Layoffs

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A touchy topic. I have been in the tech industry for almost 23 years, and I have seen my share of the layoffs. I saw the layoff very early in my career, and the most recent ones in last year or so (amid the big tech post pandemic layoffs).

Layoffs are usually not pleasant. But putting emotions aside, I recall an older wise gentleman once told me: it’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it gives an opportunity for someone to look beyond the daily grinding, to reflect, to pivot (reposition) and hopefully find something better or more suitable for someone (not exactly words, here someone is actually yours truly back in early 2019).

Also sometimes the old timers (the good old employers) will ask in the employment history section during a job app: have you ever being involuntarily terminated from an employer? While I am not a lawyer (my wife is), but my legal advice here is: this is somewhat like the situation when I was in the US Consulate in Shanghai back in 1997, when the visa officer asked: what’s your plan after the graduate school? One thing I was 100% sure is: I was not going to say that I planned to stay in the US for good 🙂 || I think an honest answer then is probably “I don’t know” or “I am not sure”. Remember in 1997 although the Hong Kong was returning to China, at the time the US was still way ahead of China, with the exception of the Chinese food here. There were a lots more economy developments in China compared to the US since then.

Two traumatic layoffs that left me impression

It was Oct 11, 2001, a month after the Sept 11, 2001. We knew the layoff is coming, after our company bought a rival company. The day came and it was not the 1st time I saw layoff, I think I saw a smaller layoff shortly after I joined the company in year 2000. But Oct 11 is probably by far the worst, we had 3 coworkers being let go. I worked closely with one of them, and she cried or sobbed. Her husband also worked at our team. Later the department manager rallied or tried to console the people who being left (we had about 30+ people, mostly devs). And we also learned the overlapping dev team at the acquired company were all let go (I recall there were quite a few ethnic Chinese people, who probably had similar background with me, but they may have came to the US a few years before me). A side note amid all this is a QA engineer (test engineer) was laid off, and a few weeks ago during a townhall he asked question to the CEO about layoff 🙁 That day the company laid off about 18% of the people, and that’s probably 1,300 people.

Another case, while at the Mercy Health, we also knew the layoff was coming. And this time around we lost our QA engineer again (see the pattern here?), as well as an old engineer who cried / sobbed quite loud. I vowed to myself: never put myself into this kind of position when I reach his age (which is getting closer and closer, btw 🙂

My own share of layoffs

I had experienced 2 layoffs myself so far. Both times I was a bit surprised. But I think the second time it worked out for me better as my severance package is better, also due to the timing, it helped us bought our single family house at the right time before pandemic in summer 2019 (so here is another side benefit in addition to the career pivot).

The 1st time it was a bit sour taste. But I was not totally caught off guard either. I know one or two project leaders (they are more like team lead, not managers) didn’t like me. And I couldn’t do much to change the situation (the dynamics). The layoff came, the admin assistant was really nice actually. Looking back I think she is one of the few people who probably knew a few days in advance. I calmed down and negotiated a calm exit before my China trip then (year 2011, I had to email recruiters when I was in China, which is not ideal). I got a contractor position quickly after I came back from China. In this particular case, I actually learned that individual who said bad things about me before my manager(s) once got into a fist fight with another coworker there. I think looking from another angle, avoid toxic people at work place is a good idea 🙂 I do recall the evening in which I just lost my job, and I went to the Bread Co, thinking I would probably spend say $15 off my $40k savings: I may have seen a friend there, but I forgot exact who etc. I did couple interviews before the China trip, and no offer before my flight 🙁

Technically there was another case that I was laid off, in Nov 2013, very briefly. My contract job ended and they gave me 2 weeks notice via my recruiter. And I recall I saw a “Lord’s Prayer” in the weekend I learned the news, while at a friend’ friend home attending the 1st friend’ baby shower. That “layoff” left me a sour taste as well. But luckily I was interviewing before this and was able to quickly secure a new job offer in a few days.

(I will fill in my details as time goes, some suspension or surprise element here 🙂 🙁

Strategies

I think the most important thing to remember is never assume your job is there tomorrow. Because we have very little control. CEOs came and go, and little guys (or girls) like us can be let go really at any time. Never assume your work is so important that your boss or your company will keep you forever.

Along those lines, make sure you have the urgent savings account, which should at least cover 6 month of living cost: thinking mortgage / rent, grocery, gas, car payment (if applicable), and health insurance (remember if you pay out of your own pocket, it will not be cheap, as companies usually subsidize some cost aa a part of the benefit). This part is important because it gives you a peace of mind when you got the layoff. Note not every company offers generous severance package. The money you have will also help you have some breeze room when looking for new jobs.

Also get prepared. Always get your resume or LinkedIn profile updated. Test the market once a while. For coders (programmers, developers, software engineers), make sure you do some coding every day / week etc., don’t just sit there and do nothing. Learn something new if there is not much coding work. Nowadays there are so many online free resources for one to learn. In face, in terms of job market, for developers (software development engineers), the job market is usually pretty good. So as long as the developer knows something and can contribute, he/she usually won’t be in the job market for too long. I cannot say that for other positions in the IT job market, e.g., recruiter jobs are very much business (econ) cycle, so there is this famine and feast kind of situation. Similar can be said for the Quality Assurance (test engineer) and manager positions. I saw a director at the credit card got laid off, initially that individual worked for a contractor position as project manager, until eventually going back to similar position as before: took couple years.

But again here we need to be mindful that we are the ones who are responsible for our own careers: e.g., there is a manager position opening up at a software company or an IT shop, and someone hinted that you jumping at the opportunity. Remember what I just said: in terms of the job opportunities disparity between devs and managers, or architects for that matter. At one time of my career, I did become an architect as well, but I decided that was not for me longer term. I like to be closer to the coding.

Tips

Remember try not to be emotional. Also you are entitled to ask “why the layoff on me”? Although the answer is usually “the position is eliminated” or something similar. Remember the employer usually has better resources in terms of legal expertise or lawyered-up. In reality just like in the situation of “being dumped by your significant other”, there is usually signs or legit reasons whey it happened. Ideally you should know and not be caught totally off guard. And hopefully you were waiting for the severance package. For that my advice is not to sign anything on the spot. Just like an offer letter, you may want to bring it home, cool down, talk to someone, before signing anything official.

Also sometimes looking back the writing is on the wall or the hints are usually there. Like the two traumatic (large) layoffs I mentioned above. Get prepared before the actual layoff happens (again refer to the strategies above). No need to overly worry about the look the admin assistant gave you though, just be prepared when you work for someone or a company, you know in the USA the employment is at-will: meaning people can let you know anytime. This is quite different from the families. And don’t got tricked into thinking company’s sometimes misleading “we are families” kind of talk. We are in a employee / employer relationship, for now. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.

Last but not least, don’t use your company device for anything that’s in your private life. An example, your kids pictures, your family pictures, if you have company iPhone, try not to use it for those sort of things. And if you do, as a minimum try to make copies and delete the pictures on the phone before turning it in. You know the iPhone has settings that allow you to do that, and do it as needed. You never know what other people are going to do to the company devices that you turn in.

Psychological Impact

I don’t think this is trivial. I believe just like being dumped by your first significant other (boy friend/girl friend, husband/wife), this “being rejected by someone” feeling is usually hard, but at the same time it’s also quite common and normal. If you always got what you wanted, and were never rejected by someone, congrats 🙂 I think some of the websites will use the first name or name of your 1st boy friend or girl friend as an option (btw, this does not work very well in the Muslim countries, from what I heard). The reason for that is simple: people would almost never forget that name 🙂

Over the time though, we can overcome this “being rejected” feeling. It never goes away. But it can be controlled, and hopefully we can direct to something or some endeavor that we can use our passion there.

Another potential side effect, is the stigma associated with layoff, which is totally unnecessary – and I touched those good old companies’s specific question “have you ever involuntarily terminated from your job”? Again not legal advice just ignore those. Things don’t always work out as we liked. As long as we learn something and try not to make same mistake (again and again), we are making progress 🙂

Job Search

Last but not least, some job search observations / tips. Related to that, some may point out that although in the US, the employers cannot discriminate against applicants’ age, in reality though, this is still a factor and most employers in fact have preferences on employees’ age. I recall in the company I worked for 8 years, and I know a coworker worked there for 40+ years, and I heard he was laid off after I left (I resigned from that company in Nov 2008, yes it was during the financial crisis :-(. His layoff has nothing to do with my leaving, and I believe there is age factor there.

(Update 09-10-2023) Came across this video “One peril facing job-hunters? Being ghosted” at CBS Sunday Morning. This is actually quite common during a job search, from my experience. Don’t take it personally and move on.

(Update 09-16-2023) Came across this video “Where Thousands Of Tech Workers Went After Mass Layoffs”: I do like the gentleman who used to work on the AirTable but now pivoted to the AI startup after the layoff. Personally, I think this ChatGPT thing and AI in general will have a bright future, another example in the recent news: “A boy saw 17 doctors over 3 years for chronic pain. ChatGPT found the diagnosis“.

(Update 09-20-2023) How Virtual Layoffs Became The New Normal For Workplaces. Btw, I just learned another contractor got laid off at my work place (my impression is current work place is pretty bad towards contractors, as I was at the other end of the table about 10 years ago, they did give me 2 weeks notice, so it softens the blow a bit). Talking about contractors or contingency workers in the IT and software industry, this is a very common way for an employers to add more people when needed, and get rid of them when not needed. Quite brutal in the sense of “job security” or “provide for family”. Something to keep in mind when jumping ships. || Also from SubStack: Layoff lessons: Four things I wish I knew.

(Update 12-18-2023) Came across this blog post from a former colleague, looks good. From my personal experience, healthcare is a tough industry to work.

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