This is an updated version of the original article published on The Pragmatic Engineer Newsletter. Updates include the section on The "Great Russian Tech Brain Drain" and more details on evacuation efforts at Booking.com and EPAM.
We are not living usual times, and so this is not the usual Pragmatic Engineer article.
Russia has launched a full-on invasion on Ukraine on Thursday, 24 February. This event has started the largest war in Europe since World War 2 (WW2), and is the largest geopolitical event in Europe since the breakup of the USSR in 1990-1991.
This article covers the impact of the war on the tech world. Impact that is already visible:
- The impact of this war on the tech industry. What companies will feel the impact of this war and how much?
- Companies scrambling to support staff in Ukraine and Belarus. What are they doing right now, and is there anything else they can do?
- Tech companies implementing their own sanctions against Russia. In what is unprecedented, companies are not waiting for national mandates, but are taking sanctions into their own hands, often going against their economic interests.
- International tech companies with a large Russian presence under stress. Can successful tech companies with mostly international customers keep a heavy Russian presence or will they be forced to make drastic changes?
- Simplified immigration for Ukrainians across Europe. Could we be seeing the start of a “great tech migration” from Ukraine?
- The "Great Russian Tech Brain Drain". Will we see this happen? If so, where could experienced Russian tech workers emigrate to?
- Ways you can help in this tragic situation. How you can help those in Ukraine, and advice if you have colleagues in Eastern Europe or Europe.
I try to be independent in all my articles. However, it’s particularly hard for me to stay neutral in this situation. This war is not just some distant event for me, but it hits very close to home both at a personal, and a professional level. On a personal one, I’m from Hungary, with my great grandparents and grandparents living through WW2, and the horror stories living through war passed down generation after generation. Hungary also shares a border with Ukraine and many of my friends are now helping some of the more than 62,000 refugees who arrived from Ukraine to Hungary in the past four days.
On a professional level, I know several software engineers from Ukraine, all of whom are now worried for either their lives or those of their loved ones. One of my best hires at Uber, in Amsterdam, was Dmytro, with who I worked on the same team for over a year. For the past four days, his family in Ukraine - mother, grandmother - have been bombed, Dmytro giving phone support on how to hide during air missile attacks. News of bombings and of civilians killed is not just emotionless news for me: with every casualty, there’s a chance that someone I personally know and know well, has suffered an irrecoverable loss.
1. The impact on the tech industry
This war will feel closer to many people working in tech - especially in Europe and the US. The Ukrainian diaspora - Ukrainians and their descendants - is especially highly respected in the world. Companies like PayPal, Whatsapp, Affirm, Grammarly have been founded or cofounded by Ukrainian software engineers.
Ukraine has become a preferred destination for many companies to both hire full-time employees, and especially to contract from. Ukraine has been so popular because there is good senior engineering talent to hire, and because - unlike most of Europe - notice periods are short, and given a good budget, it’s easy enough to hire senior tech talent, relatively quickly.
EPAM is Ukraine’s largest tech company, employing more than 10,000 people, the majority of them software engineers. They are a higher quality outsourcing shop working with US and UK companies like Google, Expedia, Microsoft, Barclays, Oracle, UBS, SAP or Thompson Reuters. Anyone working at these companies might have come across engineers who are now in the middle of a war zone.
Other outsourcing and tech companies worth mentioning based on the Top 50 Largest IT companies in Ukraine list via Jobs.dou.ua are:
- Softserve: 9,000 tech employees in Ukraine. Outsourcing.
- GlobalLocic: over 6,000 tech employees. High-quality outsourcing company with Silicon Valley headquarters, working with a large number of Silicon Valley startups.
- Luxoft: over 3,500 tech employees. Outsourcing. clients include Boeing, Dell, IBM, and Deutsche Bank.
How much will this war impact the software industry? For any company where the majority of the staff has been working from within Ukraine, and which companies had little to no preparation for such an event, the impact will be massive until things get back to normal.
However, I’d expect that in the case of large companies working with local teams in Ukraine, the impact visible from the outside will be negligible. Internally, work for teams where engineers are based in Ukraine has already come to a halt. However, for anything critical, there are other teams to step in. Anything non-critical will be prioritized and not shipped in Q1 of this year.
In a tweet from Lambda School founder Austen Allred, he shared his observation on how many Silicon Valley companies have Ukraine engineering hubs, but also how many of these companies put emergency plans in place to help people move, and executed on them:
Two things I’ve found interesting this past week:— Austen Allred 🇺🇦 (@Austen) February 26, 2022
1. I knew a lot of Silicon Valley companies had engineering hubs in Ukraine, but I still underestimated how much of the work in Silicon Valley happens there
2. Many of those companies anticipated this and had planned well
I do expect a “tech migration” to happen from Ukraine to other European countries. However, it’s hard to predict if this movement of people will have any visible impact even on the European tech market. I cover this angle in more detail in the Expedited immigration opportunities section below.
2. Companies scrambling to support staff in Ukraine and Belarus
A couple of tech companies with offices in Ukraine have moved early and started to relocate employees before the Russian attack started on 24 February. Companies taking this step included Wix, AppsFlyer, Fiverr, Cimpress, and Ciklum. As Iain Martin wrote the Forbes article US and Israeli tech companies evacuate Ukrainian staff from possible frontline on 17 February :
“The threat of further military conflict with Russia prompted Nasdaq-listed Cimpress to offer to evacuate its 500 Ukrainian staff outside the country, or to safety further west in Ukraine. Israeli website builder Wix has offered its 1,000 local staff, and their families, temporary evacuation to Turkey while a number of other tech companies like Ukrainian outsourcing giant Ciklum, and San Francisco-based startup AppsFlyer, have plans to relocate Ukrainian staff to safety. (...)
Israeli freelance marketplace Fiverr, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, says it had a plan to evacuate Kyiv-based staff out of the country and was supporting those who remain in Ukraine.“
From Thursday, 24 February, Ukraine became a war zone. Most tech companies responded rapidly to the invasion. Some companies have transferred months’ worth of bonuses ahead of time and committed to paying full salaries to any employee joining the Ukrainian armed forces for the duration of their service.
Startup Lemon.io has done all the above, and also set up a safe house in Western Ukraine. As The Information writes:
“At that time, Lemon.io sent employees two months’ worth of salary in advance and doubled the frequency of its payouts to developers. In addition to offering relocation to anyone who requests it, the company rolled out new policies to ensure that if any employee joins Ukraine’s civilian defense force to fight against Russian forces—whether by conscription or voluntarily—they will be paid their full salary while at war, and developers who are stuck in regions under attack will retain their jobs and be paid in full. (...)
Lemon.io also set up a safe house in Lviv, a city located in western Ukraine, where employees can get assistance and seek accommodations if the country loses internet and phone access.“
Booking.com managed to take action just before the war started. On Wednesday, 23 February the Booking.com Global Security & Resilience team sent an email to all staff, informing them that before this message had been set, they have helped colleagues in Ukraine prepare for domestic relocation, advised preparation of shelter at home, and how several Booking.com employees have already relocated with their families.
Hopin has two dozen of employees in Ukraine. Here is an excerpt from an email that CEO Johnny Boufarhat sent our on Thursday, 24 February to all staff, hours after the Russian war effort started:
“Like many of you, I’ve been tracking the situation in Ukraine closely and am deeply concerned - particularly because we have 27 Hopineers living there. I wish there was more I - we - could do to help, but we must at least do what we can to help our people there.
To that end, here’s what we’re doing:
- For current Hopineers: We’ve issued an emergency fund of $3000 that will be executed today (along with regular salary)
- Hopineers impacted by our recent restructure: We’re paying out February salary, three months’ separation pay, the emergency fund of $3000, and an additional three months’ salary.
- We have a Slack channel set up where we’ll be sharing comms and answering questions
- We’ve activated an Alert Team comprised of People Ops and People Partners to check in with employees in the Ukraine and have an open line of communication on their safety. Managers have also been asked to check in and remove any workload from those employees. If that’s you, please do so.”
EPAM is the single most impacted company with the events, with around 12,000 staff based in Ukraine. While the company is silent from the outside, I’ve confirmed that there’s a massive internal effort to provide transportation, accommodation, health care, psychological help, facilitate donations, and volunteers. The company is helping many of its Ukrainian employees move over to Poland.
EPAM has roots in Belarus and is no stranger to mass evacuation efforts. Prior to 2020, they had close to 10,000 staff in Belarus. However, following the election were a series of mass political protests against the Belarusian government which resulted in countrywide raids targeting right groups, activists, and journalists. This government-wide crackdown prompted many tech companies - EPAM included - to relocate their staff to other countries on short notice. EPAM developed internal tools to quickly and efficiently move thousands of people and their families: and they have used the same tools to evacuate and relocate employees and their families in Ukraine.
Companies like Snap, Lyft, Cloudflare, Grammarly, Amazon’s Ring division, ride-sharing app Bolt, or gig marketplace Fiverr all have software engineering employees or contractors in Ukraine in varying numbers, from the dozens to the hundreds. The safety of employees is a priority for all companies as I’ve learned and covered by sources like Fast Company.
Males banned from leaving Ukraine has been introduced on Friday, 25 February. Ukrainian men aged 18-60 are not allowed to leave. As many tech workers are male, this makes it impossible to evacuate or relocate these people, even if they wanted to leave. Several companies are helping move families in these cases as well, and are trying to lend support to those needing to stay behind.
It’s not just Ukrainians wanting to leave Ukraine: some are going back to Ukraine. On the first day of the war, an estimated 30,000 people crossed the Polish border to go to Ukraine. Some of them went to bring their families back, while some others did so to join the fight for their homeland like this Ukrainian war veteran did. Several tech companies in Poland are granting no-questions-asked PTO for their staff, even if they do not advertise this fact.
Support for Belarus staff is also very much needed. With the Belarus also having joined in actively waging war on Ukraine, there is a growing fear that men will be drafted to join the army and sent to the front line in Ukraine.
Tech companies in Belarus are making plans to evacuate staff who are willing to leave to countries like Georgia or Poland. Male employees I talked with all shared they are scared of the prospect of military mobilization and forced drafting, and were looking to leave via trains or flights to any remaining country they can get to.
3. Tech companies implementing their own sanctions against Russia
Several tech companies put in place bans of their own within days of the invasion of Ukraine starting.
- Facebook banned Russian state media from running adverts or monetizing content. The step came after Russia started to limit Facebook, as a response to Facebook rolling out fact-checking for Ukraine.
- Google banned Russian state media from running ads and monetizing across several Russian YouTube channels.
- Apple Pay suspended its service in Russia.
- Intel and AMD halted processor sales to Russia.
- Twitch and Onlyfans blocked the ability to withdraw money to Russian bank cards or banks.
- Scaleups have joined in with the dozens. MessageBird - Dutch scaleup and competitor to Twilio - shut down API access for Russian customers.
- Startups. Omnisend - an email & SMS marketing automation platform - stopped services in Russia and Belarus. Lithuanian fintech Paysera and London-based payments transfer company TransferGo halted transfers to and from Russia.
- Small tech companies joined in with even larger numbers. Atlassian vendors Rozdoum, CollabSoft, Softlist, and eazyBI suspended services to Russian customers. Polish company PartsBox - selling inventory parts management software - suspended subscriptions for Russian clients.
- A crypto mining pool also joined in, with Flexpool - the fifth-largest Ethereum mining pool, globally - stopped services in Russia.
Is blocking Russian customers the best approach in this case? Sure, it’s tempting to follow the footsteps of sanctions that countries are doing. But will it have the effect that these companies hope: that is, helping to end the conflict sooner?
From a Russian friend of a tech worker:
Seeing some people on my feed removing their apps from Russian stores. Wanted to share this perspective from a Russian friend. pic.twitter.com/ibA5PzTQNu— Jordi Bruin (@jordibruin) February 26, 2022
I don’t have the answer to what is the right approach. Still, instead of “sanctioning” Russian customers, why not help refugees and contribute to humanitarian efforts? For example, game developer CD Projekt Red donated 1M PLN ($240K) to humanitarian aid.
It’s unprecedented to have so many tech companies take geopolitical stances so swiftly, in three days since the Russian invasion has started. The pace at which tech companies announce their own “sanctions” on Russia also track the very fast pace on how Russia became fully isolated in the world, their only ally being Belarus. Two days ago, on 25 February, even one of their closest allies, Kazakhstan, denied Russia’s request to join the Ukraine invasion.
And then there’s Elon Musk pulling another improbable act. Mykhailo Fedorov, Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine tweeted to Elon musk, asking for Starlink stations. Ten hours later it was done.
4. International tech companies with a large Russian presence under stress
In just three days, the attitude of Europe and the US has gone from confused to standing unified against Russia. In a previously unimaginable measure, a number of Russian banks will be excluded from the international payments system Swift and a series of sanctions across Russian citizens have been passed like a prohibition of bank deposits of more than €100,000 by Russian nationals.
I have verified that several internationally successful companies with large Russian presence - in some cases, Russian HQs - are in panic mode right now, fearing the sanctions could hit them overly hard. Emergency meetings are in place about the option to relocate offices - or parts of it - from Russia, the possibility to move headquarters, and other ways to mitigate sanctions that could be announced as early as Monday, 28 February.
My sources explicitly asked to not share the names of these companies. They are well-known tech companies that could be described as tech startup success stories coming from Russia. However, the overwhelming majority of their business is no longer in Russia, but in Europe, the US, and the rest of the world.
5. Simplified immigration for Ukrainians across Europe
Companies with offices and employees in Ukraine, Belarus, or Russia are now considering offering to their staff to move to another European office - companies which have these other offices, that is.
Companies based in Ukraine have little choice at the time of writing, as the war is in full force here. At the same time, Belarus and Russia are increasingly seen as unstable places to operate from, and I expect more companies with tech employees in these countries to at the very least explore opening offices in the EU, and relocate employees who are open to this opportunity. In the wake of this war, uptake should be high.
Several European countries have relaxed entry requirements from Ukraine. Most neighboring countries on the West of Ukraine are allowing Ukrainians through, often even without a passport. Poland is the main entry point, with more than 124,000 Ukrainians passing the first 3 days of the war. The United Nations estimates that another 1 to 3 million Ukrainians could join the current, roughly 2 million Ukrainians in Poland.
Both Ireland and Portugal removed the previous visa requirement on entry for Ukrainians, opening borders to refugees. It is not yet clear how those fleeing the country will be allowed to work in the respective countries: however, I would hope that neighboring countries will allow for this, and more European countries follow.
EU nations agreed to accept Ukrainian refugees for 3 years without going through an asylum process on Sunday, 27 February. See this extensive resource for Ukrainian refugees and supporters on more information.
Companies have started to take initiatives to help secure work visas for tech worker refugees. In the Netherlands, Ali Niknam, founder of neobank Bunq announced an initiative to help people immigrate to the Netherlands on a highly-skilled visa. The Dutch regulations are strict in how they don’t allow sponsoring people as highly skilled migrants once within the EU, so the current plan is to help people get to Georgia, and apply for this visa from there. The benefit of such an approach is how people have the right to work from day one, and can set up a normal life, as opposed to having to jump far more hoops if coming to a country on asylum.
Academics are also taking the initiative to help. An associate professor in Belgium started an initiative to help out with a 6-month long stay.
Will we see a “great Ukrainian talent migration” across Europe? Even assuming the war is over quickly, Ukraine will keep living in the shadow of a future conflict: but with Russia that will be even better prepared. And if the war stretches out, many families will have no choice but to evacuate Ukraine.
It’s a given that we will see many Ukrainians immigrate to other European countries. As those working in tech typically qualify for highly-skilled visas in several European countries, many of the experienced tech workers will have plenty of choices of moving within Europe. Add to this the expedited visa requirements many European countries should introduce for Ukrainians, and it’s certain that we’ll see a “tech brain drain” from Ukraine to the rest of Europe.
Until now, Ukraine had the pull of family, low taxes in the IT sector, and relative stability, save for the East of Ukraine. The stability is now gone, and low taxes are unlikely to compensate for an ongoing threat of war for many people.
At the same time, it won’t be the first time that Ukrainians migrate in large numbers to other European countries. In Poland, a country with a population of 38 million people, an estimated 2 million Ukrainians are living here. The majority of them moved over after the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian War.
6. A "Great Russian Tech Brain Drain"?
Will Russia see a speed up in the “Russian tech brain drain”? There are, after all, many companies with Russian offices who would want to move staff. And I expect that many people working in tech in Russia will want to move away from a country where all Russian media outlets are forced to refer to the biggest war in Europe since WW2 as a “special military operation” and detains thousands who protest against this war.
Companies are starting mass evacuation efforts from Russia, starting on 28 February. A software engineer working at an international company with Russian offices shared:
"Management announced that they want everyone who can move out of Russia to move within one week. Chartered flights are booked for employees and families to move effective immediately. The company stance up to this point has been that no one needs to move - something changed over the course of the weekend."
Companies employing remote Russian contractors are starting to see major problems paying these contractors. As a CTO contracting with several software engineers in Russia shared:
"Securing future payments to Russian contractors is now a huge challenge. Most banks are already under sanctions. There are also heavy restrictions in Russia on foreign account holders such as the newly passed requirement on this morning, 28 February, to convert 80% of all incoming payments to Rubles."
Another reason that could push Russian tech professionals to either work remote for USD / EUR compensation or to consider moving abroad is the ongoing collapse of the Rubel, following the financial sanctions and banning some Russian banks from the global payments system. I talked with a software engineer based in Moscow who shared how the currency lost half its value over the past few days leading up to Monday, 28 February:
From an experienced software engineer in Russia:— Gergely Orosz (@GergelyOrosz) February 27, 2022
“The RUB to USD rate is 158 on the street… from 80 a few days ago. That’s it. I’m done here.
Starting to look where I can move abroad ASAP. Based on the visa options it’s likely Dubai, maybe Spain.”
Expect sanctions to hit US and EU companies, banning them to work with contractors based in Russia. I have received reports of Google terminating contracts with companies based in Russia. I expect this to be only the start of most companies headquartered in the US or EU following. Governments sanctioning such contracts to be in place might follow.
We're seeing a new cold war start between the US+Europe and Russia.— Gergely Orosz (@GergelyOrosz) February 28, 2022
Google already terminating contractors in Russia.
Expect government mandates to follow, banning business w Russia. If you work with contractors/employees in Russia: time to make emergency plans. E.g. relocate. pic.twitter.com/Lsjr3aH3H8
It would be the interest of Europe and the EU to make highly skilled immigration - and even asylums from Russia - easy. This would both help European countries hire sought-after software engineers in the middle of the hottest hiring market. Such a move would also hurt Russia, by losing tech expertise that is hard to replace.
However, we’re already seeing the opposite happen. According to information from Nomadlist founder Pieter Levels - yet to be confirmed officially -, Portugal is banning all visas for Russian citizens. I would not be surprised at the measure given the sanctions, and I expect most, if not all, EU members to follow.
Still, Europe should do exactly the opposite: make it very easy for highly skilled Russian workers to move to Europe, with the tech sector being an obvious destination.
At the time of writing, Spain and Dubai are the two most reasonable alternatives visa-wise for Russian citizens. We’ll have to see if Spain stays open, or they follow what Portugal has done in shutting the door on highly skilled Russian tech workers.
I expect a “great Russian tech exodus” to happen, but spread to global destinations. Those working in tech in Russia are some of the most employable people, and also those with likely some amount of savings. Many of them will leave - while they can. The EU, as a destination, is out of the question as of now, but other destinations will be options.
I am in touch with several software engineers in Russia whose international companies are strongly supporting relocating to other offices - may those offices be in the US, the Middle East, Asia, or even Europe.
BTW, expect to see a massive exodus...from Russia. Anyone with means and a passport is trying to get out right now. Many urban, educated Russians are horrified and terrified, and they know that it won't just face economic hardship at home but political repression, too.— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) February 27, 2022
7. Ways you can help in this tragic situation
To help those in Ukraine:
- Help refugees if you are in Europe. The UN estimates 5 million people to flee: all who have left on short notice, with little to no savings and few basic items. Ways to help include offering a shelter to stay, helping buy groceries and basic necessities, offering medical supplies, helping with transportation, donating blood, and donating money to charities for the above efforts. Many of these efforts are already on the way in several countries and you can join in.
- Your voice. Express support for Ukraine and condemn the Russian aggression on social media or on protests on the streets. Every voice matters.
- Donate. Send money to the Ukrainian Army. Most of my Ukrainian friends suggested this is the best immediate support they can use. You can donate via bank transfer or via cryptocurrency. Both are official accounts - even the crypto one.
- Amplify. Amplify initiatives that help those in Ukraine either with supplies or with fleeing.
- Look up sources before sharing controversial articles and verify the information coming from trusted places. There are lots of made-up information circling around, especially on social media.
- Urge your government. If your government has not yet acted decisive enough, contact your MPs and urge economic sanctions and aiding support.
If you have colleagues in Ukraine: hopefully your company is already making efforts to support or evacuate employees and their families. Their safety comes ahead of anything and everything.
If you have colleagues from Ukraine: understand that they are all likely going through the toughest periods of their lives and work might be the last thing on their minds, with all the uncertainty. Give them space. If you are in a managerial position, understand what would help them best, and use your authority to make it happen.
If you have colleagues from Belarus or Russia: know that most of these people will be having a very tough time, even if their livelihood has not been impacted - or at least not yet. However, they will doubtless be terrified of what the future brings and might need to make preparations.
For Russian residents: they face full uncertainty in the wake of international sanctions, and the threat of their savings vanishing. For Belarus residents: men are likely fearing more drafting for the army, and whether international sanctions are extended to Belarus. For Russian citizens: they will most likely get hit by sanctions, ones of which they do not know the details of, and even if they have not lived in Russia for an extended period of time. They could have visa problems in the future.
Here’s a helpful thread on ways you can check-in and help: and one that applies to anyone, not just students and postdocs.
A message to PIs and others who have students and postdocs from 🇺🇦 and 🇷🇺 working in their teams. Check on them. Ask them how you can help. It'll matter to them more than you can imagine. I'm speaking from own experience of being a grad student in the 🇺🇸 1/4— Marija Backovic 💎🦠🔬😷 (@marija_backovic) February 24, 2022
If you have colleagues from Eastern/Central Europe, especially in countries neighboring Ukraine or Russia (Finland, Poland, Romania, Moldova, Slovakia, Hungary) know that most of them will be stressed and worried if and how this war can spread and impact them. They will very likely be following the news and could be less present at work. As an engineering leader in Poland shared with me on the second day of the war:
“I’m terrified and feel the situation is as bad as it gets for Europe. Way worse than COVID. It’s the worst geopolitical event in my life.”
Since the first few days, the same person shared how their morale is much better, with refugees arriving and this person and their friends and colleagues helping them. Some engineers are proposing to use their entertainment budgets and volunteer days to help refugees, instead of spending it on team events, with companies supporting this.
If you have colleagues from Europe, know that many of them will be worried and unsure what will happen next. The news will feel closer to them as well, and their own countries will be announcing measures to support Ukraine. They might have friends in Ukraine, Russia or Belarus who they worry about. Be kind to them.
If you’re not familiar with the geopolitical history of Ukraine, Russia and what led to this conflict, I highly suggest the video Why is Ukraine the West’s Fault? by Professor John J. Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago.
Thanks to Jacek for reviewing this article and Rustam for additional input.
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