Russia officially invaded Ukraine Thursday. The U.S. and its allies are imposing sanctions, but, as U.S. President Joe Biden said in a press conference Thursday, they aren’t expected to immediately stop the Soviet advance. Meanwhile, the people of Ukraine nervously await what might come next.
The Ukraine crisis touches the tech world in a number of different ways. For example, a number of the U.S. sanctions relate to denying Russia’s ability to acquire high technology for military and other uses. And Ukraine is home to a number of business and consumer technology companies that impact the lives and businesses of millions of people around the world. I talked with some of them on Thursday, the first official day of the Russian occupation.
Grammarly may be the best-known Ukraine-based tech company. Grammarly is the maker of an AI-driven tool that helps people communicate better in writing. It is used by millions around the world, and has raised capital from some top-shelf VCs including General Catalyst and Blackrock. It’s now valued at $13 billion.
The company has a significant number of software developers in Kyiv, the city in which the company was founded in 2009. Kyiv is about 700km or 435 miles from the current conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. It also has staff in San Francisco, New York, and Vancouver, BC.
Grammarly spokesperson Senka Hadzimuratovic told me via email Thursday that her company is now executing the contingency plans it had in place to protect its employees in Ukraine. She says the company isn’t providing many details of the plans, in the interest of security.
The company also has contingency plans to keep its services running if the crisis deepens, she says. “This includes, for example, securing backup communication methods and temporary transfer of business-critical responsibilities to team members outside of Ukraine to ensure our Ukraine-based team members can focus on the immediate safety of themselves and their families.”
Grammarly CEO Brad Hoover wrote the following in a LinkedIn post on Wednesday: “Grammarly was founded in Ukraine, and I’ve had the privilege of getting to know its vibrant culture and kind people over the past decade — that includes many of our resilient, unstoppable team members who are yet again facing stress and uncertainty. I am saddened by the continued escalations in the country, and I am still hoping for de-escalation.”
Kyiv-based Readdle is one of the pioneer app sellers in Apple’s app store. Over the years, it’s produced a string of highly praised productivity apps for iPhone, iPad, and Mac. The company says it’s racked up almost 200 million downloads for products like PDF Expert and Scanner Pro. The company has more than 150 employees in Ukraine, board member Denys Zhadanov tells me.
I asked him what he thought the founders of Ukraine-based tech companies had on their minds today. “The consensus across all major CEOs is that Ukraine should be an independent state,” he answered. “This is an aggression of war.” Zhadanov splits his time between San Francisco, London, and Odessa, Ukraine.
As other Ukraine company executives have taken pains to point out, Zhadanov says his company had contingency plans and that its infrastructure and customer data are kept on servers based in the U.S. and Europe, out of harm’s way.
“Since we are an international company with employees in 11 countries, the business won’t suffer,” he says. “We are now taking measures to ensure the personal safety of our employees who are in Odessa.”
Some tech leaders in the Ukraine feel a sense of remorse that while technology keeps moving into the future, geopolitics sometimes seem locked in a Cold War past.
Kyiv-based MacPaw develops productivity tools for the Mac including CleanMyMac and The Unarchiver. “Being humans of the 21st century, we all wish that the tragic days of war were a thing of the past,” wrote MacPaw CEO and founder Oleksandr Kosovan in a blog post on Thursday. “Now once more, with the Russian aggression against Ukraine, we’ve been made to witness how easy freedom, independence, and the human right to life and choice are put on the line.”
Kosovan goes on to state that MacPaw, which operates primarily out of Kyiv, is mainly concerned with the security of its employees right now. The company has prepared “various assistance programs and launched an emergency plan” to ensure the safety of its Ukraine-based people. He adds that MacPaw’s customer data is stored on AWS servers located outside Ukraine.
MacPaw is a company from Ukraine, operating primarily in Kyiv, the capital city. Today Russia has attacked Ukraine and started a full-scale war on our territory. But it's not a time for panic — Ukraine is fighting back ????????
— MacPaw ???????? (@MacPaw) February 24, 2022
Kyiv is also home to the global home security hardware maker Ajax Systems, which also has research and development people in Vinnytsia, and in the eastern city of Kharkiv. Spokesperson Amina Yepisheva tells me the company is moving its Kharkiv employees to its office in Lviv.
The language tutoring education platform Preply was founded in Kyiv in 2012. While Preply still has people in Kyiv, it’s now headquartered in Brookline, Massachusetts, with offices in Barcelona, Spain and San Francisco. I reached out to the company Thursday but got no immediate response.
Ukraine has also become a place where tech companies based around the world come to find software development talent. The country now has an estimated 200,000 software developers, according to a 2021 report from the IT Ukraine Association. Some work through IT-outsourcing firms such as Elitex and Softserve; others go completely freelance and find work through contract talent platforms such as Fiverr.
Freelance marketplace Fiverr has an office in Kyiv where some of its developers work. Naturally, the company is concerned about the Russian invasion. I spoke with the company’s COO, Hila Klein, on Thursday about the situation.
Fast Company: What are you telling your developers who are still in Ukraine?
Hila Klien: We have a small but wonderful office in Ukraine. We have been working for many weeks on our evacuation plan, and as of today, the majority of our team has moved to safe places both inside and out of Ukraine. To the few who are still there, we continue to support them in every way we can.
What are they telling you?
This is a rapidly evolving situation. We are primarily concerned for their safety and prioritizing their immediate needs over anything else.
Do they still have internet access?
We have done everything we can to provide alternative means of communication in the event that the internet goes down.
Are they working?
To be honest, that is the least of our concerns at the moment. However, as most have already relocated, they can continue to work. Our overriding priority is that they are in a safe place and can take care of themselves and their families.
Are they frightened?
This is a frightening and scary time for everyone in the region.
Some large U.S. tech companies, such as Microsoft and Salesforce’s Slack, have outsourced major projects to teams of contractors in Ukraine. Others have opened offices in the country to access talent. Israeli gaming company Plarium, for example, has development staff in Kharkiv, near the Russian border in eastern Ukraine.
Now, many of these companies have plans in place to get their workers out of harm’s way if the situation in Ukraine worsens.