November 23, 2004

Excerpts: Spies Inc. - Part III

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 2:00 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

The process of selection and retention has always been a brutal intellectual survival of the fittest. Each year, tens of thousands of names are submitted to the IDF for Talpiot consideration by school principles and science teachers. Each September, this group is narrowed down to about 5,000 potential candidates who for a period of about six months are rigorously screened. Very quickly, this number dwindles down to 1,000, and then it drops to 180 after written examinations. Another 60 are cut after personal interviews. At the end of the testing period, only 50 candidates are invited to sign up. Among this group, however, only 35 to 40 make it through the entire program and graduate.
With notable exceptions (Orthodox Jews and Arabs), nearly all Israeli men and women are called up to serve in the military. While in recent years the overall number has decreased for a variety of reasons, it still holds in principle, and that means the military has its hands on the nations entire high school population, which is then scrupulously vetted and sorted. Over the years, the IDF has developed its own methodologies to select, sort, and direct the top conscripts into the most elite and challenging units. Intelligence, above all other military units and branches, has first pick of all of the nations conscripts.
Talpiot is in a class by itself. It takes about the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent. Without question, it is the most vaunted of the IDFs elite programs, and it demonstrates how Israels military system in many ways performs the kind of sifting function that academia serves in the United Statesand offers the same unparalleled cachet for those who graduate. It is somewhat akin to the Ivy League and other universities, such as MIT and Stanford, that draw the top-tier American high school students. As Professor Shimon Shocken explained, In America the best and the brightest go into academia. In Israel, the army attracts the top talent.
However, in the case of Talpiot, conscripts dont exactly applythey are chosen. I got a letter that said come to be tested in Jerusalem, recalled Yuval Shalom, who was recruited in 1984 at age 17. Usually nobody believes they will make it. There is a very high prestige, and nobody thinks they are good enough. This is not something you can prepare for. A little more than a dozen years after his Talpiot invitation, Shalom co-founded the wireless technology firm Wiseband communications. Among its initiatives, Wiseband helped pioneer digital signal processing amplifiers for 2.5 and third generation cellular networks.
Once chosen for Talpiot, candidates must prove themselves through a grueling series of tests. One test, developed with a math professor from Hebrew University, required the creation of a new language using words and signsin half an hour. There is also a battery of questionsmore like riddles (for instance, How long before a cup of coffee turns cold?). These questions were designed not to be solvable, but to analyze how a candidate would problem-solve, a super-selective filter intended to separate the true genius from the exceptionally gifted. By the end, barely 1 percent of the candidates make the cut. The only mitigating factor a recruit has for selection is his or her ability to perform under the accelerated and pressurized atmosphere of the program. No outside influences impact the selection process. Talpiot goes for quality over quantity, and there is no quota to fill. If someone is not suitable at any point, his or her training is halted.
Lieutenant Colonel Avi Poleg, himself a graduate of Talpiot and the program manager of the IDFs technological manpower, described the testing process as one in which its not so much the end goal that is emphasized, but the journey in getting there. There are mainly two instruments, and they are improving all the time, he explained. The first is the pencil and paper exam for general excellence and thinking in math and physics. Second, were looking at how candidates think about solutions. Not necessarily that they got the right solutions but that they have an interest in the field and they are curious about things. We pick people who know how to think. There are dozens of criteria. Candidates have basic knowledge in math and physics and the basic potential to be leaders, and they are good at teamwork. They must cross the threshold of each field. We know that not all of them will reach over the prime level, but everyone should excel in one field and in the other fields know at least the threshold level. We profile and do psychiatric tests where six to eight people sit together, and we give them tasks intended to see their social and teamwork capabilities, like is one person dominant? Does he or she have good ideas but cant convince the group to take them?
The IDF says it is difficult to assess the success of Talpiot in the normal kind of considered, qualitative measuresfor instance, outside of the number of its graduates. It does say, however, that the fact the program continues to exist more than 20 years after its inception speaks volumes, as does the fact that the IDF allocates $1 million annually toward it (it is run under the authority of the Israeli Air Force) . 5 As Lieutenant Colonel Poleg suggested, For every one Talpiot graduate, there are five units asking for him.

About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.