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CEO reflects on remote work, team-building amid Ukraine war

A GraphQL API management company is on track for an official launch in the coming months, despite a year of massive challenges for its developer team in Ukraine.

A year into the war in Ukraine, a U.S.-based early-stage startup with an R&D team of engineers in the Kyiv area has managed to stay mostly on schedule with its GraphQL API management product, now in early release.

The company, Inigo Labs Inc., was founded in 2021 and raised a seed funding round for an undisclosed amount in the fourth quarter of that year. It plans to make its GraphQL API security and lifecycle management software generally available for enterprises this year. The company's co-founder and CEO, Shahar Binyamin, who is originally from Jerusalem, said the experiences of the company's developer team as war broke out were all too familiar to him, due to violence he witnessed growing up in Israel. But so far, he said, such experiences have also made the tight-knit development team's collaboration stronger, and remote work has even provided a sense of stability for some during the ongoing conflict.

TechTarget Editorial caught up with Binyamin this week, which marks the first anniversary of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, to hear more about how the team's cooperation endured under extreme circumstances.

Why did you choose to base your R&D team in Ukraine?

Shahar Binyamin: Both myself and my co-founder [Eitan Joffe] separately had great experiences working with developer teams in Ukraine. And from day one, we decided that, while it's OK to be remote, we wanted our team to have a cohort and share similar values and similar work lives. You need some commonality to move forward fast. We wanted to focus specifically on the Kyiv area and have senior developers from Ukraine.

Shahar Binyamin, co-founder and CTO, Inigo Labs Inc.Shahar Binyamin

You said you'd had good experiences working with developers in Ukraine. Why was that?

Binyamin: [Their] skill set and ability to speak English -- the ability to communicate and articulate what you're working on and why you're working on things is very important. We wanted senior people because we're a startup -- we don't have the luxury to educate [new developers]. We wanted people with the ability to lead initiatives. I had a great experience following these steps where I worked before with a Ukrainian team. There are many Ukrainians and even Russians in Israel, so this is a culture I have already met in my life, growing up and in my professional life, so it felt very natural.

How did your experiences in Israel influence your view of the Ukraine war?

Binyamin: I grew up into this as a child in Jerusalem during the years of suicide bus attacks, losing friends from school to this. You have to live with this anxiety that something can go wrong at any at any moment. Coming from a place that has seen a war or two or a conflict or two, like Israel, you can relate and you can understand where your mind needs to be at that [kind of] time.

How many developers did Inigo have in Ukraine before the war?

Binyamin: At that time, I think we had six Ukrainian developers, which was almost all of our R&D. And then the war started.

This is not something that is in any textbook about how to cope.
Shahar BinyaminCo-founder and CEO, Inigo Labs Inc.

The war started in February 2022. How long had that team been working together by then?

Binyamin: Well, we started in November and December. As a startup, you are not even prepared for the roller coaster of starting a company, and then you have to deal with a global political situation. This is not something that is in any textbook about how to cope. Even if it was a fairly short time, some of those team members had been with us from day one, in November and even October. We got to know them and we got to love them and we got to build with them.

Obviously, at the beginning no one knows what's going on. Our focus was just, 'Be safe, you and your family. Just be safe.' Just trying even to stay in contact. Their focus shifts to what's important, which is their communities, their country. [What was] stressful for us or for me as a CEO was not whether they're contributing, it's that they're safe. If someone is missing for two weeks, you start to worry and you start using all of your network there: 'Hey, this person, is he OK?' And we had that scare.

Was that person OK? Did you find them?

Binyamin: Yes. He went completely dark [because he] ended up escorting injured out of Kyiv in the first few weeks. The stories are crazy, like stories that people had to move homes. One of the guys moved to his bathroom because it was most safe -- so he took his laptop, he took everything in there, and every time there was a siren, he went down to his friend's on the first floor. But during the day, he just was in the bathroom the whole day. Recently they had to deal with darkness. So we were supporting them with satellite internet or sending them power banks, things like that.

How did you get them the power banks. Are there still shipping lines open from the outside now?

Binyamin: No. Just recently, in December, we got them end-of-the-year packages. And we're very strictly only buying things locally in Ukraine. So even T-shirts, we would find someone in Ukraine that does that. We wanted also in that way to support Ukraine.

In the meantime, you have a company to run, you have a product to build, and it's a new company. How did you manage that?

Binyamin: I'm very open with our investors … that we were going to take a hit for a quarter, and it wouldn't help if I was going to run around like a mouse and make a lot of noise. Again, sadly I know. There's an immediate overwhelming sensation. But then, it doesn't matter how terrible things are, you get used to a routine.

As founders and as leaders of the company, our priority was to give [employees in Ukraine] some relief. Work can wait, let's make sure they have economic relief. Let's make sure we continue to provide salaries and let them be them. Because different people, some of them want to volunteer, some of them want to consume themselves in the news. Some of them want a distraction. We just allowed them to be them.

For the sake of the company, we were also looking to hire R&D in the U.S., which was not our original plan, but as a backup. But with time -- and again, this is also from personal experience -- people tend to turn back to something familiar. People get tired of just consuming bad news. People are looking for conversation that is not just about the situation, which is a very important conversation to have, but you cannot have it 24/7. The fact that we continued the relationship and to support them built an even stronger relationship. When they were ready to start contributing back, we gave them a place to think about something else.

What have you done because of the war situation that you wouldn't otherwise be doing as a distributed team?

Binyamin: In the beginning, we adjusted our hours. We were available at different times, and sometimes Kyiv is dark and sometimes Lviv [in western Ukraine] is dark, sometimes Odessa [in southern Ukraine] is dark, so we had to be flexible. When someone is not coming to a meeting, in a different case, you would look into it. But in this case, during specific weeks, you just accept it and say, 'OK, they have more important things to attend to.' We'll take a big breath, and then make progress where we can. Obviously, not everyone can do everything. People have their own responsibilities. We just continue to have a sense of motion, of progress. We make sure that we also educate ourselves about the situation so we can engage in conversations -- more than I would, honestly -- about people's family and health, health of mind. We gave this just a little more attention.

We were able to maintain the team and grow the team during the months after [the invasion], because there were a lot of layoffs from other companies that ran away. We did internal referrals, so our people referred people they'd worked with. That, in hindsight, worked well for us as a company. I think it just matured us and made us stronger.

Where are you right now in terms of your product development?

Binyamin: We are full [speed] ahead. Our type of product had to be built [up] a lot so we can offer it externally. We have design partners and high-level prospects that we're working with. We're working on GraphQL adoption with a developer focus. What Inigo does is help companies [go into production with] their GraphQL API.

Usually, GraphQL comes to an organization because you have a champion in the org, or someone read about it and they start to build a feature. Then there's a whole journey of how the organization adopts GraphQL. And when they hit production level, there are a lot of challenges -- how to secure, how to control, how to manage [it]. People don't think about the fact that its free-form nature is asking for abusive behavior. People are also not aware, or aware too late that most of their analytics or API gateways are blind to the GraphQL traffic, and there's no way to elevate errors, there's no way to alert, there's no subgraph visibility -- there are all sorts of things that you only face when you're ready to put this in production. And that's what we're trying to help companies with.

Does Inigo have a product generally available yet?

Binyamin: It has not been officially announced yet, but our communities are allowing customers to go and onboard and play with the tool and engage with it, get the insights out of it in preproduction. We have the product already in production for some of our early customers. And we're welcoming more.

Beth Pariseau, senior news writer at TechTarget Editorial, is an award-winning veteran of IT journalism. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @PariseauTT.

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