Ivan Pohrebniyak, Master of Code Global: “Your reputation and the trust you build with people will follow you in your years to come”

Ivan Pohrebniyak is the Client Delivery Director at Master of Code Global, an international company with offices in Winnipeg, Toronto, Seattle, Kyiv, and Cherkasy.

Being a graduate of Simon Fraser University (Canada) and Copenhagen Business School (Denmark), Ivan has comprehensive experience and expertise in Business Operations, Products Development, Transformations and Organisational Change Management; he worked in international companies like Ciklum, Itera, etc.

We asked Ivan how the company overcame the wartime challenges, the importance of Business Continuity Plans and communication with clients during existential crises, insights into managing the team in times of war, featured projects by Masters, and the vision of the future for the Ukrainian tech sector.

TechUkraine: What were the first reactions and actions on the 24th of February? How did you and your team overcome the crisis on all frontiers -war (priorities, main steps)?

Ivan Pohrebniyak: On February 24, I was woken up by a call from my aunt at 6:30 am with the words “The war has begun.” I was very tired and exhausted that morning. I got sick with COVID-19 three weeks earlier and was still recovering. Additionally, my parents got sick with COVID-19 right after me, where for both of them just a week before I had to call an ambulance for, and just on the evening of the 22nd of Feb I brought home my step-dad who was hospitalized into intensive care. With all the family parents and lots of work to take care of, incl. business continuity preparations, I was quite low on energy that morning. But I had to be one of the leaders at work, part of the group that had to now react, give instructions to people, instill confidence in what we are going to do next. 

That morning I knew exactly what to do in the first moments of the Russian invasion. Our team at Master of Code Global was prepared for this scenario. A true story is that the evening before I, together with a few of my colleagues, were going through our business continuity plan in details with one of our North American Clients. And literally in less than 12 hours we had to begin actually living through that.  

In January we developed 4 possible scenarios with a corresponding action plan.

  1. We named the first scenario an information unrest, that is, an information war without the full-scale war.
  2. We named the second scenario issues with the Internet and electricity.
  3. The third scenario was provocations and a partial invasion by Russia.
  4. The fourth scenario was the full-scale invasion.

We were preparing for this fourth, most pessimistic, scenario. We had all responsibilities mapped out, incl. planned delegations should some/many/all people in Ukraine become temporarily unavailable. This enabled us to effectively on the evening of the 24th February already have a detailed realignment walkthrough of our plan of actions on what to do in each further possible next scenario with the previously nominated colleagues outside of Ukraine.  

As for the weeks leading to the escalated aggression by Russia, we have already begun various all-company communications to our Masters (that’s what we call our team members).

For example we have shared preparation guidelines and recommendations from DSNS.

I followed those recommendations myself, and while fighting with COVID-19 I was stalking up on most things on the checklist. For example, I bought a vast supply of non-perishable food (incl. sublimated camping meals), water, a flashlight, a fire-extinguisher, various medical supplies, etc. God bless for amazing services by Rozetka, Nova Poshta, and Zakaz.ua that enabled me to effectively and quickly buy all of this online with door delivery.  

I had the opportunity to leave Ukraine in January-February before the full-scale war. I was thinking about going to Turkey for a 2-month workation. I even found an apartment to rent. But in the end, while following the news and working on the business continuity plans, I decided that I should stay in the country. I was thinking that should something happen, I won’t be able to take full good care of the business and my family remotely.

I believe you need to be close to the people in such a situation, one needs to understand and feel what people are going through, both physically and psychologically, in order to feel the pain and suggest and provide necessary support. I have never regretted my decision. 

I was taught of this by the experience from 2014, when Russia started the war against Ukraine, by occupying Donbas and the Crimean Peninsula. Back then I was also part of the business continuity group in another IT company, working in Client Service Management.

I was responsible for the communication to Clients and it is then I have realized how important it is to know and be in the real state of things for effective Client management and communication.

Thus, I deliberately stayed in Ukraine in February 2022. The only trigger that would make me and my family leave Kyiv was if there would be no water and electricity and we would not be able to live in the flat. Luckily, that didn’t happen in my part of the city.

TechUkraine: Master of Code is an international company (offices in Kyiv, Cherkasy, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Seattle) with global clients in Canada and the USA. How did you provide communication with the team and partners from the first days of the invasion? What were the most effective and productive approaches during this time? 

Ivan Pohrebniyak: On that first day of the escalated aggression, we had a peculiar situation with our CEO, which we remember with a smile now. That early morning we couldn’t reach him as the night before he worked at night, taking care of some important meetings with our partners in North America and went to bed extremely late. He simply overslept through the beginning of the war and did not hear anyone ringing him up. Our business continuity team took full responsibility and independently, without the help of the CEO, from 09:00 am to 10:15 am did our short-term action planning.

And at 11:00 am on a Zoom call with all the Masters we were already announcing that. Our CEO was already on that call and he was amazed with how organized our team was and that he simply had to follow the communication plan that was already prepared for him.

I think this is the first time we are publicly talking about this story :), not many people know about it even within the company. 

  • One of the first things we did pretty much immediately is that we introduced a check-in file to understand where our Masters are and what their availability is as well as daily morning Business Continuity Zoom calls for everyone to connect, hear updates from the company as well as openly ask any questions.
  • The key messages were always duplicated in writing in our internal Workplace platform.
  • Additionally, every day we sent Business Continuity emails to our Clients and Partners so that they receive from us the real state of business update around three aspects: what’s happening in Ukraine, how it affects the business of Master of Code Global and the performance of our teams, and when the next communication will be. That is, every day we transparently kept our clients informed.

It is very crucial to do so as news on the media sell news foremost, and people that don’t have access to on the ground 360 degree information can draw for themselves the most horrific picture ever.

First weeks for many in the business continuity group it was like a 24/7 workmode. 

By the way, many of our Clients have been responding with messages of support and suggestions of what they can do to help us. We gave them links to a few charitable foundations, for example, “Come back alive”. Some helped us with the acquisition of Starlinks. Also, in our communication, we tried to add videos about the events from the official sources of information, for example, the Office of the President of Ukraine. Such add ons had a very good response. 

During that period, it was important for us to retain all our customers. Fortunately, we haven’t had a single case where a client cut their project due to the war, even to date.

On the contrary, thanks to our communication “How can you help Ukraine? – Give jobs and continue working with Ukraine.” –  some clients have expanded their projects with us.

Moreover, already in April we had our first new Client, and onward we have seen a few more starting with us that knew the company or someone from the team from before.

Point to reinstate here: your reputation and the trust you build with people and whoever your Client is or you work with will follow you in your years to come. 

TechUkraine: Which insights have you gained from managing the team during wartime? What are your recommendations based on recent experience?

Ivan Pohrebniyak:

  • Safety first. Initially we offered our Masters to take days off where necessary. Later on, we returned all those “day off” used so they could use them up again. Obviously, in the first weeks we did not know how the situation would evolve, so we had to constantly balance between people and business needs.
  • Secondly, the material support is very important as well. When the full-scale war began, we gave a one-time assistance of $1,000 to all Masters that were relocating to other safer places, regardless whether it was inside Ukraine or abroad. Additionally, here our HR team where helping with finding and arranging transportation and accommodation where needed and in cases it was possible.
  • Thirdly, we had transparent communication with the team. We had daily Zoom Business Continuity meetings with all the Masters where anyone could ask any question, no censorship. Additionally, all Masters were in bcc on all daily official email communication that went to Clients. This directly correlates with the values ​​of our company, that is trust and respect.
  • Fourthly, it is necessary to provide psychological support. We organized a few sessions with a psychologist after the liberation of Kyiv Oblast from the invaders. The purpose was to understand that we are all human beings, what we maybe going through in the face of fear, what reactions could those be, and how potentially work with them.

The work of our business continuity group has not stopped to date and during the course of these 9 months we continuously look at how else we can support our people. At the end of the day, for us, people come first. You can always rebuild the business, the country, but it is the people that make it. 

We saw the effectiveness of all these measures this September when we ran our annual Clients Satisfaction (CSAT) and Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey. We received phenomenal results.

Despite all the difficulties and obstacles associated with the full-scale war, our customer satisfaction level is the highest in the company’s history — 9.3/10 CSAT and 85 NPS!

Living through all of this with the people here in Ukraine, I understand the stress our Project Managers, Scrum Masters, and other leading managerial roles went through. How much additional responsibility they took on. Every day at the beginning of the invasion, our PMO team was monitoring the statuses of each project team, including overall availability and delivery performance. Some even got upset with the level of tight control we have introduced across all areas. I hope people now see and appreciate the results that had led us to. And while conducting our Annual Performance Reviews (we have reinstated those in June and September), I was once again convinced of what amazing people they are — they grew as professionals in a year, showed great results, and received amazing feedback from Clients and Partners as well as their own colleagues.

And somehow I wanted to additionally thank these Masters that showed such resilience and our business continuity team heavily dependent on. I wanted us to sit down, take a moment, exhale, recognize our work and results together, show gratitude, and appreciation. We did an informal online teambuilding with our Project Managers, Scrum Masters, and key roles in our own Product Development business unit. This was a gathering in a format of a game quest that was specifically designed for us. For some of the Masters this was an opportunity to finally get to know each other better as a few had joined us remotely due to the COVID-19 restrictions. 

TechUkraine: Master of Code has two development centers in Ukraine – Cherkasy and Kyiv. The Ukrainian team has recently released the bot “Post Mortem Post.” Could you tell us more about it? What next for the company?

Ivan Pohrebniyak: We began working on this project back in September 2021. It was first launched in a closed beta version. Then we gathered feedback on that during the full-scale war. After that, the chatbot was implemented in an open version and we continue the support of it to-date. We did this on a pro bono basis in partnership with Meta and Juniper Park\TBWA.

The chatbot has a great and noble mission — helping users make their last Facebook post and inspire others to do good. The final message will be published posthumously and will include an ask to support a charity cause.

The chatbot helps to make the last post of the user not a random one, but the one that has meaning and value to the user and brings a benefit to the society.

TechUkraine: Being the advisor of TechUkraine, one of the first team members who fuelled the platform in 2019, what do you think about the development of the tech industry in Ukraine during wartime? What are your projections on the Ukrainian tech ecosystem’s role in rebuilding the country? 

Ivan Pohrebniyak: Currently, the tech industry is one of the main contributors to the stability of the Ukrainian economy. It’s the only industry that keeps on growing this year amid the full-scale war.

The IT industry ranks second in Ukrainian exports. It is the easiest business to “transport”. All we need essentially is the Internet and electricity. 

Many Ukrainians lost their jobs since the 24th of Feb. And the IT sector makes a great contribution to employment. I remember a study back in the days by PwC I believe where it was found that 1 person in IT creates 6 jobs in adjacent businesses. In addition, many IT specialists support relatives who lost their jobs due to the war, do monthly donations, drive many known and not publicly known volunteer initiatives to support Ukrainian Armed Forces, temporary displaced people, and the civilians impacted by the war.

After all, the IT guys also implement numerous projects that play an important role in the defense of our country. For example, our UA Anti Spam Bot chatbot automatically deletes harmful information in Telegram groups and channels that may pose a threat to civilians and military personnel.

For example, it deletes the coordinates of rocket landings, information about the movement of Ukrainian military equipment, locations of the roadblocks, etc. The chatbot has already covered more than 420,000 users.

The role of the IT in the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine will be the same as before the war. It is one of the driving factors towards modernization of our state. The IT industry is one of the heavy contributors to making Ukraine a developed and an innovative country. 

I want to end my answer with a big Thank YOU to all the International Community for the immense military, humanitarian, and simply people-to-people support that we have been receiving to date. Here in Ukraine we fight for the new norms and new standards of values the contemporary World should be based upon. 

Thanks to Olexiy Minakov for the support!

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