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Burned by layoffs, tech workers rethink risk • businessroundups.org

by Ana Lopez
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Tech isn’t that collegial Like it was. Rocketships are revealed as spluttering junk, mission-driven startups don’t feel quite as mission-focused when they respond to investor pressure, and widespread layoffs are loud reminders that jobs are fragile contracts, not sacred vows.

In recent months, thousands of employees from Meta, Twitter, Stripe, Amazon, DoorDash and countless other companies who don’t have the privilege of being household names have returned to the job market. A job market of hiring freezes, pay cuts and a general malaise that industry experts are warning of will not be over this year.

So where does tech’s talent go from here?

The answer is complicated and it is too early to have definitive employment data. VCs are more likely to want to fund the latest tech mafia startups banks dotop MBA programs want laid-off employees to join so much so that they waive standardized test score requirementsand the technology companies that can hire really want you to know.

businessroundups.org spoke to laid-off employees about how they will approach their careers differently in 2023. Pseudonyms have been used in cases where names have been included to protect current and future employment prospects, at the request of the individuals quoted. The common thread running through all the answers involves a reframing of how “safe” it is to work in tech, and, perhaps more importantly, what it takes to bounce back into the industry after being burned.

‘I’m taking back my control’

Aaliyah was fired from her engineering job in the spring. Just a month earlier, she had a positive review with her boss and was promised a raise with more stock options.

The dismissal came as a surprise. And unlike some of her colleagues, who put their names in spreadsheets and went back to looking for a job, it took Aaliyah a few weeks to think. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in tech, I wasn’t sure I wanted to work for anyone,” she said.

“I had to make a decision about how I wanted my daily life to look financially; am I going to hurry or do I just want to take what is thrown into my lap?” she said on the phone. “After a few weeks, I felt like I was ready to take back more control instead of letting people influence me in some way.”

Currently, Aaliyah has two full-time tech jobs – neither company knows about it – and she also runs a consulting business. While many people work multiple jobs to make ends meet, the possibility of having multiple full-time jobs in technology has been increased by remote work and layoffs. In fact, there are more than 39,000 people in the “Overworked” Discord community, which describes itself “as a community of professionals looking to work two remote jobs, earn extra income and achieve financial freedom. Be free from office politics and layoffs.”

“Never again will I put myself in a position where I depend on one revenue stream from one company doing or not doing what is in my best interest,” Aaliyah said. “They’re going to do what they want, and I’m going to do what’s mine.”

It’s also a shield against the bias she says she faces as a black woman in technology.

“As a black woman, sometimes I feel belittled by being overlooked and not feeling like anyone thinks I can do more,” she said. “So you may not have thought I was capable of much more, but I really do — and you don’t know what’s in my bank account.”

Some see overtime as their next step, while others are still considering how their job title will evolve in this new environment.

The twofold second rent

Sam has noticed a strange pattern in his work. He has been the second financial hire, twice, by two venture-backed startups. And he has been fired by both companies in the past year.

“It was strange because I chose accounting and finance as my major when I was in college 15 years ago because I was told it was the backbone of business, that they needed it for a business to function,” he said. Sam. Turning to mentors in the space, he says that “their first reaction is that finance is typically not a job that is impacted by these layoffs.” While the tech says “accounting is an afterthought in tech,” the reality is a bit more complicated.

While it seems like every other chief executive attributes “the need for more discipline” as a reason for implementing company-wide layoffs, even a strong financial catwalk isn’t enough to keep people employed. In Sam’s case, he was first let go by a Series B software-as-a-service product after a funding round fell through, so he began looking for new jobs that promised greater financial stability. He eventually began interviewing with a number of companies and finally settled on an ed-tech marketplace that had promised they had a large cash position after a recent fundraiser. When that company fired him, he realized that good books are not enough to justify job retention.

These days, Sam is doing part-time work, which he set up when he heard rumors of the second round of layoffs, and is applying for full-time gigs. There is a clash between what he wants, which is a stable, reliable job, and what he naturally cares about as someone who has spent time working in shoddy startups on small teams.

“It’s kind of a dilemma I’m in right now where I go through every process with a company that’s much healthier on their bottom line, they have a 401(K) match…. if an offer ever comes [those] companies, can I bring myself enough to be interested? It’s hard to know what you care about.”

He is still frustrated about losing his job at the edtech company.

‘They’re building an edtech marketplace here. And here I am, with all the experience and skills and knowledge to help the company do that and I won’t be able to sustain that,” he said. “I felt like it was their missed opportunity. That is what I still like to struggle with.”

‘Not everyone walks away with a year’s worth of catwalk in their pocket’

Not long before Mary was fired from an HR technology company, she received an award in recognition of her contributions to the team. The trophy was still engraved with her name when she received a call a few weeks later that her job had been terminated due to the macroeconomic climate.

Worse, it was the second time this company had fired her. The first time, Mary recalls, was in March 2020 when “the world fell apart.”

“It didn’t feel like corporate irresponsibility or anything, it was just like everything was on fire and we’re so sorry,” she said. “And a few months later they called me back and said things aren’t as bad as we thought.” Because the job market was tough – and she didn’t feel any bad management issues – she rejoined, got a small raise, her net worth was restored, and so the job continued for the next two years, until she was fired again this summer.

Mary started looking for a job again, this time landing at an early-stage venture-backed start-up. Then, a few weeks into the job, she was fired. This time it stung even more – because it was the first job where she earned a six-figure salary since she joined the tech world years ago.

“I had just broken six figures and I only had that for five weeks,” said Mary. “I was really excited to max out my 401(k) and now I think I should have kept that extra 2 grand in cash.” At this point, she has five weeks’ pay, one month of Cobra health insurance, and plans to enroll in Medicare.

“Not everyone walks away with a year-long runway in their pocket,” said Mary. “When people had really high salaries and enjoyed really high salaries for most of their careers, they assume that other people have personal savings to protect against this[…] but life is really expensive.”

Despite being burned, Mary doesn’t leave the tech world because she is inspired by “the incredibly smart, talented, capable people who are just trying to build something.” Next year, she plans to turn to her network for job-hunting help, adding that no one is looking at cold applications while Stripe and Twitter talent are laid off.

She intends to be direct. “The question is how profitable is enough?” she said at one point during the interview. “When is it enough to support your workforce – what math is going on here?”

But she is also aware that what happened to her in the last 12 months may eventually happen again.

“You can ask the right questions, you can do all the research, you can ask questions about burnout and runway and all these things — and even if they say the right things, if something changes in the market, there’s just very little power.” that you have as an individual,” she said. “Except to, you know, save as much as possible for a rainy day.”

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