When the first bombs from Russia hit Ukraine, JetBridge’s employees in Kyiv didn’t know how to react.
“I don’t think anyone was prepared when the actual invasion came,” said John Sung Kim, CEO of the Tampa software engineering marketplace. “Some of our engineers, they weigh 110 pounds. I didn’t want them to pick up a rifle and charge into battle.”
One year later, Kim says, “if you ask any of our Ukrainian employees, 10 out of 10, they’re winning this war.”
JetBridge is far from the only American company whose Ukrainian operations were upended by the country’s war with Russia. The nation is a trove of tech talent utilized by everyone from software startups to St. Petersburg corporate giant Jabil, which has 3,000 workers there.
Kim moved JetBridge to Tampa from San Francisco, where he’d had startup success with a string of companies call center platform Five9, which went public in 2014. The company has more about 30 contracted employees spread around Ukraine, but the company’s connection to the country runs even deeper — both Kim and his JetBridge cofounder, Mischa Spiegelmock, are married to Ukrainian women.
This past week marked a year since Russia invaded Ukraine. As the milestone approached, we asked Kim what it’s been like guiding a company through a literal war zone. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The market is robust for software engineers and other tech workers in Ukraine. Why?
Because they invented chemistry. They built missiles and warships there. The science education that the Soviet Union gave its students in terms of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) was wonderful. I used to teach at Kyiv Polytechnic, which is Ukraine’s version of MIT, and I hate to say this, because I’m a new Tampa resident, and my wife and I love Tampa, but the students at Kyiv Polytechnic run intellectual circles around students at USF and UT. When a software developer makes 10 times what a police officer would make, or a schoolteacher, or even a university professor, the economic incentive is there.
Is that why so many tech companies end up reaching out to that country for talent?
Oh yeah. For simple application development, it’s absolutely been a hot zone for American companies. One, you have the labor cost arbitrage. Two, you have the talent. You look at Grammarly: Made in Ukraine. Ring, the doorbell that got bought by Amazon: Made in Ukraine. So we see all of these wonderful products being wholly or partly built in Ukraine.
When did you have an inkling that the conflict might become a problem?
None of our employees thought the actual invasion would occur. And when it did, there was a lot of chaos, because some of our employees wanted to fight. They wanted to volunteer. In which case we went into battle gear procurement mode, because there were not enough guns, helmets and bulletproof vests. Thermal night scopes were a hot in-demand thing that it was hard to get at the beginning.
How did you pivot from the day-to-day operations of a company to, all of a sudden, you’ve got to take care of your employees?
The first thing we did was we reached out to our clients and said, “Listen, please don’t be on the wrong side of history on this, and fire your software engineers because they’re now suddenly in a war zone.” Fortunately, all of our customers understood and said, “We’re going to give them a month off.” In that month, all of our female employees evacuated to Poland. Suddenly we had to become savvy in real estate, transportation, what happens if there’s a border guard that needs to be bribed. For the men, we weren’t sure if they were going to be conscripted. We had to be sure that while they were complying with the law and not escaping the country, that they wouldn’t necessarily be walking around the train station where they could be conscripted. So we became human smugglers and military apparel runners.
So by March, when it was a full-on war, what was the status of your employees?
All the women went to Poland. All the men stayed. And as far as productivity, everyone went back to work, and actually, productivity soared. Because there’s nothing else to do but work. But it’s different now. Now, productivity has been challenged, for two reasons. One: Electricity. You can get electricity, but you have to go to a coworking space. And the coworking spaces don’t always have electricity.
When did that start?
About two months ago. And it’s been getting worse and worse. The grid is not reliable, and you get these brownouts.
What effect does that have on your business?
Well, it’s code, so they can always upload it when they get their electricity back. But my worry is more about No. 2, which is, I can see it in their eyes, and I can hear it in their voices — they’re starting to get that thousand-yard stare. Because they’re in a war. We had a piece of shrapnel fly through one of our engineers’ windows; fortunately it didn’t hit them. We had another whose grandfather was in a hospital that got shelled; he died. We had another one get married; their father couldn’t attend the wedding because he’s now a tank commander. In month three, there was a lot of adrenaline and energy and pride. Now it’s starting to wear.
How does the company support employees in that position?
The entire country is in fundraising mode. So the best thing we can do is donate. We’ve been donating to various organizations in Ukraine where I don’t think they’re going to steal half the money. And we allow and encourage people to say, “Hey, there’s this female soldier, she was on CNN, and she actually just got her car blown up over a landmine, and she as a GoFundMe...” And then the company will donate to that. It just shows that we’re in it with them.
How has your intended three- or five-year plan changed because of the war?
We’re double-downing on Latin America now for talent, because we can’t rely on Ukraine. And we’re not hiring anymore in Ukraine. Because while we’re 100% loyal to our existing Ukrainian teammates, to continue to hire in Ukraine, we’re always going to be sharing an employer. The second job that they have will be this war.
You have this balancing act that you have to pull off, of being aware of the humanitarian crisis there, but also managing your company in a fiscally responsible way. Is that push and pull difficult?
The thing about our industry is if an engineer works for you for two years, that’s great management. My hope is that our Ukrainian team, because they understand that we’ve defied some business logic against the short-term interests of the company and stuck with them, that they will stick with us for longer than two years. In which case our return on investment will be there.
Do you see yourself stepping recruiting back up in Ukraine if this war comes to a resolution?
Absolutely. I grew up in South Korea, and I am hoping that Ukraine goes through a similar situation, where there’s a 38th parallel with some stability. They called the South Korean economic revolution the “Miracle on the Han River.” The Han River, coincidentally, looks very similar to the Dnipro, which cuts right through the heart of the capital city. I’m hoping that there’s more investment that comes in and kicks off this Miracle on the Dnipro.