Israeli program trains ultra-Orthodox women for high-tech jobs

Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) employees made up about 3.3 percent of the high-tech workforce, while the Haredi community makes up about 12 percent of the overall Israeli population.

By Sharon Wrobel, The Algemeiner

Debbie Alter Sorotzkin, the second child out of a Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox family of ten, says she has always had a passion for logic and math. After high school, some of her classmates studied to become teachers or accountants.

“I chose computer programming as my studies because it’s something that always interested me,” Alter Sorotzkin said in an interview with The Algemeiner. “In my job now, I write loads of code and create new features for the products of a company.”

Alter Sorotzkin is now a backend developer at XM Cyber, an Israeli hybrid cloud cybersecurity startup that last month was snatched up by the world’s fourth-largest retailer in a $700 million deal.

She’s also a prime example of an effort to integrate members of the Haredi community — and in particular women, who are often the main family breadwinners — into top high-tech jobs in Israel, as the industry suffers from a shortage of software developers and other skilled workers.

“I work in a team of 20 people in an open-space office, although we only come in twice a week due to COVID-19,” she said. “I sit with three other girls from the Adva study program and everyone is very respectful and knows the boundaries — like what we can and what we can’t do with men — and it all works out.”

Despite these efforts, representation is still low and slowly progressing. About 60 percent of tech firms were having difficulty in finding workers, with 13,000 open positions in Israel’s tech industry at the end of December 2020, according to the 2020 High-Tech Human Capital Report by Start-Up Nation Central and the Israel Innovation Authority, released in April. Ultra-Orthodox employees made up about 3.3 percent of the high-tech workforce, similar to 2019, after five years of consistent increases. Meanwhile, the Haredi community makes up about 12 percent of the overall Israeli population.

“Without the large-scale integration of women, Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox population in high-tech, the primary growth engine of the Israeli economy will be without fuel, and the negative impact will far exceed the tech industry’s relative size in the economy,” commented Eugene Kandel CEO of Start-Up Nation Central in the report.

Alter Sorotzkin, like her three female colleagues, is a graduate of the Adva program, which trains ultra-Orthodox seminary students to become software engineers and close the skills gap at companies like Apple, IBM, Mobileye, Facebook, and Google.

“They wanted the top girls that chose computer programming. They gave us IQ exams, different tests to check our knowledge and test our math levels,” Alter Sorotzkin recounted.

Adva is a two-year program initiated by Scale-Up Velocity, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Start-Up Nation Central. It combines academic-level math, logic, calculus, and computer science studies, taught by senior academic staff from Israeli universities and practical experience projects organized in collaboration with tech companies and and the Ministry of Defense. After a pilot period, the program is currently operated by the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) Lev Academic Center.

“Our mission is to create models for the high-tech community in Israel so they can reach out to more potential in the human capital area to make sure that the chronic human capital shortage in the tech sector will not get larger, and even shrink a bit,” said Anat Greemland, VP of Strategy at Scale-Up Velocity.

“We realized that the underrepresented populations in the high-tech industry, such as the Haredi community, face three main obstacles: knowledge, cultural barriers, and problem-solving skills or experience. Most of the Israelis hired in high-tech have some experience through the army service, or because they are geeks since they are 12 and have cracked codes,” Greemland continued.

The Adva program was created in collaboration with the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs and a steering committee with representatives from Google, IBM, and Mobileye, to help understand and define the skills demanded from graduates needed in today’s industry.

The first cohort of 89 female Haredi students started three years ago. They completed two years of study and immediately participated in a four-month bootcamp to expose them to real-work projects from Mobileye, Google and the IDF. The second cohort of 58 students graduated at the end of September.

Alter Sorotzkin is among the graduates who finished the Adva program last September. She got married in November, and within a few months got her job at XM Cyber, a hybrid cloud cybersecurity startup co-founded in 2016 by a former Mossad chief.

“We did tons of math, a lot of theoretical thinking, and then the second part of the program was a lot of coding and imitating what happens out there in the high-tech world — which really trained us what it is like to have a daily schedule,” she said.

The daughter of two immigrants to Israel from London and Canada, she added that studies were very intense, keeping her up until late at night — “but it was totally worth it,” she exclaimed.

“Towards the end of the studies our advisor started helping us with how to write our resumes, the basics of how to start looking for jobs, the soft skills to prepare for interviews, and the general skills of how to be a good employee,” Alter Sorotzkin said. “We did mock interviews and learned how to reply when you don’t know the answer to a question.”

She was lured to work at XM Cyber after the startup was so satisfied with the performance of one of her fellow students that they sought more Adva graduates.

“I can say that 95 percent of those who graduated last year have work placements in core tech positions, developing positions in companies like Apple, Checkpoint, Facebook and a lot of growth companies here in Israel,” Greemland said. “Right now, about two months after the end of the second cohort we are at 50 percent placement, working in top companies in Israel like XM Cyber and Rafael.”

Greemland shared feedback she received from an HR recruiter of one firm, who said that to make attract top talent, employers need to understand evolving needs, from vegan-friendly cafeterias to dog-friendly offices. Haredi girls who prefer to to sit next to a woman at the office are no different than other candidates who come with personal requirements, she said.

“Most of our Haredi female graduates are hard workers, they are very loyal and they have this spark and enthusiasm that every developer needs as they love what they do and they really want to be part of this industry,” Greemland said.