish in the workplace

One of the biggest professional challenges for me now is the language. Yes, my actual job is in English, but the company culture is in Hebrew. At the other jobs I’ve had in Israel, I didn’t need to speak or understand any Hebrew. At Soluto, meetings and presentations are in Hebrew, yet the majority of written communication is in English, like presentations, communicating on Slack or via email.

Each team starts the day with a daily standup meeting (DSM) where each team member updates others on what they’re working on. When I first started at the company, I barely understood anything in my DSMs because they were in Hebrew. Eventually after 9 months, my Hebrew has improved a lot and I’m understanding way more. I’m still mostly speaking in English, but feeling more a part of the wider company culture, in part because I am speaking and understanding more Hebrew.

With respect to the language balance, Israeli high-tech companies vary greatly. At another Israeli tech company I worked at, the majority of employees were Israeli, yet there was a good amount of olim and internationals. Because of this, all meetings were conducted in English to accommodate us. At Soluto, we have only four olim in the whole company (out of 100 total employees), so it makes sense that the common spoken language is Hebrew.

One thing I must mention here is that despite the linguistic challenges that many English-speaking olim face, having native English as a skill in Israel is extremely valued and sought after. I think Anglo olim should develop and own this skill, and appreciate how much it’s an asset in the job market. We should learn to leverage this skill and be confident in our abilities when searching for a job. Other languages can be valued assets as well, depending on the company and its needs.

Kibbutznikim at heart

I hear a lot of Israelis say that the true spirit of the Israeli pioneers is long gone, yet I still feel it everyday. I see it on the street, I see it in Israelis’ interactions with one another and I see it at work. Making coffee is a social event. Kitchen interactions can be lively and fun. And eating lunch as a group is a given. Israelis are kibbutznikim at heart, with a communal mentality etched into the fabric of their culture.

In the U.S. it’s common for people to go to work and come home everyday without interacting with their coworkers in a meaningful way. In Israel, people are closer with their coworkers. They open up about their personal lives, their families, real things. Over the past three years, I’ve been lucky to have gained some real friends from work.

An independent spirit

We have all the nice perks that most tech companies in Tel Aviv do: a lunch allowance, great facilities, a fully stocked kitchen, fun social events and a yearly trip (this year we went to Eilat). But the biggest “perk” for me is the relaxed atmosphere and that no one is micromanaging me. I manage my own time and they trust me to get the work done. Part of the reason why we’re able to work so independently is because of the flat hierarchy.

When I interviewed here, I asked a pretty normal question: “Who will be my immediate supervisor?” to which the HR Manager replied, “No one.” [Cue confused face]. I technically do have a manager (the Head of Product) but she isn’t involved in my daily tasks. Most decision-making is done in our small, independent “journey teams” which typically consist of a Product Manager, UX Designer, Content Writer, Tech Lead and Developers. Everyone’s day-to-day work usually takes place within these teams. There is also a small management team, including the CEO and various VPs who make larger product and company decisions.

This company structure is a total departure from what I’m used to, and I must say, I love it. It’s empowering to be able to manage myself and my work while knowing I have a team to bounce ideas off of and strategically plan.

From Silicon Valley to Silicon Wadi

When I tell people in Israel that I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area, most of the time I get, “Why the hell did you move here?!” Sometimes I joke and say “I ask myself the same question…” but I know the real answer. It’s not just an answer, it’s a conviction that I need to be here. I am happy to report that I still love the Israel that I fell in love with years ago. The love has changed, like any true love story, it’s evolved, grown and matured. Working in Israeli high-tech has given me the comfort, stability and experience that supports my longevity in Israel.

Within Israeli high-tech, I see the best of Israel: the communal values, the creativity, a wry sense of humor, and a unique openness that’s just very Israeli. With all the real challenges that do exist here, I still wouldn’t have it any other way.

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16 Comments

  1. Lisa

    What a great post Shayna! It really resonates with me. You have captured so well Soluto’s spirit and “personality” and so too the Israeli tech scene.

  2. Eran

    So true!! Happy to hear ur still happy n not going back. Many people really won’t stick it out but I think we’re a special breed for not tucking our tails n skadooying back “home” 😉 – I love the saying “if u make it in Israel u can can make it anywhere “ 😬

    • Shayna Smilovitz

      This is so true! I have such thicker skin now, for real! Thanks for your comment, Eran. 🙂

  3. Nicely put! My interactions with Israeli tech entrepreneurs are on calls from America. So, I don’t have the same experience. But what I do know is entrepreneur’s are motivated and aggressive – kind of a “take the hill” philosophy. It’s a winning attitude. I’m direct and appreciate that they are too.

    I’m looking forward to visiting Israel soon and experience first hand, the unique differences from Silicon Valley

  4. Very nice post And I agree with all of it. I am only here for 2 years now and am coming from Switzerland, not USA , but I see the same big differences in culture. There are only 2 things I am still missing here in Israel: Better Ivrit And a challenging job…

    • Shayna Smilovitz

      Thanks so much for your comment. Hebrew comes with time (especially if you can always fall back on English) – that has been very challenging for me. Good luck with finding a job you love!

  5. Ziv Navon

    Very interesting article. An eye opener for Israeli employees too.

    • Shayna Smilovitz

      Thanks so much for your comment. I hope it was helpful for Israeli employees as well as anyone working with Israelis.

  6. yael

    Thank you !
    a great aliyah success story 🙂

  7. Nigel

    Interesting. Completely different from my experience.

  8. Fun article, but I’d like to hear more of the details. I’m in the same boat, working as an American oleh in an Israeli startup. I love lighting Chanukah candles at work. Have you ever seen people taking bites of each other’s lunch in the US? Many many other experiences make Israel the true wonderfully Jewish life.

    • Shayna Smilovitz

      Thanks for your comment! Glad you’ve got to experience some of those special moments that are truly Israeli.

  9. Randall Bassin

    Terrific post, Shayna! I can also identify with Michael Atkinson’s “take the hill” remark. My professional technical writing experience began with a US-based PC manufacturer, but many of the executive management team members happened to be Israeli. I quickly learned how to work with them, and I enjoyed everything about the experience. I’d gladly do it again in a heartbeat!

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