A year into the war, tech entrepreneurs in Kyiv are turning their skills to help fight Russia, while still serving civilian clients in the West
February 26, 2023
The Sunday Times
When Russian bombs started falling in Ukraine, Stepan Tanasiychuk noticed a common refrain on social media from friends across the country: “We can’t hear the sirens.” Soviet-era street alarms could take minutes to sound and not everyone would be woken when they wailed in the night. Lives were at stake. “For ten years my brain has been wired to solve problems with apps and programs, so I thought, ‘we need an app for that’,” said Tanasiychuk.
On the fourth day of the full-scale invasion, after escorting his wife and children to safety in the mountains, Tanasiychuk, 36, set his team to work.
His “Air Alert” app has now been downloaded 15 million times since the first version was built in one day last February. It saves lives every evening, sending loud push notifications to millions with details of the Russian rocket attacks that now punctuate their day-to-day lives.
More recently the app has attracted support from an unlikely quarter. In December developers added a new sound especially recorded by the Star Wars actor Mark Hamill. Now when the alarm subsides and families can safely venture outside they are lifted with the words “may the force be with you” from Luke Skywalker.
Before the war, Tanasiychuk’s company, Stfalcon, built web pages and apps for European businesses such as the German transport company MeinFernbus and the French bank Crédit Agricole. But for the past year, like all Ukrainian tech companies, they have an extra goal: defeating Russia.
Ukraine’s burgeoning IT industry has become President Zelensky’s secret weapon. His army of tech professionals have developed essential software in their free time, raised millions in military aid and battled to keep the country’s economy turning.
Last year, tech was the only sector to grow despite the war: IT services exports rose by 6 per cent. This was short of the 38 per cent growth in 2021, but growth nonetheless — a remarkable feat when 57,000 of a pre-war workforce of 285,000 have left Ukraine.
Now tech companies such as Stfalcon have adapted and are keen to reassure prospective foreign clients that their workforce is more motivated than ever. “I see how people work here in Ukraine at this time — for me, they are heroes. The deadlines, quality of service, nothing has changed during the war,” said Anna Stetsenko, 41, who runs Indigo, an IT recruitment platform that helps western companies field teams of developers in Ukraine.
Service may not have changed, conditions have. Stetsenko employs a team of 22, all women, working remotely from different cities in Ukraine. Their team was double the size in 2021 but those living in the worst-hit cities were forced to flee.
Like many Ukrainian tech firms, Stetsenko’s team has devoted its free time to supporting the war effort, while keeping on top of the workload.
It translated the website for the sexual violence campaigner Nadia Murad into Ukrainian for the first time, donated parts of its profits to the army and some joined a volunteer army of tech engineers ready to hack Russian targets.
Over the past year, volunteer coders have joined the Ukrainian government to create an “IT army” to hack key Russian operations. Targets are announced on social media before the hackers set to work. According to posts on the Telegram app, in the past week they have disrupted YooMoney, a bank transfer service owned by Sberbank, and attacked the film ticket sales of premier.one, a Gazprom-owned streaming platform.
In November, 300, reportedly joined by Nato advisers, held a “hackathon” underground in a Kyiv metro station for Ukraine’s national defence force.
Andrii Bidochko, founder of the Lviv start-up UBOS, which helps people with limited experience create apps, wanted to democratise the pastime of disrupting Russian military websites.
His initiative, Play for Ukraine, allowed anyone to help overload Russian military websites by playing a video game. In one hour of swiping the screen, the player sends out up to 20,000 messages to Russian sites, overwhelming them and hopefully making them crash.
Zelensky’s government set up the Ministry of Digital Transformation in 2019 to move public services online.
The centrepiece of its “state in a smartphone” project is the app Diia. Before the war it allowed citizens to renew their driving licences or access a state pension. Now Ukrainians can use the app to report bomb damage to their homes.
Even the process of reporting war crimes has been streamlined with an online form on a website released by the Office of the Prosecutor General.