Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Layoffs are Coming

It’s looking increasingly likely that the COVID-19 pandemic will cause a recession. I’m neither an epidemiologist nor an economist, but I have worked in the tech industry through two recessions, and I can say with some certainty: layoffs are coming.

It’s easy to think we might be immune from the effects of a global recession, but my experience is that tech companies are quick to cut staff, especially engineers, in the face of declining markets. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am. Either way, it’s not going to hurt to prepare. 

Who’s likely to get laid off?

This bit is for anyone who’s never been through a round of layoffs — they’re wild, and fairly unlike any sort of business-as-usual. This is going to seem very cold, but it’s important to be highly aware of who’s likely to get laid off, and how this works in practice. Layoffs are highly political: your organization will probably get a specific target — a specific number of people — that comes as a mandate with very little if any flexibility. Lots of horse-trading ensues. Because this is so political, layoffs don’t track very closely to objective business needs. 

Instead, people are more likely to get laid off if:

  • They’re significantly more junior. Juniors are more likely to get laid off because they haven’t had the time to build the relationships and connections they need to be immune, and because their jobs tend to be perceived as less important. 
  • They’re significantly more senior. Senior employees are paid more, often significantly more. This a budget exercise, at core, and management will be considering the “ROI” on a layoff. If they can cut two senior engineers instead of 3-4 mid-careers, they may do so. This is particularly the case for anyone close to retirement: forcing early retirement is a classic layoff move.
  • They have a poor relationship with their boss, or their boss has a bad relationship with her boss, and so on up the chain. Your boss will end up in a room with her peers and their boss, and everyone will fight for their people. If your boss is weak politically, or he doesn’t care to fight for you, you’re in trouble.
  • They’ve gotten poor performance reviews recently. Performance reviews are usually fairly pro-forma, but they become critically important in a time of layoffs. Anyone who’s gotten a “below expectations” in the last year or so is likely to be first on the chopping block.

How to prepare for a layoff

Given the economic uncertainty, I’d argue that everyone should take the following steps to prepare for a layoff. But this is especially important for anyone who sees themselves in any of the above points.

Get your finances in order

If you are laid off, you’re going to need savings. Common advice is to have 6 months of living expenses in liquid assets (e.g. a savings account, cash). If this hits tech as hard as the .com bust — and I’m thinking it could — a year might be a better target. 

Hopefully this is something you’ve already got squared away. Savings aren’t something you can create quickly. But you do have some time; layoffs probably won’t start for a month or more. If your savings are thin, do whatever you can in the coming weeks and months to bulk them up.

Update your resume

When layoffs happen, they hit quick. You probably won’t see it coming. You don’t want to be trying to get your resume in order while negotiating severance and figuring out COBRA! So in the next couple of weeks, get your resume all updated and ready to send at a moment’s notice. Put a recurring reminder in your calendar/todo app so you remember to do this regularly (quarterly, perhaps.)

If you need good advice on writing a strong resume, I recommend spending some quality time over at Ask a Manager

If we know each other a little bit, I’d be happy to glance at your resume and give you some feedback. Get in touch!

Prepare for interviews

Interviewing is a skill: you can get better by practicing. Interview practices do vary widely, but there are usually some commonalities. For example, you’ll probably be asked about projects you’ve delivered, about your strengths and weaknesses, about how you resolve conflict with colleagues, and so on. Take some time to think through questions you might be asked and prepare notes. Better yet, find a friend who can ask you some questions and give you feedback on your responses.

For some sample questions, a good resource is 18F’s Engineering Hiring guide (bias alert: I wrote the first draft of this a couple years ago), particularly the technical interview and core values questions.

Refresh your professional network

If and when you need a new job, your professional network can be a huge asset. This’ll be especially true if layoffs are widespread, as you’ll be competing with tons of other out-of-work people. A personal connection, a strong reference, can make a huge difference.

So take some time to think through your professional network with an eye towards who could be helpful to you in a job hunt. Think about people who could be allies; folks you’ve worked with in the past who’ve seen your work and results, and could be called upon to give you a hand if needed.I’d recommend developing (and keeping updated) a little database including: 

  • Former managers (and higher-ups). These are of course great references, and also you may have had former bosses who you’d want to work for again. (In fact, my current job came about in precisely this way: a former grandboss was hiring, so it was an easy call for me.)
  • People who’ve been professional sponsors (e.g. supported you for a promotion, given you wider job responsibility, etc). These are particularly important. They dd those things because they believe in you, and will probably go to bat for you again.
  • Peers who you’ve worked closely with and can speak to your work. Particularly those who work places that you’d like to work. A personal recommendation can cut through several layers of HR screening.
  • People who you think are just terrific and want to work for. We’ve all probably worked with folks who we’d love to work under some day. If you’re out of job, why not tell them you want to work for them and see what happens?

Don’t worry if you haven’t talked to folks in a while; anyone reasonable should be happy to help if you reach out, even if it’s been a while. 

Consider your technical skills, and brush up if you can

I’ve left this for last, because it’s probably the least important. You’re unlikely to materially change your technical profile between now and a potential layoff. And, a few months of online classes on some new tech probably won’t move the needle much if and when you need to look. 

But, it is worth thinking about your technical skills and how they might play during a downturn. The skills that will be the most resilient to a downturn are going be the older, more conservative technical choices. Larger companies will be more resilient, and will tend to use older technology. And, in a downturn, companies will prioritize keeping existing things running over new development. 

To put a fine point on it: if we hit a downturn, Java’s going to get you a job far faster than Rust. If you’ve got some of those more old-school technologies — Java, C/C++, .NET, etc. — in your background, but haven’t touched them in a while, it could be worth your while to brush back up.

Further resources

Good luck in the weeks and months ahead. I’m afraid they’re going to be fairly rough. But hang in there; you can do this!

If you found the above useful, here are a few more resources you may want to check out: