‘They could be right here in Utah as our next-door neighbors’. Why the war in Ukraine feels personal for Lehi’s tech community.

Tech entrepreneurs in Lehi, home to Utah’s Silicon Slopes, are worried about their Ukrainian employees, some of whom have chosen to stay and fight the Russian invasion.

(Sasha Maslov | The New York Times) People work in the office of a technology company in Kyiv, Ukraine on Jan. 28, 2022. The European nation is quietly home to a large base of tech workers, and partnerships between Utah businesses and Ukrainian workers have a history dating back well over a decade.

If Ukraine’s tech workers are as good at making Molotov cocktails as they are at programming, Russia is in trouble, Scott Paul opined in a LinkedIn post.

Big trouble.

The software entrepreneur shared his colorful prediction on Feb. 28, just days after the beginning of Russia’s invasion.

Among his numerous ventures, Paul is a co-founder of the Utah-based company Wooly, a customer commerce platform that relies on a handful of Ukrainian tech employees – who work from the western city of Lviv – for the bulk of its engineering.

It’s nearly 6,000 miles from Lviv to Lehi, the home of Wooly and Utah’s Silicon Slopes, but for technology companies operating along the Wasatch Front, the long-distance connection to Ukraine melts away in the digital office. And the international connection is far from unique, especially between Ukraine and Utah.

The European nation is quietly home to a large base of tech workers, and partnerships between Utah businesses and Ukrainian workers have a history dating back well over a decade, according to Mark Newman, the founder and CEO of Nomi Health, which employs a team of around 20 Ukrainians.

Some work for large domestic tech companies and then do contract work for international businesses. Others, like the ones who work for Wooly, have started their own consulting agencies and are virtually just another part of their U.S. companies’ teams.

“They’re easy to hire and they’re easy to work with and they’re really trustworthy,” Paul said. “They speak English really well. So they – I’m not gonna lie to you – when I say they’re part of the team, it’s like, their names look different, but everything else feels like they could be right here in Utah as our next-door neighbors.”

(Scott Paul) Workers for the Lehi-based technology company Wooly pose for a photograph in Lviv, Ukraine, in 2018. If Ukraine’s tech workers are as good at making Molotov cocktails as they are at programming, Russia is in trouble, Paul said.

According to reporting done by The Wall Street Journal, around 30,000 tech workers reside in Lviv and, Paul said, the residents there are no strangers to Utah businesses – particularly those on Silicon Slopes.

“I’m walking in Lviv, Ukraine, and I’m seeing shirts of Utah companies, tech shirts, right,” Paul said of his time spent abroad. “And I’m like, ‘This is crazy.’ … They know the people here. They know our kind of politics and who the CEOs are and who pays well and who works well with Ukrainians. So, like, they know us well. [It’s] like a sister city without any official sister city status.”

For him and James Davis, Wooly’s other co-founder, the past few weeks have been characterized by helplessness as they watch the humanitarian crisis unfold. For them, the invasion is personal. Davis has known some of his workers for more than a decade and personally handpicked them when Wooly got funded around five years ago.

The Ukrainians have traveled to Utah, and both co-founders have visited Ukraine. Paul said he is not usually one to open up his wallet for crises happening overseas, but this is different. It hits close to home.

“This is family,” Paul said on Wednesday. “… So, I’m directly communicating, like, ‘Can I pay you more on your paycheck? Can I send you Crypto? What can I do just so you can get more med packs and Molotov cocktails?’”

Recently, Paul has taken a backseat in the day-to-day running of Wooly. Davis is the current chief technology officer, and he has to balance the company’s practical interests with compassion for the workers – his friends – who help it go.

Wooly is a small operation. The startup only employs around 20 workers total, Davis said. Eight of those live in Ukraine.

“Yesterday, we’re in a planning meeting, and they say, ‘Oh, we just had an airstrike alert, we need to hop off,’” Davis said on March 3.

Despite the circumstances, his Ukrainian team has seen only a slight drop in productivity since the invasion began, and the company is making no demands on its employees’ time. Regardless, they’ve chosen to work through the crisis, Davis said, showing the same mettle that has so endeared Ukrainian leaders, like President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to the rest of the world.

“They say they’re stressed, but when we’re talking to them, they’re not in shambles,” Davis said. “I don’t know how, but they’ve got nerves of steel.”

When the airstrike alert interrupted their virtual meeting, some of the Ukrainians didn’t even log off of the call.

“[There’s] a certain resiliency to the people of Ukraine that none of us in America could ever understand,” Newman said. “They’re a fantastic group of people – highly qualified, highly skilled Ph.D.s, engineers, software developers – living in an environment that we can’t even imagine.”

(Felipe Dana | AP) Ukrainian civilians receive weapons training inside a cinema in Lviv, western Ukraine, Saturday, March 5, 2022.

Could Ukrainian tech workers come to the U.S.?

Regardless of the distance and contrasting circumstances, Ken Frei said he is not surprised at how well Utah’s businesses and Ukraine’s people have paired.

“I think people in Utah would be surprised with how much they have in common with people in Ukraine,” said Frei, who worked extensively with Ukrainian teams as a former director of product at the Utah-based company Pluralsight. “Like, when I visited Kharkiv, it is a college town. There are tens of thousands of young tech workers. I honestly felt like I was in, like, Provo or Lehi.”

He also noted that, while the country was formerly part of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainians with which he’s interacted have been very “Western-aligned” in their way of life.

It’s for that reason he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin will be unable to hold Ukraine.

“They just don’t align with ... what Putin is trying to do,” he said.

It’s also why some business leaders believe Utah has the chance to do an outsized amount of good while the conflict unfolds.

Newman said he would like to see the U.S. government take a more proactive role in welcoming Ukrainian refugees into its borders. The workers’ skills make them perfect candidates for H-1B visas, he said, which allow “highly educated foreign professionals” to temporarily relocate to the U.S. and work in “specialty occupations,” according to the American Immigration Council.

“The greatest thing our federal delegation could do right now is to really drive the reopening of H-1B visas because they are all highly technically skilled people,” he said. “… Utah could really be a shining star if they want to get mobilized in that way.”

Paul agreed, saying that Americans could learn a lot from the Ukrainian people.

“These are the people we want in our neighborhoods, like 100%,” he said. “… These are the people that teach us how to be good neighbors and teach us how to be civil and nice to each other. So, if we could flood Utah with Ukrainians, that would be amazing.”

The Beehive State has a history of hosting individuals from areas of conflict, and Gov. Spencer Cox said to expect no less from Utah this time around.

“We’ve talked with our federal delegation,” he said earlier this month. “We’ll be talking with the (President Joe Biden) administration as those opportunities come up. What I’ve told people is just plan on it, because that’s what we do in Utah. We have now 900 Afghan residents who are here in our state ... and I suspect that we will do the exact same thing when it comes to our Ukrainian brothers and sisters.”

However, the number of H-1B visas is currently capped at 65,000 per fiscal year, with another 20,000 for those with a master’s or graduate degree from a U.S. school, and demand in recent years has outweighed the supply, according to the American Immigration Council. That cap, along with the dangers of fleeing Ukraine and the restriction on who can exit the country, leaves many people, at least for now, stuck in the embattled nation, whether they want to be or not.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox said he expects Utah to receive refugees from Ukraine.

So, those who can’t — or won’t — escape continue to work at their tech jobs even while their country is being shelled around them.

Frei said he doubts any Utah companies will fold because of the invasion. For them, the conflict will be an “inconvenience,” but could be doubly brutal for their Ukrainian workers.

“It definitely will either impact specific teams or entire companies, depending on how much of their technical workforce is based out of Ukraine,” he said. “... What will happen is those companies will have to replace [their Ukrainian workers], and they will.”

If the Ukrainian people lose their overseas jobs, it will be yet another piece of their lives they have to pick up after the war is finished.

Working and fighting

The situation in Ukraine is so dynamic that some Utah business leaders told The Salt Lake Tribune that early on they had little idea where their Ukrainian friends and employees were from one day to the next.

Newman, of Nomi Health, said that after Russia’s initial attack, a few of his workers were trying to get to Greece. Others fled to Poland. And others have opted to remain in Ukraine, determined to assist in the war for their homeland while trying to keep up with their day jobs.

Newman said he has plans to continue hiring Ukrainian workers once the conflict settles. Wooly added another Ukrainian employee just last week.

But there are many lingering questions. What if the conflict continues to escalate? What if the war drags on?

Davis expressed his own concerns about Wooly’s future:

“How do I keep my team producing at the level it needs to? Should I over recruit a little bit here in the U.S. and hope that the budget can be OK, in the long run? How can I have my redundancies in check?” he wondered.

He doesn’t have the answers right now and is waiting, day by day, to see how the war unfolds. And so is his Ukrainian team.

Instead of living down the street, the Utahn’s co-workers are hiding in shelters, fleeing their homes and living through a war fought half-a-world away.

Taking it all one day at a time. One line of code. One war to fight.

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