Ukraine’s Highly Mobile Tech Work Force Hits the Road

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VILNIUS, Lithuania — In the mobile game Airplane Chefs, the player is a flight attendant rushing to microwave as much food as possible and serve it, just as efficiently, on a commercial jet filled with demanding passengers.

Hunting for bugs in this game is the job of Inha Kushnir, a member of the quality assurance team at Nordcurrent, the Lithuanian company that created and markets Airplane Chefs and a handful of other titles. Sitting in front of a desktop computer in Nordcurrent’s surprisingly quiet Vilnius office, in a neighborhood that is a jumble of glass corporate towers and residential housing, Ms. Kushnir spent a recent afternoon looking for programming flaws as her online avatar zapped pizzas and loaded them onto trolley carts. The work is absorbing, which makes it a good way to focus on something other than why she’s in Vilnius and how she got here.

“Whenever I think about work,” she said during a break, “I stop thinking about what is happening in Odesa.”

Until late February, Ms. Kushnir worked in Nordcurrent’s Odesa office. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, and she and her husband decided that it would be safer for her and the couple’s young daughter to leave. Ms. Kushnir’s husband, like nearly all Ukrainian men, stayed behind.

Now Ms. Kushnir is part of Ukraine’s information technology diaspora, about 50,000 people, most of them residing in Poland, Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.

Before these workers relocated, they were part of one of Ukraine’s largest service exports, with $5 billion in annual revenue, representing about 4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, the IT Ukraine Association says. The country has a very mobile pool of IT talent, nearly 300,000 people providing computer and coding services in fields like e-commerce, artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain and so on.

When the invasion began, Nordcurrent, like dozens of other companies, improvised an evacuation plan for employees who suddenly lived in a war zone. There are 250 people on Nordcurrent’s payroll, and nearly half were in Ukraine — 90 in Odesa and 30 in Dnipro.

For Nordcurrent, which was founded in 2002, recruiting from Ukraine was simply smart business. Workers there tend to be proficient in English, the lingua franca of the company, and highly capable. (The country’s emphasis on science and tech education is a legacy of years in the Soviet Union.) The risk that Russia might one day invade had been front of mind among Nordcurrent executives since 2014, when Russian troops annexed Crimea in the south of Ukraine. The threat was talked about so often that, paradoxically, it receded as a source of anxiety.

“We decided to ignore it,” said Victoria Trofimova, Nordcurrent’s Ukrainian-born chief executive and the person who cobbled together and oversaw the evacuation plan. “Even when there was talk about forces at the border of Ukraine, we decided to continue as usual.”

That approach ended the morning of Feb. 24, when Ms. Trofimova hit the snooze button on her alarm clock a few times before realizing the noise was coming from her phone. Her father was calling to say Russia had invaded Ukraine. She soon was in touch with Ukrainian employees, offering to help them flee. Most wanted to stay, but a few dozen decided that the country was too dangerous for them, or their parents or their children.

Ms. Trofimova’s plan involved three bus drivers who made two trips, four days apart, as well as calls to the Hungarian Consulate, a handful of volunteers bearing insulin for diabetics and, ultimately, the safe passage of 51 people, three dogs and one guinea pig.

Among the biggest challenges was finding a bus because most had already been booked. After calling around, Ms. Trofimova found an operator in Romania willing to pick up her employees in Odesa.

“Then I worried about passports, because not a lot of Ukrainians have passports because they have never traveled out of the country,” she said. “And we were getting conflicting information about whether people needed Covid vaccine certificates.”

They did not, it turned out. And the six-hour wait at the Romanian border was relatively brief, courtesy of Ms. Trofimova’s decision to direct the bus to the tiny town of Isaccea, a somewhat obscure crossing point.

Nordcurrent employees say adjusting to their new setting has been relatively smooth, both because Vilnius is an easily navigated city and because the company is a family business that has done its best to embrace them. Ms. Trofimova it founded along with her husband, Michail Trofimov, and his brother Sergej, and their creations lean toward the whimsical, starting with their first title, Santa Claus Saves the Earth. Each month about 12 million people play Nordcurrent games, which are free to download and play. Revenue, which amounted to $64 million last year, is earned when add-ons are purchased, like better cooking equipment in Airplane Chefs.

The headquarters have a very un-corporate atmosphere. An aging cat sleeps on the sofa at the entrance of the office, which is on the third floor of a spiffy new building next to a cinema and above a coffee shop. Meeting rooms are named for the company’s games, like Murder in the Alps and Cooking Fever. For distractions, there are table tennis and foosball in a snack room.

Like Odesa, Vilnius is a mix of the grand old buildings and Soviet architecture, and the country, which was the first of the 15 Soviet republics to declare its independence, has been welcoming to Ukrainians. A law that requires proficiency in Lithuanian for certain jobs was suspended to help the 50,000 refugees who have arrived here.

In the months since the fighting began, the exit of Ukrainian tech workers has taken them all over Europe and the rest of the world. Some are planning to return home; others hope to stay put. For two Ukrainians who left a few years ago and have settled in Berlin, the invasion sparked an idea. Nikita Overchyk and Ivan Kychatyi created UA Talents, an online portal for employers in search of Ukrainian IT workers. It’s basically a matchmaking site, and it currently has 15,000 job postings.

The site’s founders say anyone from Ukraine who joins them in Germany should brace themselves for culture shock.

“This place is hugely bureaucratic,” Mr. Overchyk said. “There are a lot of rules, and you get three to four pieces of mail a week that you must respond to. Nobody in Ukraine communicates by mail.”

Mr. Kychatyi agreed.

“A lot of things just take too long,” he said. “Like getting internet service at home. That took a month. In Ukraine, that takes two days.”

There’s a premium on beautiful design and ease of use in Ukraine that is missing from many websites in Germany, the men said. In Ukraine, if an aging site needs an update, nobody is sweating about protocol or rules.

“We have no process,” Mr. Overchyk said. “We just get stuff done. That’s the mentality that Ukrainians are going to bring wherever they go. ‘We need this to happen. Help me make it happen.’”

This get-it-done ethos is reflected in many of the stories told by Nordcurrent employees who scrambled out of Ukraine. Nastya Dahno was an artist in the company’s Dnipro office and met the second bus in the Polish town of Lodz. First, she had to travel by train from Dnipro to Lviv, a trip that, in the chaos of those first days of war, took 36 hours instead of the usual 12. It was a sleeper train, with bunk beds that were used like benches , seating four or five people.

The space was crammed, the doors were locked, the shades were drawn and blankets were draped over the shades. The idea was to reduce the light emitted by the train and limit the chance of being spotted by Russians, and to reduce the impact of imploding glass if the train was attacked. Everybody was instructed to keep quiet, especially when the train stopped at a platform.

The scariest moment occurred about 10 hours into the trip, in the dead of night, when the silence of a stop was shattered by a man pounding at the door, screaming, “Let me in!”

“We had no idea who was on the other side of that door,” Ms. Dahno said (and she never found out, as it happened). “We thought it could be a criminal or a Russian soldier. Nobody spoke. We were just silent.”

Most of Nordcurrent’s employees, like most Ukrainians, stayed in Ukraine. One of them is Tatyana Margolina, the company’s office director in Dnipro. Over a video chat, she recalled that President Volodymyr Zelensky had said early on that if everyone emigrated, the economy would collapse. A local government official then offered a gender-specific recommendation about how to spend some money.

Guys, go to the gym. Ladies, get your nails done.

“Nail salons have become a place for therapy,” Ms. Margolina said. “The woman around here who does nails has also taken some courses in psychology. So her salon isn’t just a place to fix your nails. It’s a place to talk.”

As Ms. Margolina keeps the Dnipro office running, there is a new and unnerving dimension to her job: the sound of explosions. She hears them often, though even silence in a war is preoccupying — for those in Vilnius, too.

Not long ago, Ms. Kushnir was on the phone with her husband when he heard bombs landing and said he needed to hang up and sprint to a shelter. Within hours, she read that three people had died in a house near a playground where Ms. Kushnir regularly took her daughter. They had perished, she quickly realized, in the attack that compelled her husband to hang up.

“I can’t understand this war,” Ms. Kushnir said, removing her glasses to dab tears on her cheeks. “Our lives were ruined, broken, and I don’t know why.”

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