How Ukrainian became World Bank’s first programmer in Washington DC, declined $167,000 offer from Amazon, and launched her own startup
In early December, a cover story in the popular American magazine Business Insider featured Ukrainian Anastasia Kholodova. She told the reporters how she had received an offer from Amazon, which many can only dream of, but declined it. Notably, not because of money.
Anastasia moved to Washington DC in 2011 at the invitation of the World Bank. She and her husband, also Ukrainian, became the first full-time programmers in this institution. Today she owns a fast-growing startup.
In her interview with AIN.UA, Anastasia speaks about how she came to be a programmer, moved to the US on an unusual G4 visa, got a green card, and founded her own company. Also, she told what she hates most about American reality.
I was born in Kharkiv. I graduated from Kharkiv University, Mechanics and Mathematics Department, majoring in theoretical mathematics. At the University, we studied programming at a very basic level.
I had two career options after finishing the degree: firstly, to become a school teacher or a university professor, and secondly, to go into a science – and that required defending a thesis and working further in that direction. Neither teaching nor going into science tickled my fancy, as I didn’t have a clear idea about how much they would pay me. This was 2006.
In my third year at the university, I realized that I wanted to try my hand at IT. Back then, it was a very small industry in Ukraine, and it didn’t sound as sexy as it does now. But there were several people I knew who somehow managed to find work, and even at the time, it was roughly clear that IT guys earn slightly more than research scientists.
I secured my first job in my fifth year already; it was DB Best Technologies, a Kharkiv-based company. I worked as a Software Development Engineer in Test – it is something between a tester and a developer.
I should mention that my first job was one of the best you could possibly find in Kharkiv at that time. It was not an outsourcing company of the early 2000s, but a product company, the developments of which were successfully sold to Microsoft.
The solutions we worked on became a part of SQL Server later; we did databases, SQL Server Migration Assistant.
I worked for that company for six years. DB Best Technologies still exists, and I have kept many friends and fond memories from there.
I realized that I wanted to become a programmer and moved on to another project, a startup called Pikaba. It is like eBay for services: you submit a request for a service, for example, to clean your car, and people offer their terms of execution. It was interesting to work in a 2007 startup, but, as you may have guessed, the project didn’t become the new Facebook.
Relocation to the USA
In 2011, I began looking for options to relocate to the US. Several guys from my first job had moved to work for Microsoft on SQL projects. My future husband, who is also a programmer, and I had by then understood the process, how much it all cost, and what was there for us to expect. We were preparing for our interview at Microsoft, but then our friends offered us to provide advice to some company from Washington DC, that wasn’t even IT.
The team there was comprised of Russian speakers, and they were looking just for people who spoke the language. Besides, they were even unable to formulate what exactly they needed but were ready to pay for us both traveling to the US and back.
It turned out to be the World Bank. A huge international organization, the one that you have thought of. They wanted to start a big-scale data collection project but didn’t know how. The point is, the World Bank generates an immense amount of economic data across all the countries of the world, analyzes them, conducts research, compiles rankings, makes assessments. In 2011, they realized they needed a global software system for collecting the data across different countries, with a high level of security and control. And they didn’t know where to start, because they are professional economists, not IT pros.
We were in touch with them for several weeks, telling them how we viewed this from an IT perspective. And at some point, they said, stay and work for us. We had initially come for two months, and we had return tickets, so at the end of January, we flew back to Ukraine to settle up our affairs. Meanwhile, the World Bank opened two vacancies specifically for us, and those were the jobs that we took when we moved to Washington DC in March.
That was how me and my future husband became the first two developers hired by the World Bank; until then, they had outsourced all their IT projects.
About the G4 visa and the World Bank
As a rule, programmers relocate to the USA on H1B or L1B visas. Those are working visas, and it takes about 6 months to open them. The World Bank plays by its own rules. They relocate people on a G4 visa which is opened in one day. There are no interviews, and, except for some rare cases, an American embassy cannot withhold it. This type of visa was created for employees of international organizations, such as the IMF, UN, World Bank, NATO, etc. A semidiplomatic visa.
I remember, it took me 30 minutes to get a G4: I just walked into the US embassy in Kyiv, got the visa – and that’s it, I could go. Very convenient.
On top of that, when you are on American ground on a G4 visa, you don’t need to pay taxes.
But there is a downside to that visa as well.
When we were moving to the States, we didn’t know if it would be permanent. There are quite a few stories when people didn’t like it there and returned to Ukraine. The G4 is easy to open and permanent – allowing you to stay in the US for the time you want without having to extend it, as long as you work for the World Bank. But it is never converted into a residence permit.
In four years, we understood that we liked it in the US and wanted to stay. But we were tied to the World Bank. To obtain a green card, someone of us had to quit and get hired in the private sector. Another advantage of a G4 visa is that its holder’s spouse has no job restrictions. I decided that I was to become that spouse.
I worked in the World Bank for 4 years. My husband (we got married after moving to the USA) still works there. This was an incredibly interesting project. Firstly, it was a huge responsibility, and secondly, we had to travel to various exotic countries: I had business trips to Zambia, to the Caribbean… It was necessary for us as developers to learn to understand what state-run data collection is, how it is conducted, what are the challenges, and how it can be automated.
In the summer of 2016, I told my boss I was going to quit. Only then did I started looking for a job. All summer, I was running around having interviews, and as a result, in the fall, I received two offers: from Amazon, for $167,000 a year, and a slightly smaller one from a little startup.
About Amazon’s offer and why I declined
The Amazon interview was quite standard and in line with all the information available in the Internet about interviews at large companies.
- First, you receive a phone call and solve 3 or 4 algorithmic problems – this way they check how fast you can think.
- If you solve those problems, you get to the next level: a call from the recruiter. This is rather about “talking the talk.” They actually check if you can adequately express you thoughts in general, how you take decisions, how you respond to difficulties at work.
- If all is okay with that, next comes an invitation to Amazon’s office for an interview. You spend 6 hours there – speaking to different people, solving problems.
- And then they decide if they should make an offer or not. I got an offer.
The whole process took me about one and a half months. I submitted my CV on July 4 and received the offer around the middle of August. But they had warned me from the beginning that it would take 3–4 weeks. I don’t know how are people from Ukraine interviewed, because I had already lived in the USA, and this was a local interview for me.
I declined the offer for several reasons.
We had lived, and are still living, in Washington, almost in the city center. I can walk to the World Bank’s office. And Amazon’s office is uptown, a 40-minutes ride away; it is like going from Kyiv to Boryspil. So, one of us would have to commute. And understandably, that would be me, because driving uptown from the center is at least against traffic. But that was not the main reason.
In fact, the whole idea of me leaving the World Bank was about residency. I told Amazon from the start that I had a work permit, but it was tied to my husband’s visa: if, for some reason, he quit the World Bank, I would be off to Ukraine with him in two months. That was why I needed them to file a green card application for me, and Amazon answered somewhat vaguely: they either didn’t do that at all, or had a long waiting list.
To swap the World Bank for another large company, remaining in the same visa situation, but having to commute for 40 minutes one way – this would be like shooting yourself in the foot.
I had another offer as well, from a startup within a 15-minute walk from home. They offered me the position of the lead developer: I would lead a team of three people (there were four of them overall – the company was just starting), and what’s more, they would apply for a green card for me. The project was interesting, and I liked the kind of people they were, so I decided to accept the offer. I would have spent the pay difference on buying a car and driving back and forth anyway.
I wrote a letter to Amazon, thanking them for the opportunity and honestly saying that my main problem was about the visa, so I had to decline their offer. Then they began fussing around and saying, like, “Wait, maybe we can help you,” but I had already signed all the papers with the startup and arranged to start work in September.
The Business Insider interview
There is a website called Help A Reporter. It is a go-to platform for American journalists from major editions, such as The New York Times. The point is, legally, they cannot use people they know as their sources. That is why they look for subjects for their articles on this website. I monitor it from time to time, and so, I accidentally came across a request: they needed people for the article who had declined offers from Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, and similar giants. I responded, and it happened to be Business Insider.
The initial plan was to use stories from 3 to 5 persons. But when we started talking with the journalist, it turned out that we had a perfect match. I am both a woman and an immigrant, and they liked my photograph and my visa story. The bottom line is, there was a separate article about me on BI Prime.
I can tell you straight, I did it exclusively to raise my PR profile because I now have my own startup and I need publicity.
I worked for that startup for 3 years. Before that, I had always been a .Netter, but there I switched to Node JS React and a bit of Swift. That was a classic American startup: everyone does everything, people communicate with each other closely, the development process is fast, there are many ideas, and they are thrown at the wall to see what sticks.
When there, I improved my English well, because in the World Bank they are all “fresh off the boat,” each speaking their own version of faulty English. Some people were from Holland, some from Ukraine, some from China – and we all learned bad things from each other. And here everybody was American.
Plus the startup environment and also the visa. In Amazon or Google, usually there is a whole line of immigrants who want to get themselves a green card. But in this company I was the only one. I could just drop in on the lawyer and ask, what’s up, how are things with my visa? The process dragged along, though.
When I applied for a green card, Obama was serving his last months. The lawyer asked me then what my citizenship was. “Ukrainian? Oh, then we’ll do it in 9 months.” Eventually, it took two years.
As soon as my application was submitted, Trump became president and set about revamping immigration laws. That is why we had to take every step twice and do twice as much work. But two years is still nothing. It’s hard for people from India because they have to wait for 8 years to get a green card, no matter who the president is.
My husband obtained residency owing to me. An interesting logical loop: I gained access to employment in that startup through him, and he got his green card through me.
Anti-stress CrossFit and my own startup
In part, I was unwilling to join Amazon because working for large companies is highly stressful. The World Bank itself is not easy to work for, because now and again you have some Ethiopian minister of statistics being hysterical because something is not working there… To relieve stress, I began doing CrossFit in 2015. I had my favorite gym that I visited every evening: the friends, and it was all on my doorstep. That was why I didn’t want to leave Washington, so as not to lose it all.
Gradually, I grew into a keen CrossFitter, working out five times a week. There are guys in our DC crowd who compete on a global level. I learned from them and created prototypes bit by bit to achieve better results.
About a year ago, I realized that could be developed into a marketable product. I quit the company, and now I have my own startup. It is WOD Insight, an application for Apple Watch and Galaxy Watch that tracks the number of reps and gives tips for improving your results.
Now we have decent growth: it’s a very specific target audience that lives and breathes CrossFit. You know, those people they joke about in the US, “How do you know someone is a CrossFitter from New York? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you right away.”
Even by startup standards, I have a small company. I have kept everything to a minimum. I hired no one and have done every
thing myself. This is my passion product, something that is interesting to me, and I have the skills to program that. My twin sister, who lives in Kharkiv, helps me. She is also seriously into fitness, and she has her own startup in Kharkiv. My husband has also helped, he is a CrossFitter too.
A startup in the US: pros, cons, and pitfalls
I cannot tell you how difficult it is to set up a company in the States – I just have nothing to compare it to, because I never did that in Ukraine.
In the USA, if you create an app with paid features, you don’t even have to establish a company to charge subscription fees. Here, everyone is an entrepreneur by default, no need to go and do any paperwork. All you should do is file a tax return with the information about what kind of service you did and about paying taxes on that.
It’s different, though, if you want not to provide services as a freelancer, but to hire people and raise investments as a startup. To do this, you need to set up a C corporation. I am just going through the registration process now. This is a fast and straightforward process that can be easily done online. It costs about $800.
My app is currently growing 40% each month. There are a few users from Ukraine, but CrossFit is 90% localized in the States, so my key market is here.
We have a Freemium monetization model: the application is free for everyone, but there are paid accounts with advanced statistics and no ads. We also have programs for gyms: we help them spread their workout programs and enhance communication with clients. For instance, gyms host CrossFit competitions, they need a leaderboard – and we give them nice-looking analytics with intermediate results for each athlete. On top of that, there is an advertisement, of course: sneakers, protein, dumbbells, etc. So, we have three monetization sources.
The income is still not enough to outweigh my salary at the bank, but given the fact that the app is 9 months old and monetization was only enabled two months ago, we are fine.
The lockdown and its impact on WOD Insight
We have a love-hate relationship with the lockdown. In part, it helped distribute my application. Before the quarantine, people went to their local gyms and shared their achievements with their friends, but when they got confined to their homes, there was no one to share with! Everybody immediately rushed to the Apple Store to look for a CrossFit app – and that was how they found WOD Insight. Afterwards, when the lockdown was lifted and people came back to the gym, they shared it with friends, like, look what a nice app I’ve found!
On the other hand, no one works out much during quarantine. If a person lives in an apartment, there is no room for exercise machines. Our second top country for users is the UK. Now they have gone into the second lockdown, and I can already see from the statistics how the workout activity has dropped.
What is more, this has made the fundraising process much more difficult for me. As of now, I already have some traffic that I can show to investors from Silicon Valley. There is some interest on their part. But instead of boarding a plane and flying to San Francisco, we have been carrying on the process in fits and starts via Zoom, and this has slowed our progress significantly.
We need money for content marketing now. I need to scale things up, and that means reaching new audiences. In order to do it, I need to educate them. Professional athletes understand the meaning of the data that the app provides, and what they are for. And someone who does CrossFit just for fun will receive that analytics but will be unable to read it. I need a lot of content to explain everybody how to stay safe when doing CrossFit, because it is a very high-injury sport.
On different approaches to creating startups
We, developers, especially those from Ukraine, like technology very much. We want to utilize it and we don’t think about a concrete user’s problem that this technology will solve. And then we wonder, “But I’ve programmed it! I’ve spent so much time! And users don’t want it!”
Working for American startups has taught me to focus on users’ problems rather than technology problems. I think, many developers setting up their own startups lack the understanding that technology is a tool.
You should use a tool to solve a specific problem, and not think up a problem in order to use the tool. The problem is particularly acute for Ukraine because a lot of developers are from outsourcing, and in outsourcing companies, developers rarely get a clear idea of the task that they help a business accomplish.
On visits to Ukraine and domestic problems in the US
Before the corona, I flew to Ukraine happily twice a year. This was my vacation. But this year I didn’t go because of the lockdown. Will we ever come back to live here? We don’t plan it now, but never say never. I remember myself back in 2008, telling somebody that I would never leave Ukraine… I can’t say what will happen for sure. We like Washington, we have bought an apartment here. But we are closely connected with Ukraine: my whole family is in Kharkiv, and my husband’s people are all there too.
I would say that after the relocation our level of wealth has remained the same as in Ukraine. The one thing I don’t like about the US is healthcare. Very expensive!
We have good insurance that covers a lot of things, and we are really aware of the privilege. But if my husband quits the World Bank, and I carry on with my startup routines, then, for instance, to have an appendectomy we will have to shell out $20,000. About the same amount is to deliver a baby.
I know an architect from Amazon, he has a nice salary, insurance, and – a million-dollar baby. How come? He has recently had a child who was born prematurely and spent a long time in a hospital incubator. Then, the hospital sent him a bill for $1,000,000. Certainly, insurance covered part of the expenses, but if not for it, he goes broke! He has no complaints about the hospital – they have saved his child, and the service was perfect. Just don’t be surprised about Americans flying to Ukraine to fix their teeth.