“Hey. You doing OK?” wrote Ross Barbieri, co-founder of Vancouver-based ToolBelt. It was February, and he was writing to his former freelance worker Egor Cotov, who lives in Vinnytsia, in central Ukraine.
The two hadn’t spoken for a few months. They first met on the freelance-connections website Upwork in 2019 when Barbieri sought help for a tech project. Back then, their professional relationship had bloomed into something more as the two began talking about family life and sci-fi books, including Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series.
They’d spoken occasionally in the two years since that project ended; but in February, Barbieri messaged Cotov hoping to hear that he was safe from the invading Russian forces as millions began to flee from Ukraine.
“Hi Ross, yes, thank you for asking,” Cotov replied before telling Barbieri that he wanted Americans to know that Ukraine didn’t attack Russia. Cotov was barraged with propaganda and lies about the invasion, he said.
He also had a request: If Barbieri knew anyone who employs software developers from Ukraine, they can have faith that the Ukrainian workers will complete their work.
“Don’t fire them,” Cotov wrote. “There are lots of devs that support the army.”
Barbieri’s message opened a way for ToolBelt to contribute more directly to those suffering in Ukraine and defending their country. ToolBelt CEO and co-founder Joshua Engelbrecht and Barbieri hired Cotov and three of his colleagues, who say that freelance work for Ukrainians has shrunk by half since the uncertainties of Ukraine under Russian siege could cause power failures, internet blackouts or worse.
“When you’re far away from something like that, I could donate money to the Red Cross, but it’s hard to mentally attach that to doing some good,” Barbieri said. “You don’t know how it’s being used. I like the idea of being able to help directly.”
Cotov, 34, sitting in his apartment in Vinnytsia, said he’s living in a safe area. As he recalled living through Russia’s invasion this year, he recalled hoarding supplies, housing friends from battle-torn cities and sending tools to a friend’s military unit after his friend landed in the hospital with a concussion from the war.
But Cotov is handling the invasion fairly well, he said, because it was much less scary for him than what he experienced in 2014 when Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
Smoke rose from the train station on the other side of Donetsk as Cotov watched out the window during the 2014 invasion. He was in one of Donetsk’s tallest buildings, a vulnerable position, working as a software developer in the eastern Ukrainian city.
For days before, he’d heard shelling and gunfire, but seeing a Russian tank fire upon the train station was enough, and he knew it was time to leave.
“I saw bizarre things,” he said. “I was trying to do my best to work. At that point, I was a junior software developer.”
The next day, Cotov left for a city near Odesa, Ukraine, where he could find a new place to work. Soon after, he heard about a job opening in the city where he now lives, Vinnytsia, and he moved there in 2015 to settle down away from conflict.
“I adopted to a peaceful life,” he said. “I got married and had two kids. Everything was fine.”
During the days, Cotov worked his main job for a few national companies’ web development, but during the nights and weekends, he was “boosting his skills with freelance projects,” he said. He used websites such as Upwork for supplemental income.
That led him to meet Barbieri in 2019, as Barbieri was beginning a small personal project.
“We had a professional relationship initially,” Barbieri said. “We were working together daily, and we got to be pretty good friends. We’d have Skype calls usually in the morning; 9 or 10 for me, but late-night his time.
“We’d chat a lot about philosophy – fun stuff,” Cotov recalled. “(Barbieri) sent me an audio book of Isaac Asimov. I was just trolling that book, and he advised me to start a YouTube channel. It was pleasant to make conversation.”
The project ended shortly before Barbieri co-founded ToolBelt with Engelbrecht, a tech startup that connects contractors, tradespeople and companies through an app. Barbieri and Cotov messaged each other occasionally and stayed friends.
Months before the February invasion, Cotov relived a similar experience as he had in 2014. He read reports of Russian troops approaching the Ukraine border, and he anticipated an invasion. He was much farther away from potential warfare in Vinnytsia, centrally located in Ukraine, but as the invasion grew more likely, he began to stockpile water, food and cash.
“It becomes obvious that when you get 150,000 troops on the border, it wasn’t going to be a bluff,” Cotov said.
“I wasn’t panicking. I was just buying more crops every few days,” he said. “I didn’t think about moving, but I was thinking about where there would be an invasion. We’d maybe be the third stop of the invasion. We are far targets. I was thinking about internet connection, which is crucial to work.”
Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. For four days, Cotov felt helpless and under massive pressure.
“I couldn’t believe it was actually happening,” he said. “I have relatives and friends in Kyiv and other cities. I needed to prepare a plan to help them or host someone.”
Cotov couldn’t do much for work. His side-gigs with development work dried up as clients became skeptical of the country’s internet and other utilities.
“Within a week, someone ghosted us, and someone said we can’t continue because there is an invasion. Some clients said, ‘if they’ll missile you and all infrastructure, what will you do?’ We didn’t have any answers because we didn’t know how Russia was going to behave.”
At the same time, supply chain issues and port closures reduced access to water, fresh meat, bread, milk and exotic fruit. He and his family began controlling their intake of the increasingly rare goods, but “didn’t suffer,” he said.
It was around that time that Cotov remembers seeing Barbieri’s message: “Hey. You doing OK?”
“These guys in Ukraine were losing work,” Barbieri said. “They’re a crackerjack team. They’re highly skilled and they’ve got some really good developers.”
ToolBelt, upon Barbieri’s recommendation, began working with Cotov and three of his colleagues in Ukraine a few months ago on ToolBelt’s code. The company offered them full-time jobs, and within a month or two, ToolBelt will bring them on as full-time employees.
“Ross and Joshua were just smiling and with open hands gave us the job,” Cotov said. “It was awesome. Thank God I have the skills. I don’t want to let people down. That’s my biggest concern. I would rather get the job done than get a short-term financial buffer. Same for the other guys. I vouch for them.”
It’s a mutual feeling for ToolBelt.
“When we cut those guys a check for thousands of dollars per month, it’s going to their families,” Engelbrecht said.
Since then, Cotov has only deepened his involvement with the war, and the money he’s earned from ToolBelt has contributed to the effort. Cotov and his family gave shelter to a woman and her daughter after they fled from Chernihiv, Ukraine under heavy siege from Russian forces.
“She and her daughter stayed for two weeks and now are renting a place,” he said. “I was hating myself that I didn’t insist she come here in the beginning. Her city was highly shelled with artillery.”
Cotov also bought two ambulance-type vehicles for the war effort, he said. The cars travel to buildings where people are injured and carry them to hospital care. He also bought a pair of night-vision goggles for his friend’s unit of soldiers; a few days ago, Cotov learned that his friend sustained a massive concussion and landed in the hospital.
Part of the team
ToolBelt is a fast-growing company in Vancouver, at 10818 N.E. Coxley Drive. Cotov and his Ukrainian colleagues are some of the 20 employees at the company, with a goal to bring on about 10 more.
ToolBelt recently signed a deal with Lowe’s on the West Coast that will put ToolBelt’s app in front of many Lowe’s customers as they seek construction help, according to Barbieri.
In Ukraine, Cotov and the other ToolBelt part-time (soon to be full-time) employees can be effective workers, meeting on video daily with the Vancouver team. But some questions still haunt them: When will the war stop? When are foreign tech clients going to come back to Ukrainian workers? Maybe three of four months after the war dissipates, Cotov said. It’s been harmful to Ukraine that the work won’t come back sooner, he said.
In the meantime, Cotov is eagerly paying taxes to help the Ukrainian government, military and economy. He’s happy donating money and supplies to the soldiers, too.
But in a few years, when things have hopefully settled down in Ukraine, he hopes to move his family to North America, where companies like ToolBelt have given him financial stability and a sign that he has friends overseas.
“Ross and his openheartedness help give me more reasons to immigrate to the U.S.,” Cotov said.