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Silicon Valley Firm’s Readiness Put to Test in Ukraine

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A family sits in the Kyiv subway, using it as a bomb shelter in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 25, 2022.

In offices near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, thousands of miles away from the crisis in Ukraine, Andy Kurtzig has been preparing for Russian aggression for years.

The chief executive of JustAnswer.com, a company that connects people with experts online for real-time advice, consulted the plan created by the firm’s crisis committee. More than one-third of the firm’s employees are in Ukraine, mainly in two cities, but they are also spread out across the country because of the pandemic.

With the Russian invasion, the firm’s contingency plans are being put into action.

Help for employees

It has stocked up on cash and has moved some of its money to neighboring Poland to pay employees in case the Ukrainian banking system collapses or comes under cyberattacks.

Employees have been getting up to speed on using alternative communication software, apps and satellite phones, even walkie-talkies, in case telecommunications systems buckle.

Generators are at the ready, with landlords’ permissions secured, in case the power grid falters.

And the company is paying to move some families to different parts of the country or out of the struggling nation altogether.

But first things first. Ukrainian workers were given Thursday off and told to take the time they need to deal with the situation on the ground.

"’Focus on keeping yourself and your family safe,’" Kurtzig recalled telling his Ukrainian employees Wednesday night, California time, when Russian airstrikes were first reported around the country. “And don't worry about us.”

Meetings canceled

Just in case anyone would feel a sense of duty to work, even in a time of war, all meetings involving Ukrainian employees were also canceled, he said.

It’s common in Silicon Valley for giant tech companies and even smaller firms to have operations around the world, including in Ukraine, where the country’s education system has a good reputation for training people for careers in science, technology and engineering.

But in many ways, JustAnswer is unique. The company hired its first Ukrainian in 2010, someone that an employee knew and recommended. Since then, its Ukrainian staff has grown to 270 people, including 87 people hired in 2021 alone. The company plans to hire 180 Ukrainians this year.

Change in focus

JustAnswer’s Ukrainian employees aren’t focused just on coding and fixing bugs — the sort of work technology companies typically outsource outside the U.S., Kurtzig says. Ukrainians also work on the firm’s human resources, customer service, operations, user design and analytics teams.

“Our whole business is relying on our people in Ukraine across every department,” said Kurtzig, who lived in Ukraine with his family in 2019.

For years, the company has grappled with planning around Russia’s hostilities, including the 2014 Maidan popular uprising and crackdown and the Russian annexation of Crimea, formerly part of Ukraine.

On the move

As of Friday, 16 employees have relocated or are planning to, with six moving out of the country. The company has stocked up its offices with food and medicine in case they are needed for temporary shelter.

Four employees are volunteering as part of the military mobilization, the company says.

One employee, a paramedic, is going toward the conflict.

“She's going east to go help the troops,” Kurtzig said, “and to help with the casualties that are happening right now.”

Every Thursday, JustAnswer releases new code and improves its website. Those changes were canceled this week.

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