Mass layoffs are taking place at the biggest of big tech firms – but how do you brush yourself off and keep going? Dot-com crash survivors tell LeadDev how to weather the storm.
3,750 at Twitter. 11,000 at Facebook. 150 at Spotify. 1,110 at Stripe. Over recent months, big tech companies have been making bold decisions about their future staffing levels through large rounds of layoffs – with significant impacts on the engineers who help keep their businesses running.
The wider industry has responded by pulling together spreadsheets of those affected in order to make it easier for the legions of recruiters circling to identify the best talent to pick up. So far, there have been successes: one former Twitter staff member in India told LeadDev they had fielded 125 job offers within days of being laid off from the microblogging platform.
“The shape and extent of the layoffs that are occurring now at some major tech companies are worrisome, but their full impact remains to be seen,” says Mar Hicks, Associate Professor for the History of Technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “Given how things have been going so far, these are likely to cause less lasting pain to workers in the sector in the US than the first dot-com crash, because at least at this juncture, there are still many other tech companies – both large and small – hiring.”
But the prevailing economic conditions remain worrying for those who find themselves out of a job – and the fact that firms are following, one by one, in announcing swingeing cuts is a concern. It can be a troubling, taxing time for those affected.
Be aware of the markets
Nathan Fisher knows what it’s like to be there. The IT engineer and architect has been hit twice with layoffs from the tech sector in the last two decades: first in 2002, at the end of the dot-com bubble, and in 2008 when the global financial crash sent businesses scurrying to cut costs to survive.
“In IT, you have to constantly be aware of the markets,” Fisher says. He first encountered layoffs while working on Electronic Data Systems at Vanguard. “We lost the contract and 90 of us were unemployed,” he says. “I had just bought a condo.”
The mass layoffs as the dot-com bubble burst, then swirled down the drain, meant there was a massive oversupply of tech talent of all types that ended up on the market. Fisher was left with just two weeks’ severance, and had no savings. He had to sell his house. “Little did I know I would be unemployed for 15 months and end up eating a case of peas and ramen for dinner for six weeks.”
The next time Fisher was affected was in 2008. He was working for Tyco Electronics – a company he had just joined after working for another firm for four years previously. In an eerie echo of the last layoff, he had just bought a house a year earlier. Three weeks before the cuts hit, he found out his girlfriend was pregnant. The four-month severance pay was little reassurance for him and the 25,000 others who were laid off.
Build a friend network
Software engineer Toby Kinney found himself laid off from IBM in 2010 as part of a mass layoff. “What’s always worked best for me is friends,” he says. “My friend network has provided me with the majority of my job leads.”
Given his experience, Fisher’s tips for those who might find themselves in a similar position come from a place of experience. Firstly, he suggests updating your resume – and then keeping it updated, constantly. “You may not be actively looking, but if you hear rumors or bad news, you can pivot quickly,” he says.
Save for a rainy day
Fisher also recommends living below your means. Tech salaries can often seem great, and allow you to live a relatively extravagant life, but shouldn’t be an excuse to go crazy. Save for a rainy day and ensure you have the ability to pay off any debt incurred on your credit card at the end of every month.
Fisher’s finance professor at grad school also advised him to keep six months’ of bills in the bank. The professor called it an “FU fund”.
“The idea was that if you were an accountant and someone asked you to do something unethical, you could walk away, no questions asked,” he says. “It was the best advice I ever had, as it makes taking on a new job less risky if it’s a terrible fit,” – something many Twitter employees may be considering right now.
Always develop expertise
Likewise, you should always be adding to your expertise, to help not just with internal negotiations, but to start off from a better base should everything go wrong, and you end up unemployed.
“In 2002, I had a bachelor’s degree and entry level certifications, with one year of an MBA,” Fisher says. “Losing work for 15 months drove me to get two graduate degrees and 11 industry certs.” That’s something Kinney also recommends. He’s kept himself employable by learning new things through side projects. “It’s a way of keeping my skills sharp,” Kinney says. It also helped keep his morale up when he was laid off. He volunteered for churches and helped friends with their businesses. “If I was giving back to the degree I could, that made me feel a lot better, and allowed me to grow my skills,” he says.
Prepare to take a step back
It’s also worth noting that the career ladder isn’t always a one-way system, constantly going up. “You may have to take a few steps back to take more steps forward,” cautions Fisher. “Your dream job of $200k at 23 may never happen again. Many of these tech firms competed against each other for the same workers. The industry may do a hard reset.”
Likewise, don’t be shy about talking money with recruiters should they come calling. Fisher advises talking pay ranges within the first 30 seconds of the call, and avoiding answering the inevitable question of what you made in your last job. “Ask for a range,” he says. “If you aren’t getting numbers, hang up. If you like a job and the range has a 10% pay cut, take it.”
Plan for the next job
Fisher is also honest about the fact that he never feels totally comfortable. “Always plan your next job,” he says. “I have criteria of what I would leave my job for. You should too.”
That may sound surprising, but it’s realistic – and most of all, honest. “I love my job,” Fisher admits. “But it’s 90 minutes away. Luckily, I have some telework to help that. If I could do this job 15 minutes away for $10,000 less, I’d do it. This allows you to read the industry and choose your career, rather than being directed where to go out of desperation.”