Tech firms scramble to save Ukrainian employees
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Tech firms scramble to save Ukrainian employees

Israeli tech sector working to save tens of thousands of developers, engineers in invaded country

People arrive at a train station as they try to leave Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
People arrive at a train station as they try to leave Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

For years, many Israeli tech companies have relied on programmers and engineers in Ukraine to help build their products at cost-effective rates. Now, as their Ukrainian employees are in the jaws of the Russian military onslaught, those firms are running stopgap situation rooms and navigating complex logistics, as their Ukrainian staff and their families scramble to get to safety or hunker down amid the worst crisis the European continent has seen since the Second World War.

Nir Zohar, president of Israeli web creator giant Wix — which had over 900 Ukrainian employees before the war — told The Times of Israel that the company’s leadership convenes three times a day to check in with Ukrainian employees and discuss assistance strategies and plans for those who cannot or will not leave.

Zohar said the Tel Aviv-based company, which has about 6,000 employees worldwide, has been coordinating aid such as food, water and other necessities, and arranging transportation and accommodation for its workers, many in the capital Kyiv, who started moving westward when the invasion began or journeyed to a border crossing.

“We had 30 volunteers [Wix employees] who drove from Lithuania to the border [in Poland] to help those crossing with rides,” said Zohar. These Wix members were collected by people they had never met before, given food, clothes, a local SIM card, and taken to Krakow for the night as the company worked to set up long-term accommodation, he added.

“We also have Israeli workers who went to Poland to manage things from there,” said Zohar, of the firm’s operations on several fronts.

Zohar said Wix managed to “extract a fourth of our people” from Ukraine, in addition to about 200 employees who left for Turkey with their families before the Russian invasion.

Ukrainian servicemen ride on top of an armored personnel carrier speeding down a deserted boulevard during an air raid alarm, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. (AP/Vadim Ghirda)

At the R&D centre in Israel for California-based customer success platform Totango, executives speak with Ukrainian employees periodically throughout the day, some of whom are hunkering down in cities under missile attack and threat of occupation.

“We check in with them 2-3 times a day to make sure they have what they need, see how they are,” said Amit Bluman, SVP of Engineering for Totango, from Tel Aviv.

Bluman manages a team of 80 people including 15 Ukrainian professionals “who are an integrated part of our team. The daily meetings with them became very hard, this is a nightmare for them.”

He began working with most of the Ukrainian employees four years ago when Totango acquired a local startup that also employed a team in Russia at the time.

A tech hub

For over a decade, Ukraine has been a popular information technology outsourcing hub for international companies.

Israeli firms have been working with tens of thousands of developers and engineers in Ukraine, amid a chronic shortage of tech talent in Israel, specifically for those roles, according to an estimate by Start-Up Nation Central.

Dr. Alex Coman, a lecturer, speaker and Israel high-tech sector expert, told The Times of Israel that Israel and Ukraine tech ties were “flourishing.”

Traffic jams are seen as people leave the city of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Thursday, February 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

“Ukraine has excellent programmers, the time difference between the two countries is minor, the wages are lower, compared to the US or India, and the communication levels are strong,” said Coman, who has sat on the boards of companies such as IBM Research, AT&T, Motorola, Intel, and Elbit.

Zohar, of Wix, said Ukraine has “super strong tech talent, they are super professional and hard-working.”

Ukraine was a “popular expansion site for Wix, possibly the most popular. Of about 6,000 employees, nearly a thousand were in Ukraine,” said Zohar.

Plans in place

For several weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Israeli tech companies floated emergency plans that offered relocation packages and various forms of financial support as Moscow’s looming threat was met with a somewhat tepid response on the ground.

But many companies including Wix, Totango, and others like property management software firm Guesty, data protection company BigID, marketing and events platform Bizzabo, transcription tech company Verbit, managed to relocate at least some of their Ukrainian employees before the first day of the assault last Thursday, moving them to other European capitals or helping them move from eastern and central regions to the west.

Eyal Levy, VP R&D at BigID told The Times of Israel a week before the invasion that about 5% of the company’s 40 Ukrainian developers and team members had opted to leave the country up until then with the rest staying put and monitoring developments or moving to cities in the western part of the country.

Ukrainians prepare to board a bus to Poland at Lviv bus main station, western Ukraine, on March 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Israeli firm Verbit, a hybrid AI-based and human transcription and captioning software company, which works with 37 professionals in Ukraine, a majority of them developers on the company’s R&D team, said it had a plan in place for weeks prior to the Russian invasion.

“We’ll cover rent and relocation costs, but we also have plans beyond a move, in cases where communication networks could fall, with IT support for communication hardware, and in case the banking systems shut down, so we can pay them and support them,” Ruth Ben Asher-Lavi, Verbit’s VP HR EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa), said last month.

Ben Asher-Lavi told The Times of Israel the morning of the invasion on February 24 that some of the team members had requested the company’s help relocation overnight, putting in motion logistics to help get them to safety.

She estimated that about 15 of its Ukrainian employees had left by that morning.

“We were ready, we had a plan and we put it into effect. We run a dedicated Slack channel to keep track of what is happening, we transfer payments and gave advances on salaries, and we are examining the situation,” she said.

Under attack in Ukraine

But many Ukrainian employees of Israeli tech companies remain in the country, currently under attack.

Bluman, from Totango, said some employees saw their family to safety before returning to their hometown to fight or join civil defense groups or volunteer as medics and first responders.

Most can’t leave regardless because the Ukraine state border guard service has prohibited men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country — and they don’t necessarily want to, he explained.

“They are committed to their country, they want to stay, they are patriots. In the past week, we’ve discovered some amazing qualities [in the team], we are very proud of them,” said Bluman.

Members of the civil defense take positions as a vehicle approaches the checkpoint in Gorenka, outside the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 2, 2022. (AP/Vadim Ghirda)

At this point, said Bluman, Totango can provide financial support by advancing salaries and giving grants, “but there isn’t much more. It is super frustrating, we would like to do more.”

The company also runs support groups for the remaining Ukrainian employees. “It gives them a sense of connection, of belonging, it is super valuable,” he explained.

Bluman said it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next but “the entire community should be helping.”

On Thursday, former Israeli prime minister and head of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu proposed providing Israeli visas for tech workers fleeing the conflict.

“We have to find a solution and our best solution is to include [Ukrainian employees of Israeli companies] in the people that we offer visas and refuge to,” he said.

Times of Israel

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