About the author:
Dr James Gough is a former military and aid doctor, serving in the British Army, ICRC and the private sector in Afghanistan, Egypt and Bangladesh. He is COO at cloud and data consultancy Infinite Lambda, and founder of One Shot Immersive, a tech company that develops virtual reality medical training experiences for conflict and disaster.
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Having worked within the military, humanitarian and tech sector, I have learnt that there are massive gaps in knowledge within each. Often, they are unknown-unknowns. This is not only challenging but it is also usually the reason each of these sectors finds the other so frustrating.
In addition, they are not good at working together or at taking the time to understand each other. I wanted to write an article to shed light on ways I think technology companies can play a role in supporting the people of Ukraine. I am not talking about moving your satellites, stopping exports of your chips, or closing all your stores in Russia. This article is aimed at the many and not the few within this vast sector.
There are plenty of articles out there that simply tell the tech industry to donate, which contributes little to the discussion. First, a call to donate and nothing more assumes that every tech company is awash with cash, which, of course, is not the case. More importantly, while donating is indeed a key factor in enabling NGOs to do their jobs, it is also something that businesses from every sector can do with the same success.
There is too much innovation and potential within the tech industry for society and tech companies themselves to view the sector as a passive observer of global problems. If you need incentive to view it otherwise, just think about the scores of companies that have helped evacuate their teams from Ukraine. Such massive changes are certain to affect the industry at a business level, even if one chooses to disregard any humanitarian or socio-political implications.
It is safe to assume this conflict is and will be with all of us in some form for a protracted period. Waiting out to see what happens next is not viable when there are human lives on the line. Business itself teaches us that we cannot afford to sit and wait in a highly dynamic environment. I suggest it might be more impactful to adopt a pragmatic approach and think about the strategic steps tech companies can take to get involved right now.
NGO personnel tend to be either deep experts in their field or flexible generalists. In either case, technological literacy is often not as good as it could be. The tech sector has priced developers out of the market for NGOs, whose systems and use of tech is basic.
Here, tech companies can create a relationship with an NGO and directly ask them about their current challenges in Ukraine. This will [eventually] open an expansive conversation where software engineers can begin to recognise opportunities to help.
The hardest part is starting the conversation, and despite an awkward first date, do not be afraid to persist. The collective will is certainly there, so ideas begin to flow by the second or third meeting.
It will make the communication easier if there is someone present at the meeting who can mediate and help transcend the divide between the two very different mindsets in the room. And remember to ask the NGO what existing relationships they have with tech. Many have free credits from the likes of GCP, Azure and AWS. This can really help when scoping any future work.
You have had your first meetings with the NGO and you now know how you can help. Start building your proof of concept as soon as possible and aim to have it finished just as quickly. Failing fast has never been more prescient, and your colleagues will be willing you on.
You are now in your element but the point person might feel lost. Do not forget that this is not your regular client; what you see as trivial may be a game changer for the NGO. As mission creep is easy with these emotive projects, make sure to keep regular comms, stay on point and continue to confirm that what you are working to solve is in line with their expectations.
Ask all the questions you want to ask to truly understand the other party’s world and make sure they grasp the nature of your work as well. This will be crucial for receiving valuable feedback and ultimately for the POC to become something more substantial.
NGOs can be confusing to an outsider as the key decision maker might not be obvious and the stakeholders might not immediately see the upside of your work. It can be helpful to keep in mind your common humanitarian goal. It supercedes any frustration.
The humanitarian sector is often called the 3rd sector, hence I call this Product 3.0. If you are a product company, here is a chance to have a look at your product with fresh eyes. This is the time to be brave and imagine what it could do given a more liberal opportunity to exist in the world.
For example, a buy-now-pay-later fintech is geared towards fanning the flames of consumerism in normal times. In wartime, it could probably become a lifeline to refugees who need to borrow without accounts or jobs, or turned into a seamless direct-to-refugee loaning system.
Bring in people from the NGO sector and let them interrogate your product, so they can then suggest ways of using it differently. You might be surprised your product only needs a few tweaks to start catering to a completely new audience and solve challenges you had never anticipated.
Silicon Valley has made its trillions on identifying “pain points”, most often for a small but well off portion of the globe. This is a chance to alter that balance.
Similarly to the stock market, the job market never sleeps. If your company is already advertising jobs, make sure to place them where refugees can find them.
Depending on the positions, you might want to:
- Get them translated: this would make it more likely for people to share them and thus for suitable applicants to see them;
- Look for platforms that specialise in refugee talent, such as Remote Ukraine;
- Be flexible with contacts and onboarding: your new employee might not have a bank account or an address; they might need an advance to get up and running in their new location. Bunq already has a neat solution up and running and other fintechs might soon follow suit.
Remember that rigid processes might stop you, so do encourage your team to be flexible. It is a crisis after all and you can beg for forgiveness later.
Support for competitors and partners
Ukraine is famous for its tech talent, so let us face it, many of your partners and competitors may have employees there. Everyone’s main focus is, of course, the safety of these people.
In a time when entire teams are displaced and infrastructures moved, disruptions in services are only to be expected and likely to prove material.
If you can lend a hand to your partners or competitors to ensure they can fulfil commitments and contracts, their Ukrainian employees are more likely to have jobs to come back to once they are settled and safe. No need to overthink this.
And finally, to use a well-known phrase from the military, “80% right and quickly!”.
Indeed, donating is sometimes harder than it appears as tech start-ups do not often have a lot of cash. However, software developers are paid handsomely in comparison to the rest of the population. A company-wide ‘opt out’ agreement on donating a percentage of salary (pre tax) can be an effective method depending on the company and team.
It still remains hard to know whom to donate to. If you or your colleagues have links to local organisations, this is fantastic and you can directly support them. It is probably worth noting that should the security situation continue to deteriorate, many small NGOs will be forced to pull their people out. If this is the case or you just have no connections, larger international organisations always need more help and have the necessary infrastructure to continue functioning in increasingly austere environments.
You know your product, expertise and capabilities best, so there are certainly many more ways to get involved that you can think of. You do not need to ideate on your own and come up with a full-fledged solution that an NGO can go on and deploy. Just stay proactive, empathetic and humble.