Fear and Layoffs: How to Cope with Tech’s Uncertain Times
Whether your company went through sudden truncating layoffs like Twitter, Meta, Lyft, Salesforce, Stripe and Twilio, faces a looming ax, or is on a hiring freeze like Apple and Amazon, the tech industry feels a whole lot different than it did a couple months ago. The candidates’ market featuring six-figure signing bonuses is over for now.
Economic and geopolitical uncertainty are also likely to cool down investments in startups and expansion of enterprises’ IT departments, as seen by significant percentages cut across the tech industry starting in May. For some, an economic slowdown will bring back memories of the late-90s dot-com crash, or the Great Recession of the late-’00s. For early career workers, the security of a well-paying tech job could become harder to find.
Whether you’re being forced out or stuck behind in an at-best awkward situation, more and more tech workers are planning their next move. Because we’ve entered rocky economic times. So how do you find the balance of job security and happiness at work even when times are tough? Here’s some advice on planning your next step.
Take Time to Grieve.
Love or hate your job, changing it is a big deal. The more sudden that change, the bigger the shock to the system. That’s why everyone we interviewed shared the same first step — if you lose your job, don’t forget to breathe and take a break. Even if it’s just for a few days, you’ll be no good in a hiring process without taking time to process your loss.
Before making your next move, take that break to mourn, advised Laura Tacho, a senior engineering leadership coach. “In order to be able to be in a state to be open to a more positive future, you have to let yourself grieve and process your feelings,” she told The New Stack. “This is something that you did day in and day out, some for a decade. This is a huge change to their lifestyle.”
She compared this experience to a pendulum: “Sitting in a natural position, you don’t have any room to move forward. Go back into the negative space to process what happened in order to have the momentum to move forward.”
In other words, there’s no shame in throwing a pity party, for a while. Invite your ex-coworkers.
Whether you stay at a troubled organization or go, Beatriz Suarez, a senior human resources specialist, advised New Stack readers to “take at least a break of some days. After such pressure, seeing your friends in this bad situation, you have suffered.
“Mentally you need to be prepared and be positive again if you want to face an interview or search for a new job. Otherwise, it would be impossible for you to create the right circumstances or to give advice to your colleagues who come to you.”
“Most likely your next job will come from your network, so open up your contacts on your phone and ping folks there.”
— Taylor Desseyn, senior recruiter advocate, Vaco
What matters, she said, is what you do with that time off. “Do something productive for yourself. Study. Travel around the world.” It’s important that you do something that you can sell in the future: “Watching Netflix is not a reason.”
Contributing to open source is a good use of that time to upskill and to have proof of coding activity on GitHub, she said.
A gap in your résumé can be fine, Suarez argued, but consider where you will be job searching.
“In Spain, six months doing nothing, people don’t see it well,” she said. “If you go to Germany, you can even be for two years raising your kids or doing whatever you feel like, and you will get employed again without any problem. It depends on the job culture of the country that you are talking about.”
Find Comfort in Numbers.
While a break can be healthy, there is also an argument for being quick to leverage the news cycle of a layoff and colleague camaraderie to collaborate on finding new work. Also when the layoffs feel as sudden and capricious as those at Twitter, Tacho said, it’s healthy to meet up and get angry with ex-coworkers. That’s valuable not just for post-layoff healing, but it can help plan your next step, too.
Start a group chat of former colleagues, “so y’all can almost job search together,” advised Taylor Desseyn, a senior recruiter advocate at Vaco. “You can send each other leads, where you are interviewing etc.”
This is certainly something we’ve seen former “Tweeps” do, with one public spreadsheet listing the names, roles, visa status, location and LinkedIn profiles of nearly 900 former Twitter employees. Another former employee has taken to consolidating a list of people who’ve reached out to offer resume reviews, referrals and other assistance, as well as created a Twitter moment that lists specific job openings and referral offerings from over 100 people at other tech companies.
Don’t just stop at current — or suddenly former — colleagues, said Desseyn. “I would then go to LinkedIn and start DM-ing alumni of Twitter that used to work there and see if those folks have any openings at their org.” It may not be a happy reason to connect, but these headlines offer another reason to reconnect with colleagues.
“Most likely your next job will come from your network, so open up your contacts on your phone and ping folks there as well,” he continued.
Suarez suggested creating a social meeting for you and your ex-colleagues — it’s not too late for cross-functional networking, discussing together: What opportunity does this open up now?
“And maybe one of the IT colleagues creates an app for contacts,” she said. “Who knows? let’s be creative.”
Don’t Talk Trash.
It’s fine to vent with your former co-workers. But be careful about how you talk publicly about your exit.
Hedge your bets and always speak kindly of a former employer, Suarez advised: “Because everybody can find the information that was posted in the past. If you posted negative news, talking about things you shouldn’t, this could negatively affect your next employment phase.”
Reflecting on 12 years in recruitment, Suarez continued, “If a recruiter checks on the internet, tries to find information about you and it seems you were saying bad things about your former employer, that’s awful. You are not a kid anymore, you are mature, and you need to face the situation in the best way that you can.”
Also, if you’re still at an organization that’s under stress, complaining publicly can risk your next job.
On the other hand, don’t be embarrassed or silent about getting laid off. As Gergely Orosz, a recruiter and the creator of The Pragmatic Engineer newsletter put it, these decisions are almost always made at the top and are typically detached from the reality on the ground.
You have to spin job uncertainty in a positive way, Suarez said. Start by publicly thanking your former colleagues and then expressing your eagerness to find another role.
“This is a situation that could happen to anybody, and you need to turn the negative into a learning opportunity,” she said. “It gives you the chance to learn new ways of working in another company. To challenge yourself. To learn and to prove yourself in a bad situation how to become stronger afterward.”
On the other hand, Tacho argued, especially when you are exiting from headline-grabbing companies, there can be risk in not speaking up about your job loss or remaining behind when so many others have lost their jobs.
“If you just sit by and say ‘I’m not going to talk about this,’ it could be perceived negatively by former coworkers or colleagues,” she said.
“Your job does not love you back. Your company, your employer, does not care about you. Because the second something takes the turn, you are just a name in an Excel spreadsheet with a salary. This is a contractual relationship, and corporations don’t have feelings.”
— Laura Tacho, a senior engineering leadership coach.
Another reason why it’s risky to trash your current or former employer publicly: you could open yourself up to lawsuits. And, of course, you don’t want to harm your chances in any potential employment lawsuits. You need to find balance when talking about it.
“When there is an event like what happened at Twitter, it was quite different than a hiring freeze or layoff at a company,” said Tacho. “There’s a lot of outrage and empathy. Collective feeling of unfairness. I don’t think the type of company that these people would work for in the future would look down on them speaking out and saying, ‘Hey, that was shitty what happened to me at Twitter.’
It’s best not to trash talk even a notorious former employer in a job interview. But remember, she said, as you grieve your loss of job, colleagues or both, that anger is a valid emotion: “No one is taught that in a professional setting it’s OK to be mad about something.”
Decide Whether to Move.
Once you’ve accepted your altered world and started talking about it, it’s time to decide your next move.
“Every once in a while there is some big ethics controversy at a big tech company. Discourse begins about how can anyone work for such a horrible unethical company. This happens most often with Facebook,” Casey Fiesler, associate professor of information science at the University of Colorado Boulder, told The New Stack. (She has a lot of friends who work at Facebook.)
When this happens, she argued, the ethically minded have three options:
- The company ceases to exist.
- Ethical people work there and, even if it’s an uphill battle, they try to effect change.
- All the ethical people quit and only unethical people work there.
“Assuming that the first thing is not going to happen,” she said. “Then, of the second two options, it’s probably better for some ethical people to work there.”
At Twitter, for instance, “a lot of people could leave the company because they don’t like the perception of working for Elon Musk.” But, she warned, “If Twitter is going to continue to exist, it is going to continue to be something that has a significant impact on society. Then I would like people working there who are trying to make it as much as of a force for good as is possible.”
As the Twitter layoffs rained down four days before midterm elections in the U.S., it was certainly concerning. “The idea of everyone who cares about things like harassment and misinformation and safety and these kinds of things, the idea of all of them quitting at once is troubling,” Fiesler said.
Deciding whether to stay at a troubled company or when to go, said Tacho, should always center on answering a singular question: What are you optimizing for in your career?
It’s OK, she said, to be the little dog holding the coffee cup while the world is burning around you. “Not everyone is in position to be picky. It’s totally fine to optimize for money.”
Other people are optimizing for other things, she continued, including ethical alignment and mission or vision alignment. Others are simply asking: How much can I take before I’m willing to move on?
Others still, Tacho said, are looking for career advancement and opportunity. “Can you still get that at a company that’s laying off, going through some lean times?”
Yes, the big-name companies are undergoing layoffs and hiring freezes, but, Tacho said, there’s renewed opportunity in startups and scale-ups that simply couldn’t compete with the second half of 2021 and the start of 2022’s huge hiring boom.
Survivor’s Guilt vs. Blind Loyalty
I got the email… I still have a job
but I stayed up last night watching hard-working, talented, caring people get logged out one by one and I don’t know what to say.
Tweeps, you are remarkable. #OneTeam #TwitterLayoffs
(My colleague captured it perfectly) pic.twitter.com/dLCx0Ts0bb
— eli schutze (@elibelly) November 4, 2022
Often, Tacho said, she works with clients who have survived layoffs and are experiencing survivor’s guilt. Being among those kept might mean job security for now, but puts you in a stressful position trying to care for your current and former colleagues. Not to mention, especially when half the staff is cut, your workload is sure to increase. And morale is nearly impossible to rescue.
Plus, you’re living with the looming threat of the ax. “There will be multiple rounds of layoffs. Just because you survive the first or the second doesn’t mean you won’t get laid off on the next one,” writes Simon Bisson, a freelance tech journalist who sometimes contributes to The New Stack.
“When is it going to happen to me?” is a common fear, Tacho said. “I want to put myself in a different environment where I have a bit more job security.”
These times of great transition are not times to be overly loyal to your current employer, she emphasized: “Your job does not love you back. Your company, your employer, does not care about you. Because the second something takes the turn, you are just a name in an Excel spreadsheet with a salary. This is a contractual relationship, and corporations don’t have feelings.”
Yes, you can build steadfast relationships in a workplace, but she says you have to get past your feelings of “I should be more loyal. I don’t want to leave before X project is finished.”
“People can say, I’m the master of the universe, but if you show me what you’re doing and we see your code, we can judge.”
—Beatriz Suarez, senior human resources specialist
Women, she noted, are far more likely to worry about employer loyally, as the “stakes are just generally higher for women for future employability.” This includes fear of burning a bridge or having a reference telling a potential employer that the worker left in the middle a big project.
When the world is burning around you, Tacho said, “you just need to get to a point where you can be OK stepping away from something. There’s never a good time to leave your job.”
You don’t need to be loyal to a company or its employees. Public sacrifice and quitting isn’t something that everyone will have the privilege to be able to do. At the best-known brands, those left behind are left dealing with the fact that, as Fiesler put it, “there is a non-zero number of people who are just rooting for people to fail.” But, she reminded us, “it is a perfectly reasonable decision to stay in a job until you have something else lined up.”
Evaluate Potential Employers.
Once you’re ready to find your next gig, how do you make sure you aren’t just ending up in another wrong fit?
In just-published research, Fiesler and her student Ella Sarder interviewed graduating computer science students about whether they considered the ethics of a company before deciding to take a job. None of the respondent pool thought knowing about tech ethics would help them get a job, and several thought that knowing or saying anything about ethics would actively keep them from getting one. It offers a grim lens from which the future of tech is viewing the industry they are training to enter.
However, on the other hand, Fiesler has found anecdotal evidence that companies are losing tech talent because they are perceived as having poor ethical reputations. This could particularly hurt Twitter’s next recruitment round because, until last week’s firings, Twitter’s ethics team stood out among social media for its push toward algorithmic transparency.
Now it’s making headlines with rumors of Twitter employees having to sleep at the office to deliver their new CEO Elon Musk’s demands, and his cutting of the company’s traditional monthly ”days of rest.”
On Wednesday, Musk sent his first email to his now halved staff to mandate an immediate full-time return to office, at the same company that two and a half years ago made headlines for adopting a remote-first culture.
“If you want to make a business argument for good ethical practices, no bad PR and you want to hire good people,” are very persuasive, Fiesler said.
Public perception is all well and good, but how can you tell from the outside if a potential employer embraces ethics? Fiesler offered some questions to try to answer during your selection process:
- Do you think that you would be listened to if you raised a potential concern?
- Does the company have processes in place for thinking about the impact of what it’s doing?
- Are there people whose jobs are to think about ethics?
- Do the ethics teammates actually have any power?
- If you had an ethical concern while working there, who would you bring it to?
Plan Your Next Step in Tech.
Are you ready or forced to make a move? Start by updating your résumé, LinkedIn and GitHub, Desseyn said, and make sure you’re added to job boards and recruiter databases. He suggested building a Trello board or some sort of tracking system to keep track of leads that come from your network.
“When you have your mind clear,” Suarez said, it’s time to start your research. She suggested searching for your own job profile on LinkedIn because, especially for those who have been off the job market for a decade or more, there may be some knowledge gaps, again emphasizing how recruiters check GitHub profiles.
“People can say, I’m the master of the universe, but if you show me what you’re doing and we see your code, we can judge,” she said. “Or they have their own website with CV, if they have private projects with part of the code. It helps them to promote their own self-employed services at some point. Even if they intend to work for a third party, they can also accept temporary freelance jobs.”
Just don’t forget, she said, to check if what happened to you is legal, and if you need to take any action. And then be ready to network. Tech workers aren’t necessarily known for being social, Suarez acknowledges. But attending tech community events is an opportunity not only to meet people who can help you, but also to learn.
Also check out these resources:
- How to Make Tech Interviews Suck Less
- How to Negotiate the Tech Salary You Deserve
- Companies Are Hiring Open Source Devs, but Skills Are Rare