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:
- Think of a software job as a good way to pay the bills.
- Think of your work as currency that you’re using to buy income.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Just because what you did wasn’t worth something to someone, doesn’t mean that you can’t take pride in it.
- 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.