Every day, online and at physical venues, professionals from myriad sectors attend industry events put on by Informa, the world’s biggest events company. The digital infrastructure behind these events almost certainly rarely passes through their attendees’ thoughts.
Fewer still would ever imagine it might have been partly built and maintained by software developers and other IT specialists going about their jobs in a country at war. Missiles still regularly rain down on towns and critical infrastructure in Ukraine, far from the front lines.
Ukraine’s power stations, grid and telecommunications are the most common targets of these strikes, designed to wear Ukraine’s population down psychologically. And physically, especially in the depths of last winter. Residential properties and public spaces are also regularly hit, causing civilian deaths and injuries.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the latter was home to around 300,000 IT specialists – up to 200,000 of whom were employed either directly or indirectly by Western organisations.
Source: Adam, J.A. The Impact of Tech Services Exports from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia on Global Prosperity. Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik 15, 151–162 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12399-022-00905-9
Some have left the country, mainly women with men up to the age of 60 prevented from leaving by martial law, and others have joined the army, still mostly voluntarily.
A survey conducted by the IT sector industry body IT Association Ukraine published in March this year estimates that 2% of the country’s IT specialists, mainly those with military experience, have joined the army. A further 5% are active in Ukraine’s cyber forces and 16%, mainly women, continue their work from abroad.
The study estimates that a hugely impressive 85% of Ukraine’s IT specialists working actively before Russia’s invasion continue to do so. 70% are working from the western and central parts of Ukraine characterised as ‘safe’ regions – a relative term.
One big factor in favour of Ukraine’s IT sector is that most of the country’s specialists, especially those employed by Western organisations, can work remotely. Even before Russia’s invasion, the Covid-19 pandemic had led to many offices being abandoned in favour of fully remote working arrangements.
From that perspective, the physical location of Ukrainian specialists had already become of minimal importance to Western employers. It’s made little difference that many exchanged home offices in larger cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv for home offices in smaller towns, villages and rural areas at less risk from missile strikes or shelling.
What has been far more problematic is the fact that Ukraine’s energy and communications systems have been regularly targeted by Russian strikes. Remote work requires a stable power supply and internet connection. If remote IT specialists were to regularly go offline for hours or even days with no warning, even the most sympathetic international employers would be expected to start to look for more reliable alternatives.
But they haven’t had to because Ukraine’s IT specialists have maintained their reliability despite the challenges of war. In 2022, just 2% of K&C’s billable hours were lost to war-related disruption.
The reliability of Ukraine’s IT services exports is the product of a combination of stoicism, determination and innovation. IT specialists and their employers have turned the kind of professional project management, risk management, problem-solving and innovation skills acquired to build modern software systems to the challenge of working reliably against the backdrop of war.
IT services outsourcing companies were already used to managing data and cyber security across remote teams and immediately ramped up safeguards. Most had already put contingency cyber security plans in place as Russian troops amassed at the border during the months ahead of the invasion.
The bigger issue was how to keep remote specialists consistently online with swathes of the power grid and telecoms being regularly taken out by Russian missile strikes targeting civilian infrastructure. The answer has been a combination of backup power supply that can be fired up when the grid is down. And Starlink – Elon Musk’s satellite-based internet service.
Starlink connectivity has made a huge difference for Ukraine’s armed forces in their defence of their country, making it practically impossible for Russian activity to wipe out communications. But the satellite-based system has also kept Ukraine’s tech sector functioning reliably.
Ukrainian IT specialists with access to a Starlink satellite dish don’t have to worry about damage to the traditional infrastructure taking them offline for hours or days while it’s repaired. And with dishes costing a one-off $700 and a subscription to the service $ 75 a month, it’s affordable. Especially when many employers cover or subsidise the additional expense.
A Starlink satellite dish set up outside the coworking space DevOps engineer Denis Grigoryev rents in Sumy, Ukraine
A lack of electricity from the grid while damage is quickly repaired, which the country has become expert at, is compensated for through a combination of rechargeable portable power packs and diesel generators.
This is also the case for Denis Grigoryev and Volodymir Andrusenko, a DevOps engineer and QA specialist respectively, employed by K&C and currently working on a project of Informa, the FTSE 100 company that is the world’s biggest events company. Both men are part of a team responsible for keeping one of the huge company’s many applications online and working smoothly at all times.
Denis has kept up his job throughout and despite the war, working from a small office space he has rented with a couple of friends in the Ukrainian town of Sumy. Volodymir is currently based in a house in a rural area around 100km from the capital.
Volodymir has positioned his Starlink receiver in various locations on and around the rural property he works from around 100km from Kyiv in search of the optimal signal.
Despite the constant menace of Russia, the border is less than 50km from Sumy, Denis continues to reliably log in for work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, keeping Informa’s digital infrastructure running smoothly. Volodymir manages the same from his own remote location.
They are able to do so because both have rechargeable power packs sent to them from Germany by K&C’s head of operations and security, Gryg Polinovski.
Gryg is also a Ukrainian who has been living in Germany for several years and was able to arrange the logistics to get multiple power banks into Ukraine via Poland and distributed to K&C employees scattered around the country.
The pair have also taken their own additional measures, acquiring diesel generators to pick up the strain when the grid goes down for a longer period than the power packs can keep laptops, monitors, and satellite internet going for.
Denis and one of the friends he shares the rented office he works from in Sumy with, together with the office mascot, showing off one of the power packs sent from Germany
Being able to keep on working is not only hugely important for IT specialists like Volodymir and Denis on a personal financial level. The resilience of the IT sector has also been absolutely vital to Ukraine’s economy.
If the ‘hot’ war in Ukraine continues for a significant period, the reality is the country’s IT sector and specialists will inevitably come under pressure. Existing employers and clients may have been blown away by the continued reliability of Ukrainian tech talent.
But will new projects recruiting nearshore IT teams have Ukraine high on their list of talent pools? It’s an as yet unanswered question, despite the sector’s resilience. However, the signs are positive for now.
We continue to take on new clients who are happy to recruit in Ukraine – they’re confident the evidence suggests they will be able to rely on Ukrainian IT specialists. Some also see recruiting in Ukraine as one way to actively embody the company’s support for the country.
The global shortage of tech skills is a further factor that should mean Ukrainian talent continues to find remote employment opportunities. But newly qualified specialists may well find it harder to get onto and move up the first rungs of the career ladder.
That would be a tragedy if they are anything like the cohorts that came before them. The hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian IT specialists still reliably and expertly keeping the West’s digital economy running thanks to satellite internet and generators. All while Russian missiles continue to rain down from the east.