As the Big Tech layoffs continue and thousands of highly-qualified people suddenly find themselves out of a job, I want to revisit the topic of maintaining your career health.
A little background. Thanks to decades of legislation, the average US worker is at a massive power disadvantage against their employer. It’s a completely one-sided relationship: we rely on jobs for our healthcare and pensions (401k), we have a majority of our human interactions at work, and (let’s be honest) we tie a big chunk of our identities to our paychecks and titles. Having that connection unexpectedly severed can be difficult, even traumatic. My own career began around the 2007-08 Financial Crisis, and over the years I have seen first-hand the pain of losing your job. Colleagues and friends who were forced to uproot their lives and move to a different state/country, or who couldn’t maintain healthcare coverage for a loved one, or suffered from debilitating stress and crises of confidence after being fired. I still carry some PTSD from all those times.
Looking at all these stories on LinkedIn of people who were shocked to get fired, I think “there but for the grace of god go I”. And I go back to my coping strategies. They may not work perfectly, they may not work for everyone; but they give me some control over my fate in uncertain times. I’ve listed them below, if they come in handy for someone else.
Maintain psychological distance
You may think that your job is safe; that your company or CEO or boss cares about you, because you’re a loyal worker doing important things for the company… think again. Go read the classic Loyalty and Layoffs by David Brady. And read The Moderately Enthusiastic Programmer by Avdi Grimm. And re-read each of them daily till the message starts to sink in.
You know all of Elon’s recent shenanigans at Twitter - firing two-thirds of employees and contractors, forcing everyone back to office overnight, forcing mandatory 80-hr weeks, and firing anyone who dare criticize him? As distasteful as all this is, remember that it’s all perfectly legal. He’s just showing the extent of power that a corporate entity has over its workers. And you may have a benevolent overlord right now, but let the Elon saga show you just how much leeway they have if they choose not to be merciful.
Be ready to walk away
Do you remember the mantra Robert De Niro’s character lived by in Heat?
If this sounds extreme, remember that your access to company assets and benefits can be gone within moments and without notice. Access to your work laptop, email, office building/campus, etc. could be shut off in an instant. You need to proactively maintain the ability to just walk away from anything that gets left behind.
- Use sync services like Dropbox for documents/pictures, Lastpass for critical passwords, etc. Make copies of important personal documents on work laptops or servers.
- Ensure you can access important services like your 401k website, HR provider, healthcare services etc. using your personal email and not just your work email. Maintain (and save backups of) a list of bookmarks for those websites.
- Keep copies of your recent pay stubs.
- Maintain the contact information of your company administrators for things like Proof of Employment verification, your HR manager and your manager.
- Have contacts of colleagues who may be able to help you out if you’re unable to reach any of the above (mind you, in an extreme situation some of them may not be able to help you either)
Maintain a safety net
This one is not always feasible for everyone, but it’s probably the most impactful to your mental health when thinking of financial uncertainty.
- Maintain a 6-month (or longer) financial runway in a liquid, quickly accessible form. Regularly review your finances.
- Make a contingency plan with your significant other. If one or both of you lose your jobs, how much does your current lifestyle need to change? Who will be responsible for what duties? Will you continue paying for childcare or that second car? Will you take the usual set of vacations? Are you OK moving to another city or country, and if so, what are your preferred options?
- Stay in touch with your network! You may not be able to control the timing of a layoff, but you can control how long it takes to find a new job. One of the best ways is to maintain a vibrant, diverse set of connections to your local community. Invest in those connections.
- Keep your resume updated, and your interviewing skills sharp. Go read my earlier post on interviewing frequently.
Salespeople and recruiters maintain pipelines because they know that only a small percentage of prospects will actually pay off. The time to build that pipeline is way before you need it.
Maintain your marketable skills
I once asked my boss (after some layoffs) why another person from the same job family got fired while I was spared. His blunt answer: “Deployability. You have a wider set of skills - I can deploy you as a developer, tech lead, or project manager - whatever a new client needs. The other person was a pure PM.” From repeated experience, the people who are last to get laid off were those contributing directly to the company’s bottom line, or worked in the money-making parts of the company versus the cost centers. They also tended to be the ones most adaptable - i.e. most likely to pick up new skills quickly and succeed in the new world.
Which brings me to the question of “what do you have to offer the market?” Do you have 10 years of work experience, or do you have one year of work experience repeated 10 times? Are your skills and experiences up to date? Once I tried to help a friend-of-a-friend who had just lost their job. They were in dire straits, so I was eager to help if possible. But the moment I opened their resume, there was a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach - I knew almost immediately that I couldn’t help. This person had defined themselves as a “Crystal Reports 8.2 developer” - a super specific skill set that immediately restricted their target
In this regard, the best advice came from a VP I highly respected when I was a young developer: “If you pick a specialist skillset like Ruby on Rails, you better be the best in the world, so that you are always in demand. Or, if you can’t achieve that, you should pick a path that is more mainstream like Java or C#. Even if you’re not the best, you will have plenty of work.” That advice has stood the test of time.
Each of us who is battle-scarred have our own coping mechanisms for surviving tough times. Like Captain Bluntschli in Shaw’s marvellous play Arms and the Man, we are pragmatists, carrying food rations in our ammunition pouches. Our methods may seem strange or extreme, but they work. I have shared mine. Hope they are useful to you in the upcoming tough times. And hope these tough times pass soon.