Defying Putin: The DashDevs Story
Sue Scott talks to Igor Tomych, Founder and CEO of the global fintech software development company DashDevs, based in Kharkiv.
As Igor Tomych waited in the departure lounge at Schiphol Airport at the end of Money20/20, his mind went back to the race for the last flight out of Kharkiv, three and a half months earlier.
With his children, David, six, and Kira, three, strapped in the back seat of the car, Igor and his wife Anastasia had no real idea what lay ahead for their family or their country. They only knew they needed to get their kids out of Ukraine with Anastasia’s parents – and fast. Four hours later, the airport closed. The following morning the couple were woken at 5am by an explosion. It was February 24 and the Russian invasion had begun.
‘Home’ for the Tomychs now is Budapest in Hungary; many of the rest of Igor’s 160-strong team of DashDevs’ software development engineers and support staff with whom he’s helped build fintechs and neobanks across the globe – including the UK’s Dozens – are living on temporary permits all over Europe, scattered by a war no one in Ukraine wanted and the world seems powerless to stop. All of them are determined to eventually follow Igor back to Ukraine to rebuild what’s been lost.
“It doesn’t matter when,” he says. “But people feel optimistic that our country is going to still exist.”
For the remaining, vast majority, of his employees, life – and work – goes on amidst the daily privations and surreal landscape of war: checkpoints and fuel shortages, empty buildings, and the strange absence of children, almost a third of whom have now left among the sad stream of nearly five million refugees.
Despite his best efforts, and offers of financial and practical help to get them out of the country, 80 per cent of DashDevs’ team chose to stay, either through duty to older relatives or – among those who had already been forced to flee once from Russian aggression in the East in 2014 – resolve not to run again. Three of the team joined the military defence; the rest are facing down Russia the only way they know how – by refusing to let it destroy Ukraine’s $5billion IT economy. Before the war, 300,000 people were employed in the outsourcing sector to which DashDevs belongs.
Not only have the company’s staff continued to operate remotely, wherever in the world they find themselves – thanks to software and processes put in place during the pandemic – but they haven’t lost a single client. They’ve even gained some; perhaps the sweetest revenge on Putin being a company that pulled the plug on its Russian operation.
Igor knows that when he does finally return to DashDevs’ seven-story HQ in the city where he grew up, studied for his computer science degree, and purposefully chose to locate his company, despite spending much of his time in the US, there will be tears of joy and sadness, as well as a period of recovery as everyone deals with the trauma they’ve been through. He’s prepared for some to change the course of their careers as a result, and is putting plans in place now to make sure there is a pipeline of talent for years to come, including an education initiative to ‘give anyone in the community a chance to step into IT’. But, for now, they are all in ‘survival mode’, he says, their work providing a touchstone for the life they knew and hope will one day return.
Some staff have already drifted back to Kharkiv – Ukraine’s second most important city, sitting just 40km from the Russian border, which made it an early target in the war. Heavy missile bombardment of government buildings saw Anastasia’s nearby company headquarters completely destroyed. Although Russian forces were successfully repelled in April, as recently as May 27, nine people were reported to have died and 17 to have been injured in a Russian attack. None of DashDevs’ team has, thankfully, been killed or suffered serious injury, but Igor is aware from social media posts that many have lost people they care for.
Igor and Anastasia followed their children out of the country the morning the Russians marched in, joining the slow queues of traffic heading West to relative safety. They’d waited so they could accompany Igor’s heavily pregnant sister-in-law, her husband, and Igor’s parents, who all left before dawn in a little convoy of cars, arriving with relatives 1,200km away, 26 hours later. They took temporary asylum in Turkey before moving to Hungary in May.
On day one of the war, they organised buses for staff who wanted to leave the most vulnerable towns and villages, reaching out to clients for help in finding alternative accommodation, and paid forward salaries so workers had ready cash.
“We communicated constantly – some needed finance to get somewhere safe, others needed advice. But we took care of everyone. We didn’t feel we’d left anyone behind,” says Igor. “There were two employees in particular about 20km from Mariupol and Donetsk whom we urged to get out.”
Talking to us in April, when atrocities committed in Bucha and elsewhere – now the subject of an International Criminal Court investigation – first came to light, Igor said: “It feels like a military of barbarians.” And it prompted him to pay for equipment to help Ukranian troops repel them.
He was proud, he said, when Russian speakers in Kharkiv – where four generations of his family have lived and worked – began using Ukrainian in solidarity with their neighbours.
But, having lived in the shadow of the Russian bear since 2014 when Putin’s forces annexed Crimea and began an eight-year proxy campaign of intimidation by supporting separatists in the Donbas region, he now doesn’t see any alternative but to put Russia back behind its borders once and for all.
“If we defend our territory, it will not be finished, but there is a chance Russia will fall into pieces. The only way to stop it is for it not to exist because it’s a threat to the whole world,” he says.
He’s not alone in that view.
“When Crimea was occupied, the world thought ‘Russia has the ability to expand but it doesn’t want to’. It was wrong. We met people from Moldova and Poland at Money20/20 and, if Ukraine falls, they are going to be on the next flight out,” says Igor.
He’s more confident than he was in April that the family and his team will be back in Kharkiv by the beginning of next year. But he’s under no illusions.
“The next decade is going to be hard for Ukraine,” says Igor. “But, long-term, our plan is to still operate from there because I see it as a good place to be. People are really hard working and they really love what they do.
“We will be back and we will put even more effort in, to build, enhance and expand.”