code-for-a-living December 5, 2022

Just laid off? Nervous about possible layoffs? Here’s what to do.

Suddenly losing a job can be personally destabilizing. But lots of us have been there and gotten through it.

There’s been a lot of high profile layoffs in the news lately: Layoffs.fyi shows over 140,000 layoff across nearly 900 companies in 2022. Whether this is a general economic downturn, dot com bust V3, or a correction after an aggressive overreach during the pandemic remains to be seen. What is clear is plenty of people are finding themselves suddenly jobless and will be wondering what to do. 

When you get laid off, you think, I used to know what I was going to be doing until my next vacation. Now I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow.

Ben Matthews, Stack Overflow Director of Engineering

When the first dot com bubble burst, I was in the same position. I had taken a role at a startup creating online programming courses. The office space was gorgeous, the work was engaging, and the coffee was top quality. One day, the coffee was replaced by a lesser brand. Soon after, everyone was laid off. This was in early 2001. It took me nearly five years to get back into the tech world. But I recovered and found a career path that was even more rewarding. 

While the tech industry has gone through a few shifts since I’ve entered the work force, some of the people getting laid off haven’t been through this before. Even if you have been through it, it’s helpful to have a toolkit of strategies and advice to get your through it if it happens to you. 

If you’ve just been laid off…

When you lose a job during a round of layoffs, you lose a significant part of your life. You spend eight hours (or more) every day interacting with the same people, pursuing the same goal, then suddenly, that stops. Allow yourself some time to grieve. Your friends may not know how to deal with grief and may say the wrong things. Forgive them. 

It felt like a betrayal because it was just outta nowhere. There were no signs. Even though I would advise people, you can’t take this personally, it still felt that way because even though I may not have had the strongest relationship with management—we didn’t see eye to eye—it did feel like there was a lack of respect on top of it. I was just four months away from getting my pension with the company.

Ben Matthews, Stack Overflow Director of Engineering

You might feel a little vulnerable and precarious after a layoff; that’s perfectly normal. Depending on what you did to get to this job—move to a new city, invest in new hardware/training, stretch your finances—getting laid off might feel like more than just a loss of a job; it might make you feel like you need to reevaluate your whole life. Before you make any big decisions, take some time to process your layoff. While location problems are less of a concern now that more of us have the opportunity to work from home, there are still plenty of jobs that want you to be in the same location as other employees. 

I moved to Texas for my first job out of college using the last of my money. Dropped an opportunity to do a master’s since the goal of the master’s was to get a job like the one I just got in Texas. A month after I started, they hired a new CFO whose great new strategy was to lay off half the company (new grads never survive that). Fun fact, I got a 20% raise on the Monday because of my good work and was laid off on the Friday… Talk about whiplash. Found myself on the other side of the country with no family, friends, network, job, or money. Had to take out a loan to even pay for rent and food.

Keith van der Meulen, Data Engineer, Platform Engineering

Find all the folks that got laid off with you and schedule some time to vent. When I was laid off, the whole team went out and talked about their experiences. We shared our frustrations, connected, and drank a little too much. But in the end, we felt a bit better, and one of those former coworkers reached out a little later about joining her team. I had already decided to move cities, so it was a no go, but the opportunity came from connecting in that post-mortem vent. 

That leads to the first way you can start looking for a way back into a job: For most of the people I talked to and most of the advice I read, working your network can make the greatest difference in your post-layoff job hunt. LinkedIn has been a game changer for this, but the other social networks can help with that. Heck, even enjoying sports can help you find your next job. 

I met my friend Bob, who now runs the front-end team at Facebook, hanging out during the South Africa World Cup. He told me that he’d moved to California from Virginia, lost his job almost a year ago, and had given himself exactly 365 days to get a new one before he would take his wife and kids back to his parents’ basement in Virginia. It was around day 350: he’d already given notice to his landlord and was about to sell his beloved classic Porsche 911 to fund the move. I could tell he was a good engineer, so I offered to recommend him for a job I had just turned down that day. I told him I didn’t think the company had a long-term future, but it was a stepping stone to a better job and he completely understood the assignment. When that company closed, we introduced him to another startup where he did well; and when that company sold to Google, he worked his way up to front-end leadership on the mobile search engine—then to Facebook. But it all started because he did something—watching football!—to solve his biggest problem, which was that he didn’t have a local network to activate in times of need. Seeing Bob’s experience was the start of my advice to tell EVERYONE you’re looking for a job, without embarrassment or delay.

Joyce Park, co-founder of 106 Miles

But your network won’t guarantee a job. You’ll need to do some legwork. Get your resume/elevator pitch/cover letter game in order and have as many people as possible review it. Connect with everybody you’ve worked with. Figure out where you’d like to work and connect with some people there. Research shows that people get jobs from weaker relationships—acquaintances—more than from close friends or former coworkers. 

I updated my resume and LinkedIn profile. I shared them with former colleagues and friends for honest feedback. I applied for unemployment and over 20 jobs the following week. I created a Google Sheet to keep track of the many job listings, companies, and cover letters I sent. I applied to more jobs. I ate chips and queso. Lots of chips and queso.

Alex Pratt, Senior Demand Generation Specialist

Ultimately, though, the thing that will get you a new job is applying to those jobs. Chase the gigs that you know you can do, but also throw some applications at jobs that would stretch your skill set. If the jobs don’t come rolling in, consider contract work and open source contributions. Both provide extra connections to people and showcase your skills. 

If you’re nervous about the state of the industry…

For those of us who still have a job, this spate of layoffs, especially the large numbers happening at the tech behemoths, can make us all nervous. Those of us who were around for the previous bubble bursts might be getting flashbacks. But a few hiring freezes and rounds of layoffs don’t equal another crash. 

While company size doesn’t guarantee safety—obviously—startups are always a bit of a risk. Most startups fail: about 90% will eventually go under. Working at a startup can be exciting and offer a big payoff if there’s an exit, but consider it a privilege to do so. In general, you should have some money in the bank to cover a few months expenses in case an emergency happens (this, too, is a privilege), if you’re working at a startup, have six or more months worth of expenses covered in your savings. If you’re looking for a stable job, maybe don’t work for a company that relies on investors to pay the bills. 

For me, the biggest impact was the lost sense of trust that things would work out in a job, even if you were doing well. My dad is coming on 40 years with Hewlett Packard as a developer. Both grandfathers have the gold watch from their companies for 30 some years of service. Stack Overflow has been great and I’m finding myself back to enjoying my job, compensation, and company culture, but there will probably always be a bit of fear that it can disappear in an instant somewhere in the back of my head.

Keith van der Meulen, Data Engineer, Platform Engineering

Regardless of where you work, you should make an effort to understand your company’s business. Just the basics: does it make money and how? What’s the draw for customers? Is what you do integral to making money or are you working on peripheral problems? The better you are at connecting yourself and your daily work to that business process, the better chance you have of sticking around during any downturns. A corollary to that: seniority matters (or for programmers, employment is often LIFO). People who have been at a company for years have often accumulated a large amount of business knowledge and are therefore invaluable. 

In downturns, degrees and experience matter more. If you’re self-taught, you might be at a little disadvantage, but if you’re got a few years of experience in a real-world job, most companies will ignore the degree. Similarly, if you’re in college and close to graduation, it might be a good idea to stretch out your remaining classes for as long as you can: Students who graduate into recessions can earn less than their peers for the rest of their careers

It may not feel like it, but this can be a good thing

If you’ve lost your job, you don’t want to hear about the bright side of things. But getting a big shake up like this can leave you better off than you were before. Software engineers and other technologists who understand how software works are in high demand and will likely remain that way. Lots of companies that aren’t tech companies need people to write software for them. While you’re out of work now, you have one of the most marketable skillsets around. 

After a layoff everyone feels super vulnerable. My ex, who had quit graduate school before finishing his doctoral thesis, thought that if he had finished his PhD he would have a job. His friend, who had dropped out of Stanford undergrad, fretted that lack of a BS was the cause of his unemployment. One of the other members, who had a visa situation, was panicked about how that might affect their job prospects. Every last one of them spent a lot of time second-guessing themselves. The truth was that these search engineers were among the most employable in the industry, and I don’t think anyone was off for more than three months.

Joyce Park, founder of o-founder of 106 Miles

Unless you’ve been working at a company that’s been giving generous raises while you’ve been there, a layoff may be your best chance at getting a big raise. A recent study found that a typical job switch garnered the employees a 10% raise. Nearly half of job switchers got a raise when changing, with a third getting a 30% pay bump. If you’ve been hanging onto a job that gave out paltry raises that barely met the increases in cost of living, a job change—unexpected or not—might get you the bigger bucks that you deserve. 

The company eventually got bought out and my pay and benefits dropped by quite a bit. The company I loved working where I trusted that my performance would be recognized changed to me just being employee number 24601. After two years of wage freezes, they started hiring people at 30% higher salary than me, but couldn’t give me a raise because the spreadsheet said 6% max.–-

Keith van der Meulen, Data Engineer, Platform Engineering

But the best reason to be hopeful is that it gives you an opportunity to take stock of where you are in life and consider whether you are on the path you want to be on. As Frank Herbert writes in Dune, “Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.” A strong, sudden change can be just the thing to wake you, to help you see beyond the confines of your current work to the larger world you live in. 

Who was going to hire a pregnant woman? And if I do get hired, will I even be eligible for maternity leave? Is my husband’s income alone enough to qualify us for a new mortgage? These were all questions that kept me up at night.Until one day in July, I received an email back from a company called Stack Overflow. In the following weeks I went through a rigorous interview process and the rest, as they say, is history. In mid-August, at 20 weeks pregnant, I was offered a full-time role at Stack Overflow. My husband and I closed on our new home three weeks later. And when I gave birth to my son in January 2020, I was given 16-weeks of fully paid maternity leave. 

Alex Pratt, Senior Demand Generation Specialist

For me personally, that was certainly the biggest takeaway. It triggered some big changes, and I did feel a bit lost in the wilderness for a bit. But I found my footing by making choices towards better things. At first, the dot com crash made it hard for me to find something in tech, and I took a job in another field. But it played out according to what Joyce Park calls her “anti-King Canute” rule (named after a king who tried to legislate the tide): “Constantly remind yourself that there are external factors affecting your job search which you can’t do anything about, and fight your own second-guessing thoughts that there’s something wrong with YOU. It’s not you! It’s the economy! When there are jobs, you will get one.”

If you’ve been laid off, it may feel like the ground beneath you has turned to sand. But almost everyone I talked to had lay off stories; we’ve been here before and we’ll be here again. Tech industry experience is highly valued, so take time to process the layoff, then get your resume in shape and start looking again. 

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