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What it’s like to work at a Ukraine tech company during Russia’s invasion

MacPaw’s Julia Petryk talks about sheltering in an underground parking garage, enduring Russian propaganda, and confronting the emotional toil of the war.

What it’s like to work at a Ukraine tech company during Russia’s invasion
[Photos: Aytac Unal/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, courtesy of Julia Petryk]

I did some reporting on Ukraine-based tech companies at the outset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last month. Despite the grim situation on the ground, I was surprised at how responsive people in these companies were, how willing they were to talk about their situation.

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As the crisis continues, I’ve managed to keep in touch with some of those people. One is Julia Petryk, a communications executive at MacPaw, a major name among Mac software companies. Petryk and her family live in a high-rise apartment building in Kyiv. I asked her to give me a snapshot of how she’s doing—and how MacPaw is managing to stay connected and productive—via a Signal video call on Friday.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Fast Company: How do you know when it’s time to go to the shelter?

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Julia Petryk: We have multiple ways to know about the alert. First of all, notifications from Telegram channels. It’s says like ‘Kiev airstrike alert’ or like ‘Kharkiv airstrike alarm,’ so we see it on our phones. Then we have a new app that notifies us—the sound is so loud that you just can’t skip it. And besides, we can hear it with our own ears when it’s happening.

Julia Petryk believes that the tub is the safest place to work when she’s not in the underground parking garage. [Photo: courtesy of Julia Petryk]
How often do you have to go into the shelter?

Probably six times a day. But we spend all the nights in the [parking] garage. It’s safer there. It’s an underground garage. So we don’t risk staingy here. Actually, my dream is that my body will feel the bed because we can [only] have a nap dressed and on the blanket in case the alarm will start. In war times, you have such primitive dreams–to get undressed and dive into the bed linen.

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We are lucky to have [the garage] in our block of flats. We see people from neighboring blocks of flats come over to our parking garage because they don’t have their own ones. I know that some people have shelter in underground [transit] stations, but it’s a bit longer for us to go there. For now, it’s much faster just to go downstairs. It takes time, because we live on the 20th floor, but still, it’s fast.

Is it crowded in the shelter now?

It’s getting more and more empty these days. People are leaving, fleeing, or walking out of Kyiv. Previously, I remember I saw a lot of kids, even babies in carriages with their granny. Now, there are still people lying on the floor on mattresses. We are lucky to sleep in the car. But people from neighboring houses, blocks of flats, just lie on the floor, and it’s very cold at night. And that’s why people brought some mattresses to lie on. Otherwise, they will get colds immediately.

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Residents watch the news on a laptop in the carpark of a large apartment block that they are using as a bomb shelter on March 1, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine. [Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images]
Were some of the people in your company able to get out of the country?

On the day when [the invasion] started on February 25, there were long lines to leave the city, and people were lucky to leave. Some of them headed to the west of Ukraine, because it doesn’t border Russia or Belarus. That’s why it’s safer to be there. So it took people up to three days to cross the border. There were long lines, and some of our colleagues are abroad for now.

Are any of them taking up arms to fight?

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Honestly, I can’t confirm that some of my colleagues did. I know a lot of them volunteer. Today, I sent a message that someone was looking for a Jeep for some services, like for logistics for investigation. And our CEO [Oleksandr Kosovan] said, ‘Yeah, fine, I will donate it.’ So like people volunteer in different spheres and do what they can. I know one girl who is rescuing pets because not everybody is able to take pets with them when they leave. And another girl is helping with food supply because there are some disabled people [who need food], and people who spend nights in those bomb shelters.

Yesterday, there was an announcement that they brought up to 70 orphans from Kharkiv. A volunteer posted an announcement that there are 70 orphans coming from Kharkiv. They will be settled in the gym of some school, and we need food and clothes for them. But she said, ‘Honestly, I don’t know what will happen to them later.’

Regarding the business side, everybody is also busy, and there is a core team [that] supports the apps that MacPaw is developing. During the first days [of the conflict], all the monies from apps sales in Belarus and Russia were donated to the army. But now we decided to cut [Russia and Belarus] off because what we witness nowadays is just unimaginable and unbearable.

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Staying connected

Can you tell me about the availability of internet service or cellular phone service?

It’s OK in most regions, but today in the territories [that] are occupied by Russian troops, they cut off mobile connections. And they seized the TV station, so now they are broadcasting propaganda channels. People in Kherson—a rather big city in the south of Ukraine that is under Russian occupation—don’t have access to information.

They are broadcasting Russian bullshit so that people would switch their mindset. We see on social media that the Russians even brought up big trucks with humanitarian aid, and they wanted to show the picture that everybody is so excited to welcome the Russians in that region, in Kherson. But people were not excited because they see the threat they brought. There were fights and destruction in that area before those trucks came. People were in the street in front of these [aid] drops with Ukrainian flags, just teasing them. They are not happy, and they are not bringing flowers to the Russian soldiers. Nobody wants them.

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How are you getting your alerts and news and information about what is going on in Kyiv and around the country?

We have two ways of finding out. The first one is an app by a Ukrainian company, Ajax Systems, which develops security hardware for households. And now they developed an app that signals when an alarm will be heard. Another way is a Telegram channel. Actually, a lot of media have Telegram channels, and now it proves to be the fastest way of communication.

As you said, we’re more than a week into this now. How you are doing emotionally, and how do you feel today versus a week ago?

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We would never believe that it would happen. It was a total shock. Now, it seems that you are like getting used to it, and you are not surprised anymore with the announcements that [say] ‘Hey, I’m looking for a shelter in some faraway region, who can help with free anything?’ Now you are not surprised that people are very united. I would say that’s probably the best feeling that keeps you very optimistic—that all people of Ukraine are very united against the aggressor.

Kids of four years old know what’s going on; they say, ‘Yeah, they shoot at us.’”

And what I see is people—we call them the creative army—these designers that come and make visuals, creative banners, to spread the word about the situation. So they do posters, social media stuff, and do that for free. We initiated a PR army where we spread the news. There are also guys who joined the army, and they do cyberattacks, or different apps or channels to notify people. And people are very creative in the ways that they fight with the enemy. Because the battlefield is not just in all those hot places. The battlefield is everywhere.

It’s so sad to see stories when people break their family connections because those relatives who are in Russia really believe that it’s some operation to save Ukraine from Nazis. That’s what Putin says.

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I posted a picture on social media the first day when I went down to the bomb shelter and saw a girl—she was probably eight years old—and she was holding a cage with a parrot. She was rescuing her parrot. It’s obvious when people rescue the cats and dogs, but this girl had her parrot. I saw dozens of animals around the parking [garage], and it was so heartwarming. Nazi people would never do that! And on that very night, there was missiles shooting at Kyiv at 4 a.m., exactly like Hitler did decades ago.

It’s a situation that I would never wish anybody to experience. My retired parents are in the south of Ukraine not far from that nuclear power plant that is currently under threat. And it’s the first time when I ever heard my mom curse. And she’s crying, and I don’t know what consequences it will have for the health of my retired parents. The kids will grow up with trauma because kids of four years old know what’s going on; they say, ‘Yeah, they shoot at us.’

But the nation will definitely win because we are defending our land. They say that the morale of Russians is very low because they don’t know what they are fighting for. Ukrainians are fighting because no one will accept the scenario of [us] being part of Russia. Never. It will never happen. So we will definitely win, but at what price? That’s the scariest part.

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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