Why hiring developers from a war-torn country proved beneficial for everyone

Entrepreneur Matteo Penzo explains the rationale behind employing software engineers living in Ukraine in spite of the ongoing conflict.

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Unless you have been living in a cave for the past 18 months, you will be all too familiar with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since February 2022, stories of violence, destruction, and despair have swarmed newsrooms and dominated headlines.

The world has been so caught up in the tenacity and bravery of the Ukrainians, that we have forgotten what ordinary life looked like before the invasion – something as simple as a run in the park, a drink with friends, or a day at work. Many of us have also overlooked that Ukraine is home to a population of highly skilled individuals, experienced professionals, and some of the most talented computer engineers in the world. 

Conflict resolution

In 2022, I took the decision to hire a product team, 100% comprised of Ukrainians, living in Ukraine. Interestingly, this has proven to be one of the best choices of my career. 

In the early days of the conflict, I initially believed that looking for employment opportunities and collaborating with our project would be low on the list of priorities for Ukrainian developers. I believed survival would be their foremost concern, and that everything else would be put on hold. That was until I was introduced to Sacha, a digital entrepreneur from Ukraine, who informed me about the availability of skilled Ukrainian developers, many of whom had left positions due to the conflict. I quickly realised there was a huge opportunity to tap into exceptional talent, despite the challenging circumstances.

Hostile environment

Employing an elite team in a war zone certainly came with risks. Back in February 2022, everything carried a big question mark. Would their internet be steadily available? Would their government let them work? Would they be asked to abandon their computers and join the army? What about their commitment? Would they really be committed to the job at hand, and if not, could we really blame them? With an air of uncertainty hanging over the project, it soon became clear we would need a fresh approach to achieve success. 

In order to proceed, I designed what I called “unbreakable walls” – a list of requirements that everybody would need to follow if our relationship was to be a success:

1. Protect the product

Our team would need to commit their code every two hours, so that in case of loss of electricity or connection, the rest of the team could keep working.

2. Protect the time

Both Sacha and I knew we were already living within a “Force majeure clause”; so we worked on a contract that gave us extreme flexibility with the hiring process, without the need to lose any precious time.

3. Protect the money

Similar to the way we shielded the time clauses, we also made it much simpler to leave the agreement. On the other side, we agreed to pay out twice a month in order to support the team and ensure they always had “cash in hand”.

Together with Pietro, my technical co-founder – and of course Sacha – we then identified the core people we needed to start building our product, and we began interviewing candidates. In less than two weeks, I was able to assemble one of the best product teams I have ever worked with. Four months later, we delivered our product to our first clients.

Courage under fire

Working with our Ukrainian team has enriched me immensely. Despite the constant threat and presence of death due to bombings and conflict, their commitment has remained unwavering. In dangerous times, I would frequently hear the sounds of air-raid sirens during meetings. The first time it happened, I told everybody to leave their desks to seek safety. My team patiently explained that it was more dangerous to run for shelter than it was to stay at home working. Events like this became routine, but the team always remained focused and dedicated to their work.  

I was consumed with pride one day, when I received a call from our lead engineer, who had not shown up at our daily meeting. He explained that during the night the bombing was so intense, that his whole house was shaking. With a proper night’s sleep off the table, he decided to keep writing code until he dropped on the keyboard. After an exhausting night, he had slept through his alarm, an infraction that was easily forgiven. 

Final thoughts

zick learn’s vision is to be the best learning platform for corporations, enhancing course completion rates to over 85% and boosting learning curves by 800%. The essence of this vision lies not only in generating cool ideas, but also in exceptional execution. The outstanding work that expedited our time-to-market and fueled continuous feature delivery is attributed to this brave and talented team. They confronted war’s realities, leveraging their work to regain control over their lives.

In these extraordinary individuals, I found not just a team, but a source of inspiration. Their dedication amid adversity echoes the spirit of innovation, reinforcing the belief that remarkable achievements are possible even in the most challenging of times.

Matteo Penzo headshot
Matteo Penzo - CEO and cofounder of zick learn

Matteo Penzo is an entrepreneur and experienced executive, with more than 20 years of technology, software design and development experience. After 10 years in global creative consultancy firm, frog, he co-founded zick learn in 2021. An innovative microlearning platform, zick can be integrated into existing IT structures, to transform corporate training, empower education, and accelerate professional development in the digital age.

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