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For tech companies with Ukraine-based staff, fears aren’t just economic

"I want to get our team out of harm's way," one local CEO said in discussing his Ukrainian employees. As the conflict unfolds, here's what it means for founders — and the tech industry as a whole.

A young girl protesting against war in Ukraine.

(Photo by Matti from Pexels)

As the global impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfolds, some US-based tech leaders have worries far beyond the possible economic or cybersecurity threats. To those with employees based in Ukraine, this international controversy is much more personal.

Afua Banful is the founder and CEO of DC edtech startup Aneta Ed, the platform of which is maintained by a team of developers in Ukraine. Up until now, although the situation with her employees was tense, work continued as usual and communication remained open. But with yesterday’s moves, Banful said her team is hunkered down trying to avoid shells.  She’s completely shifted gears to making sure her team is safe.

“I am overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness and sadness seeing people I care about suffer,” Banful told Technical.ly. “That helplessness is followed closely by anger because the damage being done all seems so unnecessary. On a business operations level, I have no concern because there will be no interruptions. But that is not the point. I am heartbroken as a human being.”

So far, Banful said she’s been unable to find a concrete way to help her team, who are stuck amidst clogged escape routes, but she’s remaining on standby to step in when she can.

Implications for technology

While this international crisis very much exists in the real, physical world, tech has also already played an important role. The Associated Press reported that Russia’s assault has incorporated cyberattacks, on top of the armed forces’ invasion. According to the outlet, the Ukrainian government and affiliated organizations’ websites have been attacked, including with malware that wiped data from hundreds of computers in Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania. Using current data, researchers say that Russia had been preparing the cyberattack as much as three months prior.

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Presently, cyber experts in the US have concerns that the attacks may not remain in Europe. Earlier this month, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued a “Shields Up” alert recommending companies and organizations put up extra protections. In an updated alert, the CISA said it would work closely with its Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative and international computer emergency readiness team affiliates to monitor the situation and share information on activities.

“This current environment requires us all to be laser-focused on resilience,” the CISA alert says. “This must include a focus on ensuring preparedness and a rapid, coordinated response to mitigate the impact of such disruptions on our national security, economic prosperity, or public health and safety.”

The US Capitol. (Photo by Andrew Evans)

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, also has concerns on how cyberattacks will be considered under NATO principles. While President Joe Biden has so far said the US will not be offering military aid on the ground in Ukraine, the potential for digital counterattacks, Warner noted in an interview with Axios, puts NATO countries at risk.

According to Warner, specific rules regarding cyberattacks haven’t been firmly placed, and a conflict like this might mean establishing them on the spot.

“This has been that area that’s been kind of viewed as nerdy and hypothetical,” Warner told Axios. “I hope we can have a conversation a week from now, and you could say, ‘Hey, senator, you were totally wrong and we’re still in the same status.'”

Keeping Ukrainian employees safe

For some tech companies, like Aneta, the conflict is less of an industry problem and much more personal. Stuzo, a commerce tech company in Philadelphia, first opened an office in Ukraine 12 years ago and currently hosts about 100 employees in Kyiv and Zhytomyr. CEO Gunter Pfau told Technical.ly that he and his team have been monitoring the situation for a few months, and began developing a plan during Super Bowl weekend to move employees to Western Ukraine and Poland. So far, 50 employees have moved to safety while 11 more are traveling today, Pfau said Friday, and the team is in fairly constant communication about finding new housing and checking in on employee safety.

“It’s tough picking up your family, and temporarily relocating. It was my decision,” Pfau said. “So, I asked myself a question and I said, ‘What would I do if Pennsylvania was surrounded? What would I do with our team here? That’s the same thing I want to do with our team there.’ And my answer came: I want to get our team out of harm’s way.”

For Pfau, this conflict and the safety of his team touch on additional personal meaning: Pfau himself was born in Romania and fled the country at the age of 9, seeking refuge in Austria before heading to the US with his father. It’s something he never forgot, he said, especially now.

“In an odd way, I feel very fortunate that I’m very comfortable being a wartime CEO,” Pfau said. “It is stressful, and I didn’t get much sleep this week. But I want to make sure there are certain things that I can be delegating that I’m not, and I want the team in Ukraine to know that I, at the highest level, care very deeply about them.”

Others haven’t been so open about how this is impacting their employees. Pennsylvania-based EPAM Systems, which has 13,000 employees in Ukraine, not only has to worry about workers, but it also has stock concerns. Yesterday, EPAM’s shares dropped 16% at opening, although they had moved up 8.6% by the close. But its value has almost halved since December, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, due to potential war and sanctions.

“EPAM is closely monitoring the events in Ukraine, as they do have a strong presence in Eastern Europe,” a spokesperson said in a statement to Technical.ly on Friday. “As of now, they have not addressed or made any official statements in relation to the current situation.”

Longterm impact

For now, Banful has little concern for how her company will fare during this crisis; her top priority is the safety of her team. But she worries about how this conflict will affect international collaborations and the tech industry in the long term.

The software development sector is incredibly well-suited for remote work, and there’s a huge hub of talent in Eastern Europe and Ukraine. Given the instability and uncertainty in the region, though, she’s concerned that companies will see an added risk in sourcing from that talent pool — and potentially avoid it.

“That hurts me so much because, aside from missing the opportunity to collaborate, we will also be missing the opportunity to connect as human beings. How else could a Black woman who grew up in Ghana recognize the kinship between me and my Ukrainian counterparts?” Banful said. “Having experienced it, I won’t abandon that path of international collaboration. However, I can see how this will be a new consideration for someone first thinking about where their collaborators are from. And that is truly sad to me.”

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Paige Gross contributed reporting to this story.

Companies: Aneta Ed, EPAM, Stuzo
People: Gunter Pfau
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