ISRAELI STARTUPS, SQUEEZED BY SOFTWARE ENGINEER SHORTAGE, TAP INTO RUSSIAN, UKRAINIAN TALENT

BY LARRY LUXNER

Back in her native Ukraine, Lyudmyla Novoselsky, 40, was chief technology officer for Ignite Ltd., an Israeli software outsourcing firm. She and her husband, who’s also a software engineer, made Aliyah in March 2019. They and their 7-year-old daughter live in Petah Tikva.

“I worked for that company for five and a half years, and had a nice relationship with the people and the culture. But we didn’t see a future in Ukraine,” said Novoselsky, originally from Kyiv. “The fighting [in eastern Ukraine] started in 2014, and something clicked in our minds. We wanted a better life for our daughter and for ourselves. That’s when we began thinking to leave.”

Here in Israel, the job search hasn’t been easy — even though Novoselsky’s husband continues to work remotely for the same employer he had while still living in Ukraine.

“When I started, I was applying for any relevant managerial leadership role,” she said in a recent interview in Tel Aviv. “Later, I realized that I’d be a better fit for companies that either want to build an offshore center in Eastern Europe, or they already have one and they’re facing challenges, and they want someone like me who can help them grow.”

Andrei Zienko is a senior full stack web developer, meaning he knows how to develop both client and server software. Besides mastering JavaScript and Python, people like Zienko also know how to program browsers, servers and databases, using any number of computer languages such as C# or SQL.

Born in Smolensk — a city about 360 km west of Moscow, near Russia’s border with Belarus — Zienko attended Moscow State University and didn’t find out he was a Jew until a year ago. In June 2019, he and his wife moved to Israel.

“My mother never told me, but I read a lot and found out that Jews can come and live in Israel,” he said, laughing at the revelation. “My uncle lives in Ramle. He’s a Jew, and he’s the brother of my mother, and that means she’s also Jewish, and therefore I’m a Jew, too.”

Zienko went to the Israeli consulate, explained his situation, filled out various forms — and five months later, received his Israeli immigrant visa. He’s currently working as a freelance software developer in Tel Aviv — which he says is particularly conducive to the startup culture.

It’s precisely new immigrants like Novoselsky and Zienko who can help supply Israel’s booming tech innovation sector with the talent it needs to continue growing. According to the latest survey from Start-Up Nation Central and the Israel Innovation Authority, Israel lacks around 18,500 skilled workers — mainly senior software engineers and data scientists with at least three years of experience.

That’s where nonprofit organization Gvahim comes in.

“We offer a new approach to help bridge the shortfall of engineers,” says Jonni Niemann, director of Gvahim’s Tech Heights program. “This year, we aim to infuse the Israeli tech ecosystem with 130 Olim software developers and data scientists, 70% of which will be senior developers with in-demand skills from overseas, who can immediately step into the company and make an impact from day one without any retraining.”

By the end of August, 80 new immigrants had arrived this year, thanks to Tech Heights.

Among other things, Gvahim — which charges nothing for this program — offers an assessment, either by phone or Skype, with a Gvahim staff member; webinars on the Israeli job market; employment offers from Gvahim’s online network; resumes adapted to the Israeli market, and one-on-one meetings with a professional career consultant.

According to Niemann, half of the program’s Olim find jobs at small startups, which are precisely the companies that suffer most from Israel’s shortage of human capital, since they have such a hard time competing with huge multinationals like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft.

“Google alone has 1,600 workers in Tel Aviv, most of them software engineers,” Niemann said. “Someone who works at Google usually won’t leave, thanks to the benefits — not only a great salary but also health plans and work flexibility, and the fact they’re working with incredibly gifted people on so many cool projects.”

Niemann, 41, made Aliyah at the age of 27 from his native Denmark. For the last year and a half, he’s headed Gvahim’s Tech Heights program, which is funded by the Paul E. Singer Foundation.

“The foundation wants to strengthen Israel’s human capital,” he said. “They know that in order to grow the economy, you need to provide human capital. The problem is not that there are fewer engineers, but rather more demand.”

Last year, Tech Heights helped 96 new immigrants from 18 countries. About 75% of them were senior engineers (with 3+ years experience), and two-thirds were from the former Soviet Union.

This year, arrivals from Russia and Ukraine have fallen dramatically due to coronavirus and the Jewish Agency’s difficulty in processing aliyah-related paperwork. So far in 2020, software engineers are coming from the United States (32% of the total), followed by the former USSR (25%) and South America (22%).

As the coronavirus pandemic winds down, Niemann said he expects Russian-speaking participants to once again take the lead

“There’s only a limited amount of software engineers at the highest level, the ones who graduate from [the IDF’s] Unit 8200, which everyone is fighting over. These are the best of the best, and the ones who can offer them the best packages are usually the big multinationals,” said Niemann.

“But there are thousands of other startups — medium-sized companies that will just have to take from shelf number two, three or four. More and more of these multinationals are coming in, and the level of available engineers gets lower and lower, and that makes it incredibly difficult for small startups.”

He added: “They’re always looking. They’re always telling me that if they can’t get the good ones, they don’t want to hire anyone. That means a lot of projects are getting shelved.”

Daria Kondrashova, 29, was lucky. Like Zienko, she’s also a full stack web developer. She and her husband, who also works in IT, made Aliyah in March 2018 from the Russian city of Ufa. After a month, they returned to Russia so she could finish her master’s degree.

Thanks to Tech Heights by Gvahim, Kondrashova was able to find a job at Seeking Alpha, a financial tech company based in Ra’anana that provides real-time stock market data for investors. It was her first interview in Israel.

“In Ufa, there is little opportunity to work,” she said when asked why they moved here. “My husband had a remote job from Shanghai so we could move anywhere, and he still has this job; he doesn’t want to find a new one. Some of my family lives in Moscow and we were thinking of moving there, where salaries are three times more than in Ufa. But we didn’t know what kind of future we’d have in Russia.”

Kondrashova lives in Hadera, but because she spends an hour each way getting to and from work, she doesn’t have time to go to an ulpan to learn Hebrew. Even so, she said, “I like my job. They are good people and employ Russians and Americans. I have an opportunity to improve my English while not forgetting my Russian.”

For Novoselsky, coronavirus is only the latest obstacle she’s had to confront in the job market.

“I was only 11 when the Soviet Union collapsed,” she said. “Gender was more of an issue than anti-Semitism. When I was 21 and looking for my first job, I was told during an interview, ‘We’re not going to hire you. We just wanted to see what a female software engineer looks like.’ I was so embarrassed.”

So far, Novselsky’s skills and many years of experience haven’t helped her — even after reaching out to hundreds of companies in Israel and sitting through more than 40 job interviews.

Most recently, she was offered a job, then the company recalled the offer due to COVID-19. And another potential employer called to tell her they were no longer hiring because of the pandemic.

“There’s a lot of interest. They don’t have openings, but I’m positive, and in the meantime, I’m meeting new people and networking,” she said, adding that — even with all its challenges — life in Israel is a drastic improvement over anywhere in the former USSR. “Once you make Aliyah, you feel someone cares about you.”

-END-

Freelance journalist Larry Luxner lives in Tel Aviv. He made Aliyah in January 2017

PHOTO BY LARRY LUXNER:

From left: Daria Kondrashova of Russia, Lyudmyla Novoselsky of Ukraine, and Andrei Zienko of Russia are all software developers and participants in Gvahim.

PHOTO BY LARRY LUXNER:

Ukrainian software developer Lyudmyla Novoselsky, 39, came to Israel through Gvahim, a Tel Aviv-based nonprofit that helps new immigrants find professional jobs.

PHOTO BY LARRY LUXNER:

Russian software developer Daria Kondrashova, 29, came to Israel through Gvahim, a Tel Aviv-based nonprofit group.

PHOTO BY LARRY LUXNER:

Standing, from left: Daria Kondrashova, who immigrated to Israel from Russia; Jonni Niemann, director of the Tech Heights program at Gvahim, and Andrei Zienko, who also came from Russia. Seated is Lyudmyla Novoselsky, originally from Ukraine.