It’s no question that we are headed for a recession. There are lots of mass layoffs happening in tech right now, at a level not seen since the Dot Com Bubble burst more than two decades ago. As an engineer in tech, how can you survive unscraped?
Obviously, there is a lot of luck involved and there are no guarantees, but, before you even get to the point of layoffs, you can position yourself such that you are less likely to be given the slip.
Prevent being laid off
- Understand your role. How replaceable is your role? How does your work generate revenue for the company (and how much)? And how important your product/team is to the company? If your role does not place well on these criteria, consider stepping up your game or switching to a better role. Ideally, you should be making a lot of visible impact on your company and actively demonstrating your value to the company. Taking it further, these are things you should consider when you start a new job or decide on a career path. Some career paths and industries have a low barrier to entry and are thus more replaceable or prone to layoffs than others. You don’t often see healthcare workers or professors getting laid off. Ideally, you should be financially independent so you don’t have to work for anyone.
- Pay attention to macroeconomic signs. Inflation, interest rates, unemployment rate, and layoffs from other companies within the industry. Spend some time every day and read the news, especially politics and economics. Get a basic understanding of how the economy works and some of the key indicators. You should also follow a few forums that are relevant to your industry. This ensures that you have up-to-date information about the state of your industry from ground reports. For instance, Reddit and Blind are decent sources for tech, and WallSteetOasis if you’re in finance. Be sure to filter out the junk.
- Pay attention to microeconomic signs within your company. What goes up must come down. Before the bust, there is always a boom. Start paying attention if you see a lot of boasting and overconfidence from the company leadership. It could come in forms such as aggressive marketing, hiring, and growth projections, unreasonable investments (e.g. making Superbowl ads, doubling down on a certain product like Facebook on the Metaverse), and rapid unsustainable stock growth. Put it in the context of the macroeconomic environment. Many tech companies overhired and overextended in late 2021 and early 2022 before the current layoffs, in part due to low-interest rates and rapid stock growth.
- Don’t talk too much. Don’t give out too much information about yourself, especially your personal life. It can be used against you in performance reviews or deciding who to fire first. Do not give the impression that you have a lot of distractions from work, or not placing your work as a top priority. It’s no wonder why many tech “influencers” who flaunt how little they work or how vibrant their non-professional life is through those day-of-the-life videos are the ones who get booted first. However, I don’t mean you should be a workaholic. Work-life balance is still important, but you don’t have to show your personal life to everyone, especially to your bosses and colleagues.
- Build good work relationships. There’s a lot of politics in deciding who gets cut and who stays. If you’re able to maintain positive relationships at work and demonstrate your importance to the company, chances are, you’ll be less likely to be laid off when the decision comes. It’s not just about being a high performer in your role. Be visible and personable. Be a good team player and be easy to work with. Don’t be cutthroat or overly competitive. Make your colleagues and bosses have a good time by organizing socials and team events. Be nice and help them out if you can. Also, demonstrate your willingness to learn and improve.
Before the layoffs
- Pay attention to the signs. Usually, layoffs are near when the company's stock prices and revenues drop significantly, or when the company becomes unprofitable. You should look at your company’s financial statistics and listen carefully to the earnings call each quarter. Start paying extra attention if similar companies in your industry start doing layoffs, as companies like to copy each other. A lot of times, the company will first perform soft layoffs (e.g. hiring freezes, harsher performance reviews, and performance-based firings, i.e., PIP), or implement policies that drive employees to quit voluntarily (e.g. returning to office, cutting perks and benefits). Finally, there will usually be lots of chatter and a sense of urgency within the company, especially when you look into anonymous forums like Blind. You may see the management spending a lot more time in meetings as well.
- Cut expenses, pay down debt, and save up an emergency fund. Ideally, you should always be financially disciplined and live below your means, as well as keeping a minimum 6-month emergency fund. When you sense something is coming, keep more cash or liquid assets on hand, cut down further on unnecessary expenses, and minimize your debt. Consider moving back in with your family if needed.
- Have a plan. Once you are sure layoffs are imminent, do what you need to do (update your résumé and LinkedIn, networking, etc.) and start looking for other roles immediately. It might not be a good job market when most companies are doing layoffs, so be ready to take a pay cut or be demoted/down-leveled. If you’re on a work visa, be prepared to leave the country at a moment’s notice. Furthermore, you should start thinking about alternative career options. Be ready to change careers in the worst-case scenarios. In recessions, some industries will collapse permanently and never return to where it was. Start thinking about upgrading your skills or learning new skills if your industry is already on the decline.
- Don’t leave on voluntary terms. Unless you have a better reason, once you are sure there will be layoffs, don’t just voluntarily quit your job. You’ll just be the sacrificial lamb and you won’t be paid for it (although in rare cases you can volunteer to be laid off with severance). It’s better to just sit and wait for the severance package. If you have another job lined up already, consider becoming over-employed and wait it out until the crisis ends (though I do not recommend doing this for more than a few months).
After the layoffs
- Take a break and reset. Being laid off is a traumatic experience. Take some time off and process it before rethinking your priorities. Spend lots of time with your family (a lot of divorces happen when one partner loses their job). Go travel or pursue some hobbies. This way you are fresh and can be more focused on the next goal.
- Self-improvement. Create order from chaos. You should stay focused on your goals and stay disciplined. It’s easy to lose focus in challenging times. Many people simply panic and start making poor decisions. Calm yourself down, set out your next goals, develop a routine, and start working towards these goals. Start learning new things and put yourself in a better position so that you will be less affected by layoffs next time.
- Be self-sufficient and financially independent. Ultimately, I believe trading your time for money is overrated. You have little control when you’re working for someone else. There are tons of guides out there on how to achieve financial freedom. It’s doable for everyone if you’re willing to put in the work. Freedom comes at a price but it’ll feel good once you don’t have to constantly worry about being laid off by your employer or making a good impression to your bosses.
- Do some good for the world. I see a lot of doom and gloom in online forums recently with the tech layoffs. As an engineer, you are privileged compared to most people in the world. Even if you think you’re in a tough spot right now, there are many who are less fortunate than you are. Most of you still have a roof over your head and don’t have to worry about your next meal or constantly worry about death. Do some volunteering, donate to charity, or start your own initiative. The world needs some kindness in these changing times.
I left one of my jobs last year due to some of the aforementioned signs of layoffs which I recognized, and that company did end up conducting mass layoffs a couple of months later. I am in a better company and role now in a more recession-proof industry and hoping to ride out this recession unscraped.
If you’re still in school and are about to graduate into this mess, start job hunting now (don’t wait until after your graduation) and plan out the various scenarios. Having A job is better than no job, and think about finding roles that build transferrable skills rather than trying to compete for something within your industry if it’s severely affected by layoffs and hiring freezes.
Do not blindly go back to school, sign up for graduate studies, or delay your graduation just to “ride out the recession”. You end up taking on more debt, and there is no guarantee that the job market will recover by the time you finish school. Universities also get more competitive during recessions as jobless people try to rush in. Only go to school if you have a clear goal in mind.
As a recent grad, this is my first true recession (as I was too young back in 2008 to feel the effects). It’s a guideline I wrote to remind myself but hopefully, this helps you as well, whether you’re early in your career or more established.