Monday, December 29, 2014

Name, Rank and 8200

Spies, Inc.: Business Innovation from Israel's Masters of Espionage by Stacy Perman


Whatever you may think about Israel, you have to admit that from its inception, the odds were against it. You also must give it credit for surviving while being outnumbered by over 100 to 1 from the onset. Under those conditions, the only way to keep afloat is to outsmart your enemy, and that's what this book is about. The major focus here is on the technological side - that being things like computers, electronics and advanced weaponry - and how one division in particular had a large hand in it all. That unit is called 8200 which is part of the Intelligence Division of the IDF.

However, this book isn't only about one army unit and its effect on the IDF. It also delves past that and into the influence that the graduates from 8200 have had in helping Israel to become one of the biggest innovators in the Hi-Tech business world today. Keep in mind we're talking about huge strides in technology that are affecting the whole globe. For instance - ever send or receive an SMS message on your cell phone? Ever take part in a video conference? Perhaps you sent a song or perhaps a picture to someone's cell? What about that great, yet simple invention - voice mail? Well, there you go - those are some of the things that ex-8200 soldiers invented. And the list goes on.

One of the more interesting facets that this book investigates is why such a large concentration of young men and women achieved so much in their short lives. One of the answers the author gives is similar to the old adage "necessity is the mother of invention." When your existence is at stake and any errors in judgment could cost the lives of both your fellow soldiers and innocent civilians, then there's just no room for conventional thinking. In fact, you've got to find solutions to problems that haven't even cropped up yet! The IDF set out to find, sow and nurture and grow the minds that could do this, and of course the harvest from this is going to be exceptional. This developmental process is what this book is all about.

Mind you, author Stacy Perman wrote this from a very pro-Israel prospective. This may disturb some readers, so be warned. However, she also seems to have a slightly left wing bent here, as she describes the then PM Ariel Sharon as 'hawkish,' and seems far more enamored of the outspokenly 'dovish' Shimon Peres. You should also know that you're not going to learn any previously unrevealed secrets from this book. The IDF cleared everything in this book, and very few military innovations included will be breaking news. However, what will be enlightening are the methods used, and the innovations that came from those same young people who developed these methods.

Interestingly enough, Perman's style here has a fictional flavor to it. In fact, some of the accounts of historic triumphs in Israeli espionage sound like excerpts from a joint effort between John Le Carre and Robert Ludlum. Take this quote as an example, so you can see what I mean:

In the inky darkness of the pre-dawn hours, the Red Sea had turned choppy. The sun had yet to bathe the sea, known in Arabic as 'Al Bahr Al Ahmar', in its winter light. Fishing boats moored in the waters surrounded by Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the Sudan rocked in the stormy darkness. An old, blue cargo ship, sailing under the flag of the kingdom of Tonga, cruised northward, making its way toward the Suez Canal, while on board most of its 13-man crew slept.

This just means you're not going to feel bombarded by boring statistics and lists of bland information. I must add at this point that I felt a touch cheated when I finished reading this book. I was hoping to learn much more about the start-up companies and amazing products that these 8200 graduates developed. Instead, I feel she gave us a touch too much about the military side of the story, and not quite enough about the entrepreneurial side. She did handle the business side as even-handedly as possible, by also including how the Hi-Tech bubble-burst affected these fledgling companies.

In sum - I found this book to be very well written, very carefully researched and totally fascinating on a subject that I most likely would have never read about, had my son not heard of the book and insisted I buy it. Mind you, it is slightly biased on the pro-Israel side with a touch of a left-wing slant. Nevertheless, for a non-fiction book on business, this reads more like the history of Ian Fleming's development of gadgets invented by "Q," with some scintillating episodes that any 'double-oh' agent would have been proud to have been a part of. Furthermore, at only 256 pages, it's not a long read, either. This is one book on spying that doesn't, and shouldn't be kept a secret - four out of five stars and highly recommended!

(By the way, for the first time I've found the preface and acknowledgments to be equally as fascinating as the body of the book. What's more, the endnotes are just as interesting.)


Spies, Inc. by Stacy Perman is available in Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook from iTunes, or from an IndieBound store near you.

This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on the consumer review sites Dooyoo and Ciao under my username TheChocolateLady, as well as {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.