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December 06, 2007

Impressions of Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is an excited beach-front city, quite secular with few people in either Jewish or Muslim religious garb. This is a high-tech city, home of Silicon Wadi, a late night city, a city with a building boom and the construction cranes of progress perched on the fairly low skyline. Late model cars jam into rush hour traffic – annoying but not as bad as many major cities.

There are solar panels for hot water on top of some of the houses; I thought I’d see more. No sign of photovoltaic or windmills. The country is a leader in geothermal energy. This part of the Middle East isn’t where the oil is.

Yesterday the beach was sunny and there was hardly enough wind for the wind surfers and lasers playing in the waves. The beach population in Speedos was surprisingly old and in surprisingly good shape. Today it’s obvious, even without weather.com, that there’s a storm offshore. The waves are over-topping the breakwater and washing most of the beach. Rain showers are blown onshore between breaks of sunlight and the palm fronds are blowing chaotically. Only a few intrepid windsurfers are out and they’re getting the wild rides they’re looking for.

It’s a new city; it was desert when a few Jewish families bought the land from Bedouin tribes in 1908 and settled here on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. Security then was a problem since the rule law-and-order of the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled this area, extended only to the cities. So, for history, go to ancient and always-troubled Jerusalem (ironically the name means God’s peace). I won’t get there this trip.

Some people think it’s dangerous to come to Israel. That’s  not the case; the life expectancy here is slightly greater than in the US despite compulsory military service, frequent battles close to home, rockets from Gaza, and terrorism (statistically insignificant as a cause of death as horrifying as it is).

Extra security against terrorism is evident even before you leave the States; you get rescreened and your carry-ons rechecked in a special boarding area at Newark before boarding a Continental or El Al flight bound for Israel. The gates for these flights always seem to be at the end of the airport concourse, perhaps so the planes can be guarded more easily.

Guards at the doors to hotels have not only wands for weapon detection but serviceable pistols; taxi trunks are checked driving up to hotels. There’s an armed guard at night at the beach entrance to the hotel. But the streets are friendly and safe, street crime much less an issue than in many cities this size. Streets are rarely deserted, even late at night.

Young people here as likely to have met their friends in the military as at school or in college. The VoIP technology that first brought me to Israel ten years ago was an outgrowth of work in the Israeli tank corps (tanks fight in a tough communications environment and need to communicate to coordinate attacks and avoid destroying their friends). Alumni of that first wave of telecommunications technology, many from VoIP pioneer VocalTec, are now mainly in management positions. A younger cohort of programmers are likely to contribute greatly to the services that I believe will leave traditional phone service and email far behind during the next decade. That’s why we’re here recruiting.

You don’t come here to find cheap programming. If you have a complete spec (or a boring project), it’s far cheaper to outsource to Ukraine or India. Even Israeli companies do that. You get hard work and energy here but you get that in cheaper places as well. It’s worth doing R&D in Israel when the R component is as big as the D, when you expect your developers to participate heavily in product definition and design, when you need to benefit from having your R&D plugged into a place where lots of parallel (and of course some competing) development is being done.

One obstacle to finding the developers you want for your team is so many talented young people quickly cluster in twos or threes to begin their own startups. They’re hiring themselves! Israel is second only to the US in the number of startups despite its population of just over 7 million (less than NYC). There are more NASDAQ listed companies based here than anywhere else outside of North America. (stats from wikipedia).

Security gets ugly again on the way out. You really do have to be at the airport 2-3 hours before your flight.

Jeff Pulver posts here about recruiting in Tel Aviv.

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