Some thoughts on now

As of last month, worry about the job market was far from being top of mind. The unemployment rate was near a local minima. The labor market was strong. Overall, economic signals were strong.

At that time, COVID-19 was looming, but seemed to be largely isolated to Asia. Sure, there were trade show cancellations. Cruise ships had become quarantine units for unlucky vacationers, isolated in harbor. It was certainly a news story, but one that had yet to completely swallow all other media coverage. As of February, it still felt like something that would depart as quickly as it had arrived.

Now, a little over six weeks later, and the world is frozen in place. All over the US, there is a quasi-shelter-in-place. The economy has been all but put on pause. $2.2 trillion has been allocated for stimulus use.

The trickle down effects of the COVID-19 response have come quickly and painfully, and I fear that over the next few weeks they will amplify into a deluge. They may have already.

Today, the weekly jobless claim numbers were released. They revealed a staggering new high of 3.3 million, nearly fivefold from the previous record. This is obviously unprecedented, and it highlights just how radical and widespread the economic effect of COVID-19 has been.

In the tech community, this seemingly unstoppable situation that has unfolded has been highlighted throughout Twitter. Over the past 10 days more often than not when I open up my feed, I see a tweet from someone has been let go and is looking for a job. Layoffs seem to be emerging rapidly, and it seems that they might continue for some time. In an industry that seems to have largely been cushioned from economic bumps over the past decade, the appearance of widespread layoffs has offered up some reason for fear. The demand for tech jobs has always been strong, but the escalating number of layoffs has sprinkled some doubt about whether this demand can continue in the short term.

In my relatively short career of ~5 years, I’ve been through the process four or five times. Thankfully, I have yet to be on the unlucky side of the equation; however, I know that chances are I will be eventually at some (or multiple points) in my career.

In my first few years, I naively thought layoffs were an accelerated form of rank and yank. Budgets needed to be cut, so employees were lined up and those below a certain threshold were let go.

But of course, that isn’t the case. At all.

Often, it just seems like a game of chance. A raffle everyone has entered and no one wants to win. Employement decimation. There of course must be some method to the madness, but once the dust is settled everyone who wasn’t in the room is left wanting for an explanation.

Layoffs seem to take everything you thought you knew about the company - the decision makers, the people you work with directly, other parts of the organization largely invisible to you, etc. - and shakes them all up. There are people that you thought would never leave that end up doing just that. Roles shift and both social & professional hierarchies changes. The core beliefs you once held about the company often change. After some time, the fluid structure will crystallize and return to a new normal, but it takes awhile for the new shape to form.

When a company is small enough, it can sometimes feel like a “new” company emerges. A company is an abstraction of individuals working together to achieve a goal. The same can be said of all organizations within the company, from divisions all the way down to teams1. With a company below a certain size (let’s say, 40-50 full-time people), the abstraction is quite leaky. The difference between considering the abstraction and the sum of the parts is minimal. The presence or absence of even a single individual has a large impact on the inner workings of the company.

At a small company, when some of the parts are removed from the sum of the parts, the essence of the company changes. In the short-term, it can be uncomfortable and dispiriting, especially if things had previously been going well. In the long-term, people, projects, and processes will adjust, and the sting of the implicit (or sometimes explicit) reorganization will subside. It will feel like things have changed because of course they have - the collection of individuals has changed, and the abstraction is not tight enough to smooth out the effects.

In a situation like that, the way I’ve felt comfortable proceeding after layoffs is to not pretend like it didn’t happen. To talk about it openly, perhaps at first with small groups of confidants, and then increasingly large segments of the organization. To discuss these changes undisguised in meetings and 1:1s in the following weeks. To acknowledge those that were affected, and to reach out when appropriate (as one might hope ex-coworkers would do to them when the shoe is on the other foot). To be frank and point out the elephant in the room.

While there may be cases of this experience cropping up throughout the tech community and the greater economy, there is also much change outside of the workplace. COVID-19 has ushered in a present that no one expected. There will be a point in the future where “normal” has resumed and fear has dissipated, but in the meantime the world that we knew as of January has been drastically shaken up. Core beliefs about health care, government efficiency, and a myriad of other subjects will be reevaluated. Here’s to hoping that COVID-19 can be quickly combated, and that the ramifications are limited in scope.

  1. To steal a line from An Elegant Puzzle: “An important property of teams is that they abstract the complexities of the individuals that compose them.”