Tymofii Vlasov, a 33-year-old software engineer, faced a 12-hour drive along winding back roads to avoid a highway blocked with fellow refugees as he fled from the Russian military’s advance on his home Kyiv. Vlasov is just one of the thousands of Ukrainians who help keep the lights on for international tech companies but have now been forced to flee their homes.
Amazon, Lyft, Snap have all turned to Ukraine in recent years to hire engineers such as Vlasov, who tests and debugs code for San Mateo, California-based startup Totango. But the war has upended that, and now many tech companies are chartering buses and planes to get their staff to safety. Shares in EPAM Systems – one of Ukraine’s biggest tech employers – plunged 45.6% after the S&P 500 stock pulled its market guidance after warning investors of “heightened uncertainties.”
“We have a significant presence of our engineering talent with around 14,000 people spread from around east to west [Ukraine] and it’s obvious the current events are impacting [us],” says Arkadiy Dobkin, CEO and chairman of EPAM, which has an $11.8 billion market cap after its shares slumped 67% since the start of the year. “A lot of people are continuing to work but a lot of people are also sitting in a bomb shelter.”
The Newtown, Pennsylvania-based company says it had been evacuating staff away from the frontlines to western Ukraine but it was impossible for now to move some 6,000 staff stuck in Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which was targeted by shelling on February 28. The two cities have in recent years become bustling tech hubs home to tens of thousands of engineers working for outsourcing companies like EPAM, local startups like face-swapping app Reface, and international tech giants.
EPAM has 14,000 staff in Ukraine and 18,000 more in Belarus and Russia, who build custom software for scores of S&P 500 companies. “We will take care of our people as much as we can,” says Dobkin, who is originally from Belarus.
EPAM is not the only tech company to have had to pivot from organizing code updates to escape lines for staff. Israeli website builder Wix had offered its 900 Ukrainian staff, along with their families, temporary relocation to Turkey earlier this month as tensions mounted.
About 600 members of the Wix staff were left in Ukraine when Russian forces invaded on February 24. “Employees have been moving west with buses we chartered in advance or driving their own cars westwards towards Lviv, and the Polish border,” says Nir Zohar, President & COO of Wix.
Zohar says Wix had a team at the Polish border waiting to meet staff before relocating them to Krakow, Poland, where the Nasdaq-listed company has offices. “We help them with accommodation, supplies, blankets, baby food, and whatever they need because most of them have been traveling for 48 hours straight,” says Zohar, adding volunteers from Wix’s offices in Lithuania had driven over 500 miles to help.
The impact of the emergency evacuation of a fifth of Wix’s engineering and customer support teams had been softened by contingency plans activated earlier to move key staff outside of Ukraine, says Zohar.
Lyft, Snap, and British startup Hopin are among tech companies that have also offered emergency funds and relocation to staff in Ukraine. The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates around half a million people have now fled Ukraine to neighboring countries since the start of Russia’s invasion.
Software companies, with data already secured in cloud servers, can move developers and laptops relatively easily even with Ukraine’s roads, and trains, choked but startups with an industrial component such as alarm and security device maker Ajax Systems face a bigger challenge. The Kyiv-based company has shipped its stock and parts across the border and was now building a new factory in Poland and in Ukraine, according to Aleksandr Konotopskyi, Ajax Systems’ CEO.
“A two-month supply of components and finished products is being transported to the west of Ukraine and Poland right now,” says Konotopskyi, adding that Ajax data was on AWS servers outside Ukraine. “The priority today is the lives and safety of our employees. We are following the news carefully and relocating our teams to safe regions in Ukraine or Europe.”
Not everyone has chosen to leave. Macpaw founder and CEO Oleksandr Kosovan, returned to Kyiv, and his new home in the basement of his office, after taking his family out of the country shortly before flights were suspended. “I thought to myself, `How will I look into the eyes of my children if we lose this war – if we lose our country? I will not be able to forgive myself,” says Kosovan. “I will do whatever we can to resist this aggression…If Russia is a bear, we are like a swarm of bees.”
Leaving Ukraine has also not been an option for men eligible for military service since President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared martial law. “Families are being broken apart,” says Zohar. “The men are not allowed to leave Ukraine so some of our male employees are sending their wives and kids. Female employees are crossing but are leaving husbands behind. It’s heartbreaking, and it's our responsibility to help out.”
Totango had offered its 15 staff relocation to Israel prior to Russia’s invasion, but many had chosen to remain in Ukraine, says Amit Bluman, Totango SVP of Engineering. “We have been working together for four years and it has been super encouraging to see them handle this situation…and some are going far and beyond helping with supplies, or volunteering with the army, or leaving their safe place to go Kharvic to help with first aid,” says Bluman, adding that Totango continues to support its staff inside Ukraine. “Hearing these things on your daily meeting—I was overwhelmed.”
After a journey that took twice as long as it should have, Vlasov is now sharing a crowded apartment with his brother, his sister-in-law, and her family, in his hometown of Odessa. The Black Sea port might be safe for now but it appears to be a key objective for Russia and now lies just over 100 miles from the frontline.
One of Vlasov’s first tasks on arriving in Odessa—volunteering for a local defense force. Vlasov joined long lines at the draft office that for now was only accepting those with active military experience. “In Odessa, we have lots of volunteers… I think everyone here is ready to fight. I will definitely fight because this is my city,” he says.