Idan Cohen on How the Army Teaches High Tech Job Skills

In Chapter 10 of 19 in his 2012 Capture Your Flag interview, Boxee co-founder and head of product Idan Cohen answers "How Has Your Military Training Been Most Useful in Developing Your Career?"  Cohen shares how he is recruited into the Israeli Army to help build reconnaissance satellites.  He learns physics and programming working with a senior team and, after transitioning into intelligence, learns life skills by managing teams. 

This is Idan Cohen's Year 1 Capture Your Flag interview.  Cohen is co-founder and head of product at Boxee Inc, an online video software company.  Previous to Boxee, Cohen held telecom software innovation and developer roles at Comverse.  He was a Captain in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and graduated from Tel Aviv University with a Bachelors of Science degree in Geophysics and Art.


Erik Michielsen: How has your military training been most useful in developing your career?

Idan Cohen:  First of all, it was very important part of my career today because I went into the army and I was recruited to this very small group of kids, extremely smart and extremely weird, everyone else were smart, I was the only—I was probably the odd guy out. It was 6 girls and 2 guys, 2 boys and we were actually building the reconnaissance satellite, the Israeli Army’s reconnaissance satellite, which was just amazing like up to that point, there were engineers probably in their 40’s and 50’s, some of them from the Russian military industry and some of them actually were in NASA before and they were the ones building that satellite and then they decided that—actually maybe 18-year-olds with the right, you know, with the right guidance can do that as well, at least they can write code where needed and, you know, they can be guided into it. 

And they took us and for 6 months they taught us physics, which up to that point I didn’t know anything about physics, I didn’t learn that in high school, and they taught us how to write code, and we were writing kind of code for the satellite itself and code for the ground station. 

And that was extremely interesting, just being in this—in the company of these 40 and 50-year-olds, which were building something huge. And we were just these—a group of 8 and then the next generation was another 8 so we’re kind of 15 kids—it was really 15 kids with about 50—with about a group of 50 50-year-olds, all working on the same thing which was this huge thing that was costing millions and was going to go out in space. It was extremely interesting and for me that definitely got me into software much more ‘cause I had a few years in high school where I wasn’t really writing any code. And it was suddenly brought me back to an interest in actually creating software and how that can be—how can that bring me to create important things. 

And then later I went and I was an officer and I had another 2 years where I was actually doing much more of kind of like intelligence work which was also very interesting because it will suddenly being in charge of other people for the first time, so as a 20-year-old managing, you know, 10 or 15 other 18-year-olds and being their commander and taking care of their needs, and I think that there’s something—the most important thing about the army in Israel which is very different—it’s not—I’m not sure if I would like my kids to go there, or it will be a choice that they could make, but I think that what makes it so important in our people who come out of Israel, in our education and upbringing compared to people for instance who go to college, is just you get a lot of responsibility, as an 18-year-old, it’s not about, you know, someone’s paying for your college, and you can choose if you wanna study or you wanna drink your way through it, here it’s just—yes, you have to do that, but there’s a lot of responsibility with it, and if you’ll take that seriously, you can actually also maybe get, you know, some—you can get some skills and you can get experience, and it can help you for life. And I think that makes it very interesting, so that’s kind of what I came out with, like skills and experience for life.