U.S. tech companies with close ties to Ukrainian developers grapple with impact of Russian attacks

A Ukrainian contractor for Seattle startup Scalr posted this picture of her apartment building, in a suburb of Kyiv, in the company’s Slack channel, following a Russian bombing attack. (Photo courtesy Scalr.)

Scalr‘s connections to Ukraine run deep. The Seattle-based cloud tech startup’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Igor Savchenko, is a native of Ukraine whose parents still live in the country. The company works with about 45 developers in Ukraine, contractors who make up about two-thirds of its overall team.

So when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, upending the lives of many of Scalr’s key contributors, the next move was clear to co-founder and CEO Sebastian Stadil.

“From day one, we told everyone, ‘Hey, we’re doing a firing freeze,’ ” Stadil said.

Yes, a firing freeze. Scalr pledged to continue to pay workers in Ukraine their full compensation during the conflict, even if they’re not doing their normal work.

Scalr co-founder and CEO Sebastian Stadil pledged to continue paying Ukrainian contractors even if not actively working for the startup. (Photo via LinkedIn)

The startup’s commitment freed members of its team in Ukraine to choose their own courses of action without worrying about their jobs. Many are now working day and night in the interest of their country, contributing to military and technical initiatives to thwart the Russian aggression on multiple fronts.

“From a CEO’s perspective, the most valuable thing I can offer them is stability in employment, as everything around them is unstable,” Stadil explained.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is having a deep impact on tech companies based in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere around the world. Startups in Seattle, Silicon Valley and other parts of the country often work with teams in Ukraine, tapping the country’s large pool of English-speaking programmers, project managers and other technologists.

For U.S.-based startup leaders and tech managers with development teams in Ukraine, the conflict is adding new layers of operational and cultural complexity after a tumultuous two years under the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even for those who’ve been able to reach relative safety, connectivity problems caused by Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure have made communicating and working from the country much more challenging. In some cases, leaders and managers in the U.S. are going days without hearing from their colleagues.

The extraordinary circumstances are also inspiring new levels of sympathy and understanding.

‘We have to make sure everyone’s alive’

Monica Plath, an entrepreneur in Yakima, Wash., has been working with developers in Ukraine since last summer as founder and CEO of Littlebird Connected Care, a new hardware and services tech startup. As the conflict escalated, Littlebird began starting its regular remote meetings with a high-stakes status check on teammates and their families.

Monica Plath, founder and CEO founder and CEO of Littlebird Connected Care, works with a team of Ukrainian developers. (Photo via LinkedIn)

“Is everyone OK? That’s our first thing,” Plath explained. “We have 12 people, and we have to make sure everyone’s alive.”

Those based in Kyiv have fled the Ukrainian capital, Plath said. Whereas before meetings might be interrupted by everyday moments such as kids or dogs in the background of a video call, members of the team are now hiding in basements, separated from families, doing their best to maintain some level of normalcy amid an extraordinary crisis.

Littlebird has been gearing up to launch the company’s first product, but Plath considered delaying the debut to give the team members in Ukraine an opportunity to focus on their immediate needs. They told her that they preferred to push ahead, keeping themselves occupied and maintaining their income to support their families.

In January, as the possibility for Russian aggression became more clear, the startup went through a series of cyberthreat mitigations, flying assets back from Ukraine, among other security measures. It seemed like a mere precaution at the time, amid what looked like Russian posturing, but it turned out to be an important move.

“It’s been a really crazy month,” Plath said.

‘Impossible to fully embrace the magnitude’

The same goes for Derek Merdinyan, the founder and CEO of Video Igniter, a custom animated video company based in Seattle. Merdinyan works with a network of contractors around the world on storyboarding, script-writing, technology development and marketing.

Derek Merdinyan, the founder and CEO of Video Igniter works with more than 20 contractors in Ukraine.

His regular collaborators include about two dozen contractors in Ukraine, and two project managers in the country who help manage video production They were all forced to flee Kyiv when the invasion began, in some cases moving multiple times.

“It’s just impossible to fully embrace the magnitude of what they’re going through,” Merdinyan said. “You’ve just got to wake up every day hoping that nothing has happened overnight.”

Even though they’re all in safer places now, practical concerns linger.

  • Because of the time difference, Merdinyan would usually talk with the team on video calls when it’s nighttime for them. But with the Russian attacks, curfews in major cities require lights to be turned out, and members of the team technically aren’t even supposed to have their laptops open.
  • Internet connectivity has been a struggle at various times over the past month, requiring the team to work with smaller file sizes in some cases, because they’re relying on cellular connections.

Like others in his situation, Merdinyan has been focusing first on the health, safety and needs of his Ukrainian colleagues. At one point, when he asked what they needed from him and others in the U.S., they said two things: keep sending more work to keep them busy, and help Ukraine defend itself from air attacks.

As a U.S. civilian in the Pacific Northwest, Merdinyan acknowledged that he couldn’t address the second point, but he can certainly keep the work flowing.

“Beyond that, it’s just trying to be sympathetic and empathetic to the situation, and working with everybody to make sure that they’re first safe, and then taking care of their mental well-being,” he said.

Global support for Ukrainian colleagues

Many larger tech companies also have deep connections to the country.

Seattle-based online travel giant Expedia Group, for example, has around 200 contractors in Ukraine, primarily in product development and engineering, said Sarah Gavin, senior vice president of global communications.

L-R: Expedia Group’s Sergio Davila, Luis Hector Garcia and Amanda Arevalo at the “Eat for Ukraine” benefit in Prague. Not pictured: event organizer Anastasiia Podoliaka. (Photo courtesy Expedia Group.)

Expedia has been working with its vendor organizations who employ those workers to be as responsive and flexible as possible, distinguishing between mission-critical work and assignments that can be handed off or paused when people need to stop working for a period of time to ensure their own safety and that of their families.

Others have insisted on continuing to work. “There are a lot of people who have said, ‘This is an amazing outlet for me,’ or they’re in a part of the country where they are less impacted by the minute-to-minute threat, or they’re the only ones in their extended family with income,” Gavin said.

In the meantime, Expedia employees around the world have been rallying to support the cause.

  • Employees in Prague launched an “Eat for Ukraine” benefit, raising about $4,000 to benefit people and causes in the country. Other offices around world are now holding similar fundraisers.
  • The Black Expedia Allied Movement (BEAM) conducted a large fundraising effort for a group of South African students who struggled to flee Ukraine.
  • Expedia teams in Poland and Hungary are working with hotels to find housing for Ukrainian refugees.
  • The company’s Vrbo vacation rental unit has waived service fees in Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Belarus and Moldova during the conflict.

Coding again back in the U.S.

With Scalr’s Ukrainian contractors helping the country on a variety of fronts, the company’s engineering leaders in Seattle and California have shifted back into individual contributor roles, writing code again to keep projects going.

“Some of them are a little bit rusty, but I guess it’s a good thing to get them to write code again,” said Stadil, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “Some of them are actually kind of happy to have the opportunity.”

Pictures posted by Scalr contractors in the company’s Slack channel, clockwise from upper left: strollers symbolize toddlers killed in Russian attacks; the house of a Scalr contractor’s neighbor after a bombing; a pro-Ukraine demonstration in front of Russian troops in Kherson, in southern Ukraine; and an unexploded bomb in the yard of a Scalr contractor’s neighbor. (Photos courtesy Scalr.)

The company’s Slack general channel, where workers would normally offer updates on work projects, has filled with pictures taken by contractors in Ukraine, including a building reduced to rubble near one worker’s house in Eastern Ukraine, a subway station where a worker took shelter with hundreds of other citizens, and huge crowd of Ukrainians blocking a Russian convoy from advancing.

When we contacted him one afternoon last week, Stadil had just filed the articles of incorporation for a nonprofit to raise funds for Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, providing financial assistance to everyday people in Ukraine who have lost their jobs and are now fighting on behalf of their country.

Scalr has offered financial assistance to any of its Ukrainian contractors who want to move to safer locations, but has gotten no takers. In fact, some Ukrainian nationals who were working remotely for the company from European Union countries have returned to their homeland to take up arms.

“This is very real. These are my colleagues. They are risking their lives,” Stadil said. “The amount of bravery from everyone is astounding.”