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Comda is a private Israeli company involved in developing and assimilating information security solutions for organizations. Comda leads the way in Israel in the field of biometric identification, access control and electronic ID cards. The company currently has 80 employees, of whom 50 work in outsourcing arrangements. We spoke with Founder and CEO Ze'ev Shetach and Human Resources Manager Alona Shaked about the company's unique area of enterprise, on a vision of a transformation to an electronic world free of paper documents and on employee retention in today's day and age, and heard insights regarding employer-employee relations from a veteran CEO with a wealth of experience.
How did the company get started?
Ze'ev: The company was set up in 1985. During the period preceding its founding I worked at a small software house (Einav Systems) which no longer exists, but a lot of large companies emerged from it, such as Fourth Dimension and Liraz. I founded the company in partnership with the software house.
What was the company involved in at first?
Ze'ev: Comda was originally involved in communications [TCP/IP protocol for network data transmission; today it focuses on the Internet] before the Internet age. We understood that TCP/IP software had to be introduced into DOS in order to enable PC's to hook up with large computers and to connect every computer with every other computer. At first nobody understood what we were talking about and we had to fight big corporations like IBM, Microsoft and Digital, because each of them wanted to develop the solutions for themselves and no company favored this cooperativeness. Eventually everyone realized there was a need for it and that's really how the Internet got started. Today every computer has built-in TCP/IP.
How did the company develop later?
Ze'ev: At that stage we were 4-5 employees and we developed various products related to data communications. When the Internet burst onto the scene it brought a whole lot of success because everybody realized the company had been headed in the right direction. The Internet revolution brought us a lot of customers because all of the customers had a PC and all of them had to connect to large computers, so there was a need for the communications program we supplied and assimilated and almost all of the large organizations in the market were our customers.
From left to right: Comda Sales Manager Tami Lanzkron, CEO and Founder Ze'ev Shetach and Human Resources Manager Alona Shaked.
How did the transition from communications to information security take place?
Ze'ev: In the early 1990s computer communications already held less interest for me because the IP solution had been implemented. The first phase had been completed and we realized now there was a need for supplementary solutions, primarily in the field of information security, in order to prevent easy infiltration of computers without the computer owner's authorization. After finally making the connection, there was a need to create obstructions and restrictions because everything was connected and everything was wide open. We entered the field of information security, started developing information security solutions and acquired a reputation for presenting leading technologies. We expanded over the years, entering additional fields.
Ze'ev: One of the most important things in information security is electronic identification. It's like a key to a door. When you protect and build window gratings you have to make sure the lock and key are sophisticated enough to thwart intruders. There are several methods of identification known as Smart ID or Strong ID. There's an infrastructures method based on a public key, a disposable key or password method and the biometric identification method.
What it biometrics?
Ze'ev: Biometric ID is identification based on physical or behavioral traits that can be measured and saved and then used to verify identification. Every human being has unique biometric traits – fingerprints, voice ID, palm ID, iris ID, etc.
Another field the company later entered is electronic signatures. In 2001 Comda set up a subsidiary company called Comsign, which is now the only entity in Israel authorized to supply electronic signatures approved by the Public Law.
What are electronic signatures?
Ze'ev: Electronic signing means taking a text you wrote, creating an extract (that does not enable you to replicate the original text) and adding a signature using a secret code unique to the extract. The recipient has a public key provided by the sender that matches his secret code and with which he can decipher the signed extract. Using this method you can also assess whether the document underwent a change or forgery and whether the sender is really the person who identified himself as the sender. A simple method invented in 1977 by three geniuses, Rivest, Shamir and Adelman. The Electronic Signature Law grants a "strong" rating to electronic signature verification using an ID issued only by an authorized entity, which is us (i.e. Comsign).
What does the term "authorized entity" mean?
Alona: The task of an authorized entity is to issue citizens electronic signature cards. Comsign is the only authorized entity in Israel. It's the only body in Israel vested with the authority to issue these certified electronic signatures, which are supported by the law. There's a special law that grants the authorized entity legal standing.
Which citizens need an electronic signature?
Alona: Entire segments of the public – the Finance Ministry, the Defense Ministry, people who submit tenders or reports for securities, judges, attorneys, contractors. The electronic signature is used in various types of vital services characterized by the use of electronic media on printed documents.
What led to this method?
Ze'ev: The existing model where two people sit in front of their computers and one creates an account, for example, prints it and sends it in the mail, and the recipient opens the envelope and enters the contents into his computer is an illogical model that has to vanish. In today's age there's no reason for these processes not to be entirely computerized. When that happens there will be a tremendous change in the way people live and it will lead to enormous savings of resources and valuable time. There's also the ecological aspect – the tremendous reduction in paper, which in turn causes less environmental damage.
Do you foresee growth in the use of electronic signatures in the future?
Ze'ev: Looking forward the service we provide will embrace every vital service, assuming in the future all vital services are provided electronically. In the future all consumer bills will be electronic, which will necessitate electronic signing. Every citizen who wants to send registered mail to somebody via Internet will be required to provide an electronic signature authorized by law.
One gets the impression the company is much bigger than it actually is. Why is that?
Alona: The reason is that at Comda everyone is holding down three jobs. People work hard here and everybody has numerous areas of responsibility. The employee's cost/benefit ratio has to be very good at Comda.
What kind of people work for the company?
Alona: People who like to work. It's a matter of mindset and character. The interaction among people here is one in which people fire each other up.
What's really fabulous here is the human material. Very high caliber people work here at a very high level and the communication between people is very amiable.
What kind of company is Comda as a place to work?
Alona: There's a certain kind of enthusiasm here. We really love what we're doing and it stimulates us.
Ze'ev: The fact that we work hard doesn't mean we forget to have a good time, celebrate birthdays, hold large breakfasts.
Alona: There's an underlying competition here over who will dazzle the crowd more with his gastronomic talents.
Ze'ev: On Pesach we're planning an amazing and original company event for all of the employees and their spouses.
Alona: It's fun to come in here in the morning, fun to make a project move forward, fun to be here.
What characterizes employee-management relations at the company?
Ze'ev: There is no relationship of management-employees. Everybody works here. When necessary I clean up and wash dishes, too.
Alona: The structure here is flat. We're not a big, complex organization. There's a CEO and a few functions subordinate to him.
Ze'ev: The truth is that I don't think of myself as a CEO, but as a worker with a lot of responsibility, and that accounts for some of the gripes against me…There are 80 workers here and I'm one of them. My interaction with the employees is more that of a worker and producer than of a CEO. In day-to-day affairs I'm more of a worker than a manager. That's not necessarily to my credit, but that's the way it is.
How is the company structured?
Ze'ev: The company is divided into three areas of activity:
The Technologies Department, which develops various applications for the customers. This department includes development people, salespeople and system people.
The Electronic Signatures section, which is run by Comsign, the subsidiary we founded. Comsign has 10 employees, but operations are expanding all the time and its growth rate is over 50% annually.
The Outsourcing Department, which has 50 employees located at client sites and working in a variety of fields.
Why did you decide to expand outsourcing beyond your area of specialization?
Alona: Our projects are related to electronic security, which includes additional fields such as system, communications and infrastructures. Most of our employees are people from these fields. These are such high-caliber people that over time we started getting requests from customers for workers of this quality in other fields as well, so we drifted to other fields as well. Today we have people manning positions as project managers, programmers, QA people, systems analyzers and just about every high-tech profession.
Why would a job candidate who decides to do outsourcing work choose to do it through you when there are so many companies that specialize in this?
Alona: What we do may be called outsourcing and the business model is identical to what's known in the job market, but the feeling we give the employee is very different. Comda workers, even if they're located at client sites, are people who are intimately connected to us.
Ze'ev: Another factor related to the opportunities available to outsourcing employees is to develop within the company. Today, for instance, a worker came in for a talk – a programmer who wanted training in information security. We of course built him a specialization track with appropriate courses, and he can build for himself a new and promising career.
How do you create this feeling of connectedness with outsourcing workers?
Alona: First of all we involve him in our internal projects. Even employees who work at client sites come in and work with us at the zero hour, so in terms of what actually transpires in the field, they are very connected to us. The second matter has to do with size. We're not a company of 4,000 employees and I have the ability to personally get to know each of the workers employed through outsourcing arrangements. I can give each of them personal attention, deal with their problems and requests in a concrete way and be there for the worker. Beyond that there's a factor that's paramount for some, while others will say it's less important than personal attention – compensation. Because we're not an enormous organization of thousands of employees, we're able to pay people more. Our system is leaner, so in today's competitive market we can offer people personal attention and more competitive salaries.
What is the breakdown of company employees?
Alona: Though we're only 80 people, the composition is very wide-ranging. We have older people along with discharged soldiers working their first job. In terms of fixed categories, we're very balanced – half women and half men. This is a company that shows understanding for pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood.
What screening processes do you conduct for job candidates?
Alona: The internal process we put candidates through consists of interviews and sometimes tests. In the case of outsourcing recruitment the relevant managers conduct the process. In the case of internal recruitment everybody goes through Ze'ev, who is the ultimate "recruitment coordinator." He often sees things we miss.
Ze'ev: The trick is to discern the candidate and worker's positive abilities and extract his good qualities.
Alona: Our processes are not long. In most cases we operate in a very intuitive way. First of all we choose people who are right for the organization, people who will fit in here, who will enjoy being here and who we'll enjoy working with, but of course we don't compromise on their professional abilities.
What advantages does Comda offer its employees?
Ze'ev: Because the company is not large, every worker here is a star. Even the
lowest-ranking worker who got hired just yesterday has opportunities to take responsibility and stand out.
Alona: This is a place that makes this very possible. For instance, we have a young woman who was hired as an administrative assistant, and within three or four months, when Ze'ev identified her talents, was made into a projects manager who is currently leading several large projects at the company. That's a leap that at other organizations takes people years to make.
Ze'ev: People want to work here because they're looking for interesting projects. I believe that at the end of the day people want to do interesting work and feel good about themselves. At Comda there's a combination of the startup dream, interesting development projects at the technological forefront and the security of a stable workplace established 23 years ago.
Alona: Another important thing is related to preserving the environment. We're doing something that from a technological perspective is very interesting, but there's also a feeling you're really doing something that could change the world, something for your children and grandchildren. You feel you're making a real change.
Which projects do you have lined up?
Ze'ev: Several projects, including one for Maccabi Health Services, switching their magnetic cards to biometric ID based on fingerprints. It's a fascinating project and the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Another project is to spare taxpayers from having to go to the Income Tax Authority offices and wait in line to sign for ledgers. It will allow them to do it from home using an electronic signature. Another project taking shape is a project for electronic prescriptions aimed at streamlining the process of obtaining a doctor's prescription. Instead of going to the doctor to receive the prescription the doctor will be able to sign the prescription with an electronic signature, send it to the health fund's database and using the magnetic card the pharmacist can see which prescriptions are waiting for the patient. This will save a lot of time and resources. It represents a real change in people's way of life and it's a really good feeling to know you're having an impact.
In light of the state of the market is there something you're doing differently than in the past in order to prevent employees from looking elsewhere?
Alona: It's impossible to keep people from looking elsewhere. In my opinion if people are looking elsewhere, looking into options and are in the process of thinking and checking while they're working here, we're not worse off, we're better off. I'm very confident in what we have to offer our personnel. The world has become cold and indifferent, nothing is guaranteed and everything is very temporal and expendable, but we're offering a good, warm home and this home is backed with good conditions and a nice atmosphere, and people know how to make their own calculations.
Ze'ev, in light of your many years of experience, is there a certain factor you consider decisive in worker retention?
Ze'ev: Both successes and failures lie in the managers' ability to stay on top of things with the employees. Just like with a married couple, the secret of success is paying attention to the other person at the right time, at the time when it's needed most.
In what ways is this attention manifested?
Ze'ev: Pay raises, for example. We try to carry out salary talks with the right timing with each of the employees.
Alona: For instance, when one of our employees bought an apartment we called him in for a salary talk because we knew the time was right for him, since he was feeling pressed and needed more money.
Still, the relationship between the worker and the employer is not a two-way street, like with a married couple…
Alona: It's a bit like parents and children. Knowing how to identify when the child needs you and giving him what he needs, both emotionally and materially…
Ze'ev: Which is sometimes part of the emotional needs. The secret is being aware that you're giving to your employee, timing and the dynamics between the two of you. Employees sometimes quit because they were neglected by the manager in terms of their emotional needs.
Does this approach come across in hiring as well?
Ze'ev: Definitely. The realization I came to over the years is that in
employer-employee relations there's only one side that's in charge and that's the employer. I used to think that if both the employer and the job candidate are in favor and both of them think it's a good thing, then it will work out. That might work with a married couple, but in employer-employee relations it doesn't work. The worker, no matter how much he might like to, never knows what's waiting for him. The employer does know, giving him an advantage over the job candidate, therefore he has to take full responsibility and realize that the responsibility rests on him alone and not on the worker, as many employers are wont to think.
Why do you think many other employers don't see it the same way?
Ze'ev: Many employers, particularly young employers, think the responsibility is mutual. There is no symmetry here. When a manager interviews a job candidate he has to identify whether or not he is suitable and he is responsible for hiring the right people for the right jobs. That's part of success or failure.
Then the key to success lies in the employer taking responsibility for matching the right worker to the organization?
Ze'ev: Yes. The employer has to take full responsibility for matching the worker. The worker, in my humble opinion, takes no responsibility. As soon as employers realize this they reduce the quitting and firing rates. An employer cannot think, "Worst case scenario, after three months I'll fire the worker if he's not right…" This is an unacceptable approach as I see it, and harms both sides. An employer has to check thoroughly and be sure about his decision. If he's not 100% certain he shouldn't go ahead and hire, which wastes time and money for both sides. In my opinion the Severance Pay Law is not fair for the employees. If he's found unsuitable after a short period of employment the employer should compensate the dismissed worker. If it were like that the employer might think twice before making an agreement with the worker and not take the matter too lightly.
In conclusion, Ze'ev, what is your vision for the company?
Ze'ev: Our vision is to bring about a state in which all of us manage to get along without a lot of paper. A state in which we manage to use the computer in accordance with what it can and should be, not as a sophisticated typewriter. The company workers have a goal and vision of proving this works and works well, and we hope to succeed in persuading people to relinquish the thinking that says paper is safest. We're at the dawn of a new age and I'm hoping that not long from now we'll have arrived at a different place.