These Ukraine veterans fought Russia: Now they're being turned into software devs

A scheme teaching veterans to code helps them retune to civilian life and serve their country through technology.
Written by Andrada Fiscutean, Contributor

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Junior sergeant Koziuk Serhiy was 23 years old when he was called to defend his country, Ukraine, in the war with Russia.

He fought in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, where he saw friends and comrades die. He was injured in a blast in the Battle of Illovaisk, in the summer of 2014, and received a medal for serving his country.

"The war in the Eastern part of Ukraine turned my life upside down," he tells ZDNet. "It completely changed everything I believed in."

During the ongoing Russian military intervention in Ukraine, which started in February 2014, at least 2,752 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed, and more than 10,000 wounded.

Russia annexed Crimea, but bloody battles also took place in other eastern regions of the country, next to the border with Russia, where Koziuk fought with his comrades of the third battalion of the 51st Mechanized Brigade.

After he was discharged and recovered physically, Koziuk had to find the strength to carry on with his life. As a graduate of Lviv National University with a major in radiophysics and electronics, he thought a career in software might suit him.

So he joined a technology camp for veterans, organized by ELEKS, a software company headquartered in Lviv, a pro-European city in Western Ukraine where business hadn't been significantly disrupted by the war.

Koziuk graduated with honors and was immediately hired as a front-end developer. This job is, to some extent, a form of therapy, he says.

"Colleagues and friends stop me from giving up in despair. They're my greatest support team who help me forget the horrors of war and make my life more meaningful and interesting".

More than 60 veterans have been trained by ELEKS in the past three years, and about a dozen of them are currently working in technology.


Former soldier Koziuk Serhiy is now working as a front-end developer.

Image: Koziuk Serhiy

Ukrainian engineer Oleksiy Skrypnyk, who co-founded the company in 1991 with his father, also called Oleksiy Skrypnyk, said veterans are among the company's most trusted and hardest working employees. They are motivated and can be more resistant to stress.

"Many years ago I read about Bill Gates hiring soldiers, and I thought it was a bad idea. Now I think he was really smart," the younger Skrypnyk says.

He remembers asking, at some point, a veteran who the company wanted to hire if he thought he would make a good project manager.

"The veteran told me: 'If I was able to make hundreds of soldiers fight for the country in the East, I could work with some techies who get money'."

ELEKS employs over 1,100 techies in its offices in Ukraine, most of whom hold a master's degree or a PhD. About 70 percent of its clients are US companies, with the rest based mainly in the EU and Middle East. ELEKS' projects often use technologies such as IoT, AR, VR, and robotics.

The camp wasn't meant to be a hiring pool. It started as an initiative to help soldiers socialize and readjust to civilian life. ELEKS engineers knew how to write software, a valuable skill on the job market, so they decided veterans might appreciate an insight into the field.

The first two editions of the camp focused on writing code and the third on quality-assurance skills. Some of the soldiers exceeded the trainers' expectations and were hired on the spot.

The company's current CEO, Ruslan Zakharchenko, tells ZDNet that some of the students were in wheelchairs, so the classes were refurbished to accommodate their needs. ELEKS also invited a team of psychologists led by Mykola Vynnutskyi to help them adapt and support the process.

According to Vynnutskyi, finding jobs and being able to contribute to both family and society are essential for ex-services members fighting to readjust to civilian life. "Three aspects should be stabilized to help a veteran recover emotionally after the war: social, emotional and physical," he says.

He believes many companies worldwide are still reluctant to hire veterans out of fear. "Veterans are people who do not tolerate any injustice. And if we talk about companies that are abusive towards human resources, veterans won't put up with it."

Former forces members cope differently with life after the war. The lack of opportunities in the job market can amplify symptoms in some of them.

"One of the biggest tendencies to solve their problems is alcohol, which at the beginning really helps to relieve the emotional stress, but does not really solve all their problems," Vynnutskyi says.

"It is the responsibility of everyone, to pay tribute to soldiers' efforts and their experiences. It is necessary to appreciate what the fighters do."

During these troubled times, many Ukrainian techies feel it's their responsibility to help their country in any way they can. Software companies in Lviv have donated software worth millions of euros to the state.

ELEKS techies, for instance, are developing an autonomous tank capable of operating on the battlefield. It conducts reconnaissance, evacuates wounded soldiers, but could also be used in agriculture or municipal services, CEO Ruslan Zakharchenko says.

Software developers have also created a platform to help doctors exchange information about injured military personnel, and they did it free of charge.

Junior sergeant Koziuk Serhiy, the veteran turned software developer, said such projects help him feel he's still supporting his comrades' fight, and still helping his country. The war taught him how to be stronger, tougher, more persistent and more determined.

"I know how to achieve goals in critical situations. And I'll keep fighting for a better future."

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