Career navigation in the time of tech layoffs

on May 23, 2023

Reorganizations and layoffs are now commonplace in the tech industry: a daily occurrence. It’s increasingly necessary for tech workers mentally prepare for potential job loss and uncertainties that arise. It’s a common antipattern to believe that it’s “too late” to prepare for a layoff or unexpected reorganization if a layoff has already occurred in your organization.

It’s never too late, and it’s always the right time these days to start mentally preparing yourself for change– because there’s reliably another change around the corner.

The reality of tech layoffs

Even tech companies raking in millions or billions in profits for shareholders are cutting costs, laying off workers, and talking about reductions in force. The phrases “economic headwinds” and “I take full responsibility” are both doing a massive amount of work, and these repeated excuses contribute to an environment of uncertainty. The hype cycle over AI and rapid changes in technical capabilities also contribute to erractic executive decisions and tech worker worries. Acknowledging the stress and challenges that come with these situations is helpful for preparing ourselves mentally.

Navigating through layoffs, reorganizations, and technical evolutionary moments requires a resilient mindset. It’s important to acknowledge the potential impact on our careers and emotions. Uncertainty can breed anxiety and fear, but being mentally prepared helps us approach the situation with a sense of control and adaptability.

I remind myself often that change is inevitable, and that sometimes changes that start with a lot of discomfort lead to opportunities. I encourage myself to focus on building my powers of resilience, which I think of as a type of mental ‘muscle’.

Lots of us don’t have a detailed plan for what to do next

I recently ran a poll among my LinkedIn network and asked how folks are approaching this time. With 194 respondents, the results included:

  • 24% of respondents are “hoping for the best,” indicating that they may not have a specific career direction in mind but are optimistic about finding opportunities.
  • 37% of respondents have a general direction they know they want to go in but haven’t yet developed a detailed plan. This group recognizes the need for change but requires further clarity.

More than 50% of us don’t have a basic or detailed plan for what to do if our job is suddenly eliminated.

I don’t think that everyone needs a detailed plan. I do think that there are some steps that we all can take that will make our lives easier, however, especially if we aren’t in a situation where we are ready to form a detailed plan.

I personally am in the “general direction” bucket, because I think I don’t want my next job to have the same job title as I have now – I think for my next job I probably want to do something a bit different from Technical Product Management. I’m not 100% what that looks like, but I will benefit from doing what I can to explore my future interests now, even if at a high level.

Revive or build your network

For many of us, building connections and reviving our professional network helps orient us mentally and can be a first step to improving mental resilience: it helps us feel less isolated.

Consider reconnecting with and seeking support from trusted colleagues, mentors, and your professional networks. Connecting with others who are experiencing similar situations can provide valuable insights and emotional support, helping you navigate through the uncertainty with greater confidence.

If, like me, you are considering of shifting your career direction, this can be a great time to set up informational interviews (which can be done synchronously or through chat or email) with people you respect to ask about roles which you find interesting. You can ask for advice: what makes people excellent in this role? What are the table stakes for getting into this type of role? What would the person advisie someone with your background and skills to do to move into that type of role in the future?

These conversations can not only help inform you and give you a greater sense of direction, but they also build your network and can revive past connections that have faded.

Consider a flexible career plan

Having a general career direction can provide a sense of stability. A flexible career plan allows you to adapt a bit where you are, and can also offer benefits for your current employer.

In a time of rapid change, layoffs, and reorgs, there are often ways to seek opportunities within your current job to develop skills that align with your desired future role. The trick here is that your manager is generally not going to do this for you: this is usually something you need to think of and pitch for yourself. You may need to try multiple times to suggest changes in how you work for it to stick, as well.

Think about areas where you want to grow and how you can leverage available resources, such as training programs or cross-functional projects. Perhaps brainstorm with a colleague how you can do things in a different way that is a benefit to your team and company as well as yourself.

Avoid the trap of overworking

A common antipattern that folks fall into in a time of “economic headwinds” is believing that working excessive hours is the ultimate shield against layoffs. Not only is this untrue in my experience, it’s also bad for your mental resilience.

Workforce reductions often do NOT spare those who work the hardest or the longest hours, for various reasons. Overworking increases your risk of burnout and takes a toll on your health. Focusing on limiting your time working and in building mental resilience and your network will help you more in the long run.