Four days into ferocious fighting across Ukraine after Russia invaded the country, Mike Hahn, the cofounder of Paygo Energy, was finally able to make contact with his team in Kyiv. The co-founder of the Kenya-based energy technology company, which works with Ukrainian manufacturers, said he did not have a contingency plan in place.
“None of us believed an attack would hit Kyiv this abruptly,” Hahn said. “In hindsight, you could say that was naïve,” he told Rest of World.
As with many tech companies, a major draw for Paygo Energy to Ukraine was its massive pool of tech talent, geographic proximity to European and Asian capitals, and the variety of programming languages used by developers.
“There should be outrage from the global tech community about what is happening in the country right now,” Hahn said.
Since Russia’s launched an attack on February 24, rockets have struck apartment buildings across Ukraine, explosions at local airports and military bases have lit up the night sky and civilians have been killed in their homes. Ukraine’s airspace has been closed and major roads are gridlocked, with citizens desperate to get to safety despite the government’s advice to stay home. Without means to monitor the cumulative damage and the Ukrainian government stretched to its limits, there is no way to be sure of the scale of death and destruction. As of Saturday morning, the country’s death toll stood at 198, according to Ukrainian officials. More than 350,000 people have fled to neighboring countries as of Sunday, according to UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency.
On Sunday, as Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he was putting the country’s nuclear deterrence forces on high alert, Ukraine’s burgeoning local and global technology sector, some of whom are working for global brands such as Google and Apple, was scrambling to protect employees inside the country. Some executives have been unable to coordinate safety measures for teams as Russia’s war escalates, they told Rest of World.
In the last few years, Ukraine became a major IT outsourcing hub, attracting the likes of Amazon, Google, IBM and a host of start-ups. The government envisioned the IT sector becoming 10% of the country’s gross domestic product from the current 4%, and even launched an initiative called “Diia city,” offering one of the world’s best tech tax systems. The information technology sector accounts for $4.5 billion in exports, more than 160,000 IT professionals and more than 4,000 companies, according to non-governmental organization Tech Ukraine. Globally utilized and recognized brands such as GitLab, Grammarly and Preply were founded in Ukraine. According to Pitchbook, 126 startups from around the world have staff based in Ukraine.
Andrii Horokhovets, a lead software engineer at sceel.io, a German nearshore service provider with offices in Kyiv and Uzhhorod, packed up his family’s belongings before the invasion began and relocated to Lviv in western Ukraine. Horokhovets, unlike others on his team who were sharing Mr. Bean memes about “waiting for Russian to invade,” considered a Russian attack possible and did his best to prepare a contingency plan. Luckily, his employer had paid his monthly salary in advance, he said.
“People are queuing outside of pharmacies, supermarkets and petrol stations that have run out of fuel,” Horokhovets told Rest of World in a video interview from Lviv. “ATM’s have a daily maximum [daily withdrawal limit] of $100. Everyone is trying to stock up on supplies but it’s difficult.”
According to Stefan Nesselhauf, CEO of sceel.io, its parent company Sigma Software planned to evacuate 1,500 employees from its main headquarters in Kharkiv. But with intense fighting on the streets, the plan was dropped because it became too dangerous to move the staff by road.
“One of our colleagues is in Kharkiv and says that Russian troops and tanks are in the city center and she is quite scared,” said Nesselhauf. “Our clients have been very supportive and [our] priority at the moment is getting everyone [out] safely.”
As fighting and tensions escalate, companies with operations inside Ukraine have to consider how possible it will be to continue their work — there is a lack of a stable internet connection, it’s unclear how companies will be able to pay their employees if banks shut down, or what happens if their staff decide to take up arms to fight back against Russian soldiers. Nesselhauf said at least two of his engineers had already joined the Ukrainian army.
Horokhovets said he was planning to move his family permanently to Poland, but on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a declaration ordering a general military mobilization, prohibiting male citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country. His family will soon depart, but he will remain in Lviv.
“My family and I tried to prepare as best we could,” he said. “Most people didn’t believe an invasion was possible. Now we do not know whether we will ever live in the country that we’ve known until now.”