Being Laid Off

Yesterday’s PHD Comics got me reminiscing about all the emotions that I’ve had when I’ve been laid off. For my age (thirty-two), I’ve probably been laid off an unusual number of times (three: twice during the dot-com mess and once for the housing mess). However, it’s also possible that this decade has been unusually cruel to the employed. I’m told that it wasn’t for anything lacking on my part either. By all accounts, I was at least a competent engineer if not an excellent one. But recessions happen, so shit happens to average people. Despite this fact, there are an unfortunate number of people, especially engineers, who internalize these events. When you can put it in perspective, though, it makes it much easier to get on with your life and move to the next step.

My first layoff was a mixed bag of emotions for me. After a few years of working as an engineer, and being good at what I did, I started to think of myself as one. That is, I tied my identity to it. When I was laid off, I thought that I was ok. I got a job as a tech writer, then as a tester, neither of which I liked. My old company hired me back, and I was happy for a while. I was an engineer again. Then the other shoe dropped and I was finally laid off a second time when they shut down the site.

This made me pretty bitter about my life and about being an engineer. I didn’t feel like I had purpose anymore, that what I did was a waste, and that I should avoid software altogether. I had a couple jobs as a bartender, and I was thinking about going to grad school in philosophy (which I’m happy I didn’t do). My marriage went through a rough patch as well, which only created a nasty feedback loop. After a couple difficult events, I wound up as a software engineer again, because I realized that I was still good at it.

This company was probably better than the last (though the first was still good). I had a good time there, the people were nice, the culture was laid back, and I got to work on some pretty cool projects. But as we all know, the mortgage bubble burst. I was certain that we were safe, but I was wrong. I had good reviews of my work, and I was asked to do some important projects, so I thought that even in the outside chance that we did have layoffs, I’d be passed over. I was wrong. But I knew better this time. I shook my managers’ hands and let them know to call me if they needed my assistance. Then I got about arranging my affairs. Then I got accepted into the grad school I’m in now, so I’ll be doing that.

If I had any advice to new grads going out into industry, I’d probably exhort them to think about things a little differently:

  1. Think of a software job as a good way to pay the bills.
  2. Think of your work as currency that you’re using to buy income.
  3. The good news: doing something that you enjoy doing will let you be enthusiastic about your work, which means that you have a greater chance of your currency (your work) being worth more (money and benefits).
  4. But: nothing falls in your lap. You’ve got to sell it to get it. If you think that you’re entitled to compensation, you may well be correct. But you’re not going to get that compensation without showing that you’re worth more than the guy who does half the work.
  5. Remember that your company has no loyalty to you; their legal obligation is to their investors, and when your paycheck becomes a problem, they solve it by laying you off. This is the way of industry.
  6. Sometimes you have to do stuff you don’t like to pay the bills. In fact, that’s the majority of any job. If there is no percentage of it you like, it’s probably time to move on.
  7. Just because what you did wasn’t worth something to someone, doesn’t mean that you can’t take pride in it.
  8. You’re not a software engineer. Software development is something that you do (maybe you do it well, or you like it, or both) to get income.

This may all sound very cynical, but I believe it all to be true. The sooner that you can accept it, the easier time you’ll have coping with it when you encounter it. Then you’ll recover faster, which means you’ll be on to your next job faster. Then you’ll have income again. Or you’ll decide to do something completely different. The trick is not to languish in an identity crisis.


3 responses to “Being Laid Off

  1. Jon,

    I cannot agree more with you! I am in a similar boat as you are. I have been working in the software industry for about 5 years now and though I have not been laid off even once, I have changed jobs twice because both times I reached a point where I felt I was getting nowhere.

    In my first company, working with people around became difficult after a while – too many people did nothing but pass on advice and comments. Also I got tremendously bored with the slow moving projects.

    In the second, somewhat similar – but on top of that, I did not like the work, since nobody seemed to care. I felt I was not learning anything and people did not give me enough respect that I deserved for my skill set [and neither an opportunity to prove myself].

    Both of my first two jobs were in LARGE companies – 20K+ people. The third one I landed up in a startup – employee #1. I enjoyed the first few months. But it slowly became a pain. The reasons

    a) Lot of maintenance work has come up. I can hardly keep up with the aggressive deadline while managing all the work I did before [with enhancements/bug fixes etc].

    b) Even though I think I have made several good suggestions and proven my ability, I do not think I am heard as much as I should be. My suggestions seem to be overridden by suggestions from the founders – this is even without a serious evaluation of the conflicting ideas.

    c) I do not have a Phd. We have hired Phds and they seem to be getting projects which are more prestigious. Since I am very interested in a Phd myself, and because it seems to carry so much weight I decided I should do it. That said, I am reasonably sure I do not need a Phd to work in the software industry – I am reasonably good with coding and algorithms. I can pick up things fast and I can write code that scales well. I have very good understanding of systems issues. But I cannot be counted among the Phds as I do not have a Phd or 12 years of experience [either one of them would qualify].

    d) I am getting sick of founder egos, too much work.

    e) In order to deliver too fast, I am missing out on learning new things [unless I work 20 hours a day]. If I had sightly relaxed schedule I could learn much more – maybe contribute to open source too.

    I agree that companies have no loyalty to their employees. Despite my being employee #1, and joining the founders when they were having a hard time convincing people of their ideas I do not see my contribution being valued enough.

    If one loves working in software, I believe one has 3 ways to keep oneself sane

    a) Be an independent contributor to open source software while running a side business to pay bills.

    b) Start your own company – and bring it up yourself [or with at most 2 other people]. Pay your bills with your salary that comes out of funding money :)

    c) Work in a huge huge company and do not care of being a cog in the wheel. Work less – spend more time doing stuff you like [which could be open source or your own idea].

    In my case, it is slightly complicated by the fact that I cannot leave my job – I work in the US and I am an ‘alien’ with a work visa. I can be here only if I am working and if I leave my job I got to leave the US immediately. In my present situation thats a little hard.

    So, I applied, got accepted into grad school and will be joining this fall. I plan to leave soon enough after I get my stake for all the work I put in!!

    I was very happy to read your post and thought I should share my situation with you as well. We are atmost at distance 3 from each other since I know someone who knows Suresh … and I am also going for CS theory. Math has always been my love ….

    • “So, I applied, got accepted into grad school and will be joining this fall. I plan to leave soon enough after I get my stake for all the work I put in!!”

      Congrats on grad school, but be careful getting your “stake.” Do what’s right for you and don’t burn bridges to your old company.

      Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Hey, have you tried freelancing?

    Check this article out about how to get started on software freelancing, you won’t have to worry about getting laid off again!

    Good luck!

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