The outsourced support team were off air. Seven key individuals. Remote workers all.
Aside from their employer, they shared just one thing in common, Their location.
These were the infrastructure managers. System administrators. Software engineers. Report writers.
The people with the access. Control. Knowledge. Passwords. Institutional memory.
They understood how the computer systems worked. Were integral to keeping them that way. Truth be told, the business couldn’t function for long without them. Key workers in all but name. Except they didn’t work for the client. Most of them didn’t even work for the outsourcer. Freelancers and subcontractors, mercenaries with prized niche skills for hire.
Today it appeared they weren’t working at all.
Which was a problem.
The line of thinking had been that everything was on the cloud. Accessible from anywhere. Globally distributed. Resilient and redundant. Capable of withstanding all manner of random breakages, maintenance, natural disasters, and weather events while seamlessly providing continuity of service.
All these things were mostly true, at least when fully paid for and correctly configured.
However, human nature is one of constantly seeking easy answers. Cutting corners. Taking shortcuts. Always looking for an advantage, an angle, or arbitrage play. Merely getting the job done is seldom enough, we need to feel like we are winning.
What is good for the decision-maker is rarely the same thing as what is good for the business.
Just as what is good for the business is rarely the same thing as what is good for the shareholders.
A constant source of tension. Negotiation. Frequent disappointment. Endless compromise.
The outsourced team were good at what they did. Cost-effective too, charging significantly less for their professional services than equally skilled people located closer to the client’s base of operations.
There was just one problem: their country had been invaded overnight. An unanticipated concentration of risk. Undermining the perceived invulnerability of commodity computing on the cloud.
Troops and tanks crossing borders. Missiles and drones raining fear and destruction from hundreds of kilometres away. Propaganda flooding the airwaves, news, and especially social media. None of these had been envisaged when the outsourcing deal was negotiated. Due diligence had focussed on corporate solvency, depth of talent, technical expertise, and reference sites.
The invasion was a shock, but not a surprise.
A move that had been telegraphed for weeks. Just the latest step in a plan underway for at least a decade already.
One day those outsourced workers had been caught up in the minutiae of the daily grind. Production outages and system upgrades. Juggling school pickups with work obligations. Pushing the boundaries of Einstein’s theory of relativity by trying to make it to the gym, the grocery store, and home to read bedtime stories all at the same time.
The next day, they faced life-changing existentialist questions. Unimaginable just 24 hours before.
What to believe? Distinguish between rumour and reality. Try to make evidence-based decisions amidst a backdrop of clickbait, fear, lies, and looming mortal peril. Waiting for certainty and official channels risked leaving it too late to take effective action. Could they be trusted in any case?
Resist or surrender?
Stay put or flee?
For a little while, or forever?
What to take? What to leave behind?
Where to go? How to survive?
Difficult choices all. Disruptive. Stressful. Heartbreaking.
Bet wrong and the consequences could be vast.
Pretend nothing is happening? The naïve happy path of least resistance. Sleepwalk through the daily routine. Wake. Commute. Work. Commute. Sleep. This approach should work, it has every day up until this point. Yet maintaining the status quo meant their family would be scattered throughout the city at nursery, school, and work as the invasion proceeded. A problem should an urgent escape be required.
Hide under the bed at home? Hope for a fairy tale ending. The West riding to the rescue in helicopters and battleships, using a combination of might and means to send the invaders scurrying away with their tails between their legs. But a lingering doubt remained, what would be in it for them? For all the lecturing and sabre-rattling, Ukraine didn’t feed their addiction to fossil fuels or semi-conductors.
Answer the conscription call and take up arms, as all able-bodied men aged 18 to 60 had been instructed to do? Knowing full well that if the entire population of enthusiastic amateurs lined up, they would still be outnumbered more than 3 to 1 by the opposing team of professionally trained, equipped, and supplied soldiers. Their only advantage being one of motivation, someone defending all they know and love is invested in the outcome infinitely more than a lowly paid homesick soldier fighting in an offensive they don’t understand hundreds of miles from home.
Grab passports, empty bank accounts, load up the car, and go?
Head for the countryside. The border. Anywhere but here.
The illusion of control provided by action and the perceived safety of distance.
Maybe you’ll return when the dust settles. Maybe the life you left behind will be waiting to greet you.
Whatever option those outsourced workers choose, their client will be wary. Political risk makes the outsourcing venture appear unwise. Economic sanctions may soon render it illegal. The outsourcer’s location is now deemed risky rather than cost-effective. Safer to source cheap labour elsewhere.
The contract will almost certainly be lost. Livelihoods becoming collateral damage of the invasion. Not personal, just business. Except for the workers whose financial wellbeing it adversely impacts.
Now imagine yourself in the place of those outsourced workers, one who has decided to flee.
Much of your wealth is likely tied up in mortgaged bricks and mortar. Neither liquid nor mobile. The lender doesn’t care about tanks and guns, you signed a contract. Pay up or suffer the consequences.
Your buildings insurance will contain exclusions for civil disturbance, war, and terror. Should an errant missile land in your living room, the repair bill is yours alone. But only if you survive to tell the tale.
In several months, when the fear has been forgotten, the dust settled, and a feeling of normalcy starts to reappear, will the property still be standing? Will it still be yours?
Land titles, the laws that define them, and the courts that enforce them all depend upon continuity of government and faith in the system. An invasion changes the rules of the game. A little, or a lot.
Will the laws governing such things remain the same?
Will your home have been occupied by squatters?
Seized by a government seeking to accommodate those left homeless by the conflict?
Forfeited to invaders as the spoils of war?
Foreclosed by lenders?
Or maybe, just maybe, it will remain just as you left it. Awaiting your return. To reside in. Or to sell.
A great uncertainty, with long-tailed consequences.
Another large portion of your money is likely tied up in age-restricted pensions. A promise made long ago by a government that if money was locked away for the long term, it would provide for a comfortable retirement. That promise backed by dual bribes, in the form tax incentives and guarantees against pension provider failure.
Such investments are of no help at all during a desperate dash for the border. Those oft-repeated personal finance mantras which made so much sense during a predictable time of peace seem much less sensible now.
Time in the market, not timing the market.
Tax advantages of salary sacrifice and private pension contributions are either used or lost.
Will those pension promises still be honoured? Will those financial planning assumptions prove valid?
If you flee, do you lose eligibility to those tax-advantaged accounts and the big retirement payday? Escaping the country may mean you would no longer be a resident, physically or for tax purposes.
Valid questions all, but hardly front of mind when the government is handing out assault rifles to any citizen willing to step up and defend their homeland against the invaders.
Nor are they likely to immediately occur to someone throwing themselves upon the mercy of ill-equipped strangers at a border crossing to a land where you have no rights or legal standing, begging admission as refugees possessing little more than the clothes on your back.
Perhaps you are in a fortunate financial position. Holding stocks, bonds, or cryptocurrencies in accounts free from age restrictions. Liquidating financial instruments requires an open marketplace, and functional banking system to conduct the trades and transfer the proceeds. Transactions that take days to settle.
Which is a problem if the markets are closed.
The banks are offline.
The internet and mobile data networks blocked or blown up.
All those smartphone apps and contactless payment methods are of no help to you now.
Perhaps the government or the invaders have imposed capital controls, attempting to staunch the flow of capital flooding out of the disputed jurisdiction as fast as transfers can be initiated.
Or perhaps economic sanctions make it illegal for anyone to do business with the banks and brokerage houses of your homeland. Trapping funds, no matter how liquid they may be. Requiring alternative methods for exporting wealth. Time-honoured. High risk. High cost. High penalty for failure.
Now imagine a world in six months’ time. The invasion has long concluded. The world has moved on. Perhaps your homeland has a new puppet regime. Maybe it has been entirely assimilated into another country, a hostile takeover in the most traditional of senses.
Your temporary hosts want you out, refugees are an expensive burden. Overseas aid has long since dried up, redirected to wherever the latest headline-grabbing natural disaster with the most compelling marketing campaign happens to be.
Do you move on, seek out yet another new home? Somewhere permanent this time. Applying for visas can be challenging at the best of times, especially so when you haven’t been earning for months, and all the required paper-based documentary evidence is either destroyed or trapped back in your home country.
Or perhaps you decide to take your chances and return home? Risking consequences and reprisal for having fled. Roll the dice you won’t be punished or disappeared for those outraged social media posts you made decrying the invasion and challenging the authority of its instigators. Judged and mistrusted by those who stayed to fight, and suffered the consequences.
Will home as you knew it still exist? One thing is for sure, few of those lucrative roles providing specialist professional services to rich Western clients will remain. Local offices closed. Jobs relocated elsewhere, to perceived safer locales with different accents but equally modest remuneration expectations.
At last contact, the outsourced team were all safe and well.
Two had fled, heading west as fast as their cars would carry them and their families. The outsourcer offering visa sponsorship and limited financial assistance for relocation to more secure surroundings.
The remainder had decided to stay and fight. It was confronting, and somewhat surreal, to see those usually smiling faces from endless video conferences trading their ironic t-shirts for military fatigues. Their keyboards for machine guns.
Few were young.
Most have families.
None were particularly fit.
All had long ago served their compulsory military service.
I wish them good fortune, and hope that they and their families manage to stay safe and emerge unscathed.
It made me very grateful to be living somewhere where such events seem, at the time of writing, unlikely. Yet I was also relieved to hold more than one passport, enough cash to be able to buy my family out of immediate danger, and to possess a genuinely globally diversified portfolio of investments.
Which is not the same thing as holding a handful of ETFs that are all denominated in the same currency, listed on the local stock exchange, and operated by the same provider. Single points of failure all.
Risks with a low likelihood but high impact.
Risks that few ever consider.
Risks that, thankfully, rarely materialise into genuine issues.
Those Ukrainian outsourced workers now staring down the barrel of a gun at approaching tanks probably thought the same.