In spite of the grim events that started February 24 in Ukraine, their IT sector remains open for business. Konstantin Vasyuk, the IT Ukraine Association’s Executive Director, spoke to Brian Runciman MBCS about the nation’s tech industry resilience, business continuity and what help looks like.
In the last decade or so, the tech industry has talked a great deal about digital transformation and in early 2022 some of that work has borne fruit in a fascinating way, despite the horrible context. During war, Ukraine is keeping its economy going in large part through digital means and in a way that previously countries under these sorts of pressures couldn't.
A combination of effective business continuity and resilient connectivity is allowing Ukraine to cope economically now, and maintain future potential.
Konstantin Vasyuk says: ‘This is in part due to us being quite a young nation. The average age of our IT professionals is 27 years old and that has allowed us to take to new technology very fast.’
The IT Ukraine Association represents more than 100 tech firms and about 75,000 IT specialists in the country. Vasyuk is keen to stress that, despite the Russian invasion, the sector remains open for international business.
Business continuity has been tested in the world in general throughout the pandemic but the outbreak of a war in Europe added a whole new layer for Ukraine.
‘I should say,’ says Vasyuk, ‘that we weren’t surprised. We have been in the state of war with Russia since 2014. Companies developed business continuity plans before Russia invaded Ukraine. But there were things we hadn't expected, for example, the Belarussian regime’s help to Russia and the volume of territory attacked during the first day of the war. We hadn't experienced anything like this before, but it just proves that you have to be ready for everything. Now we see that we were ready, and we are coping with it exceptionally well.’
Vasyuk is working and, as he points out, this is true for thousands of Ukrainians. In some cases, relatively normal life has continued, especially in the safer regions of Ukraine. ‘It is really fantastic that most of our IT companies work almost as usual, and this is partly due to the huge territory of Ukraine,’ says Vasyuk.
Ukraine’s well-developed infrastructure, internet and fibre-optic network have allowed stable digital connections – and this has been supported by 5,000 of Elon Musk’s Starlink devices previously supplied to Ukraine.
‘Before the war,’ says Vasyuk, ‘it wasn't possible to operate Starlink due to some limitations in European legislation. And in Ukraine it wasn't possible to use this officially or legally, but the situation has changed. Now they are operating. There was a record number of downloads of the Starlink application. We now have very good experience of using this equipment. It's a reserve alternative for network connections, but it helps for the regions which temporarily have problems with internet connection.’
Vasyuk agrees that Ukraine IT’s business continuity planning has been tested to another level but, as he says, ‘we are, and we will always be, a human-centric industry, a talent-centric industry, and that's why all the business continuity plans related to people worked so well.’
When it was put to Vasyuk that, as the Executive Director of IT Ukraine he must feel a good deal of personal pride in the way the industry he represents has stepped up, he points to the maturity of the IT profession in Ukraine. ‘We have reliable IT businesses, more than 4,000 quality companies in Ukraine and according to our recent report, issued before the war, they're very socially responsible and very flexible.’
Vital cybersecurity assets
On the subject of cybersecurity Vasyuk is necessarily cautious. ‘We have a lot of projects now which we cannot speak about,’ he says, ‘but we have a lot of examples where people have applied their expertise to create new products. For people, for government, for the military.
‘For example, we have some projects that identify people and vehicles, or even map the placement of enemy troops. That data goes to the proper state services, the military services, but that’s just the visible part.’
He also discusses the hidden part of cybersecurity. ‘This is most complicated, sophisticated and interesting because this is a collaboration on exact tasks with exact goals,’ he says. ‘There are three levels of this, the first level being DDOS attacks. It's very simple. You can launch an application on your phone and you are in. But these have a short-term effect, so it’s not that harmful for the enemy.
‘The second level is pen-testing and hacking of some resource servers, and this is much more sophisticated, we have good experience in this.
‘The third level what we call internal work where you penetrate infrastructure, you organise some internal structure for continuing attacks and destroying information. And this could lead to huge damage. We have examples where one of these efforts just eliminated all documentation, all data inside the servers of one organisation. It just left the target without any information at all. When you destroy data it's perfect. The most sophisticated level is developing special software and special firmware for equipment for internal for military projects, because they have a lot of very sophisticated, nice, smart things which helps our army.’
Ukraine recently thwarted a cyberattack targeting its electrical grid, which could have affected millions of users. It’s thought to have been released by Russian hackers known as Sandworm, a group believed to be part of Russia's GRU military intelligence agency.
The malware was described as an upgraded version of a programme which led to power blackouts in Kyiv in 2016.
Part of the malware programme was designed to take over computer networks at the energy provider to cut power, while a second part was deployed to wipe out data with the intention of slowing down attempts to get power back online.
Vasyuk said this showed how well prepared the Ukrainian’s now were when it came to defeating such attacks: ‘On the battlefield we were faced with the second army in the world, and it was declared that it's the strongest second army in the world. But our people, our soldiers who fight on this front, they know that this is not the second army of the world anymore. And the same I should say regarding cybersecurity and the cyber army of Russia, the cyber potential of Russia. Of course, they have some potential, some expertise, but it's again another myth.’
How the international IT community can help
Conversing with Vasyuk and some of his colleagues is a moving experience – they are engaging and upbeat. And that was well reflected when we discussed what help was needed.
‘We are not asking for donations,’ says Vasyuk. ‘We're asking for a bit more business trust in Ukraine IT. It's not obvious when you see these awful pictures of destroyed buildings and everything, but we managed to save our business – our IT business is working, so we want to tell people about this and share this information. Our most important support companies can provide a continuation of contracting and continue working with partners. And maybe if some companies have relocated people abroad, it would help to provide some office spaces or logistics for them.’
It's inevitable that there will be some percentage of cancelled contracts, says Vasyuk, but, as he says, ‘we just proved that even in these conditions we can work. And they are very hard conditions.’
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He is also looking forward: ‘the situation now is very, very dramatic. Still when we overcome this a lot of customers will return even if they reject some contracts.’
One particular current issue is, understandably, with site visits of IT specialists to customers. Says Vasyuk, ‘We are talking with government regarding this to maybe provide some special procedures to allow people business trips for a specific term – maybe two to four weeks – to visit customers on site. That will help to continue business processes.’
Vasyuk’s message is to trust current contracts with Ukrainian partners and if possible even start new projects.
‘Investors can explore their tech needs in Ukraine,’ says Vasyuk. ‘Explore the landscape of the IT industry of Ukraine and you will find exactly the partner you need. We (the IT Ukraine Association) can assist in this. And if you think that all these people are sitting in Ukraine - no. Most of our companies have offices in different countries and they have different teams.
‘Of course we spend a lot of money now for military purposes, for humanitarian purposes but we are also spending money to develop business at the same time.’
IT professionals in Ukraine
In the region of 85% of Ukraine’s IT workforce is still working, but Vasyuk is keen to point that whilst availability runs at ‘85% plus, efficiency is more than 90%. That’s important because you can have lower efficiency with higher availability, but we have both figures quite high. In general, we see that people are very motivated because they are patriotic. For example, we were supplying some special medical kits for troops. We have foundations which gave these some donations. But sometimes just one company will send money for this purpose.
‘So because people can still work, they can earn money, then they spend money for the army and humanitarian aid. IT Ukraine’s survey showed that in the first 10 days we collected $24 million.’
Role of data
Vasyuk says that around 2% of IT people went into the army. Around 5% of their IT experts are involved on the cyber front. And 16% of people have relocated to neighbouring countries in Europe. IT Ukraine are monitoring general trends and regularly reporting.
BCS and Ukraine
BCS is about making IT good for society and in this context that means offering practical help. The Institute is opening its networks, expertise, and facilities to all technologists from Ukraine. We also want to go further. Membership of our community and the support that comes with it (at no cost) is now open to any IT professional displaced or affected by international conflict.
Any Ukrainian IT practitioner is immediately welcome into the BCS membership community at no cost. This means:
- Use of the BCS London Offices for any Ukrainian IT professionals who feel they would benefit from them, and their central location
- Introduction to relevant local BCS branches and specialist groups across the UK for networking
- Practical support through our mentoring network, for example, in searching for and applying for IT roles.
Any technologist from Ukraine who feels that membership of our professional body could benefit them or their network should contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.
To explore what IT in Ukraine can do now, or to connect with potential partners visit the IT Ukraine Association website.