8 Hard Truths I learned when I got laid off from my SWE job
I got laid off from a software engineering job in April of 2020.
I haven’t talked about this publicly for a variety of reasons, including Hard Truth #6 (Honesty Can Only Hurt You). And everything worked out for me in the end.1 So why even bother publishing a post about my experience, and why now? I got laid off in April 2020 when all the talking heads were saying a recession was inevitable. Sound familiar?
I am certainly not writing this post to give advice. I want to make that clear upfront, lest some unwitting soul stumbles upon this dark corner of the internet and subsequently pins their hopes of fame and fortune upon my twig-like shoulders.
That being said, getting laid off is a profoundly lonely experience (Hard Truth #1). You will face platitudes weaker than the industrial toilet paper your startup switched to as they tried to rein in costs. The one thing I craved more than anything after getting laid off, even more than another job, was for someone to stand up and speak plainly, honestly, and frankly. That is my goal for this piece. So without further ado, I present to you 8 hard truths I learned when I got laid off from my SWE job.
Hard Truth #1: Getting laid off is a profoundly lonely experience.
I was surprised about how lonely I was after getting laid off.
During a layoff, everything from corporate comms to former co-workers’ posts on social media is wrapped up in the language of support. Yet, I found this support extended only to the mechanics of getting laid off: navigating COBRA, getting referrals, etc. Left unaddressed was the (surprisingly) emotional dimension of layoffs. While software engineers share a variety of shibboleths, from the importance of choosing an editor to the inanity of a whiteboard coding interview, the experience of getting laid off is not one of them. They don’t teach us how to handle this scenario at school. It doesn’t get brought up at cocktail parties. It’s one of the few career events that software engineers won’t brag about on LinkedIn. Ultimately, failing to find others that could empathize with my situation, I was left to navigate the feelings of rejection, failure, fear, etc. on my own.
Don’t discount the physical aspect of loneliness either. If you’re like me, work is the primary shaper of your life. Work gives your life rhythm. It is the gravitational center around which the other activities in your life revolve. Then, one day, poof—it’s gone. The daily interactions you have with your coworkers, however asinine, go with it. I found it difficult to fill this unexpected void in my life with positive activities and interpersonal interactions, especially during COVID. I had to build a new routine (and by extension, a community) to keep myself busy while everyone else was at work. This human connection, however informal, allowed me to recharge my emotional batteries drained by the interview gauntlet.
Hard Truth #2: It’s gonna take longer than you think
It is easy for software engineers to dismiss the long-term consequences of getting laid off since the general consensus is that software engineers, especially ones with solid pedigrees, are always in demand. They read articles with titles that read “Skilled tech workers snapped up despite downturn” and think that the ensuing job hunt won’t be much different than the ones that came before. They see founders on LinkedIn crowing about how they are still hiring. They may be tempted to seek comfort in the fact that they’re easily scoring interviews and are even proceeding to the final rounds. I know I did.
If you had asked me right after I got laid off how long it would take me to get back to work, I would have said three months – including two months of vacation. It took me a year.
This disconnect caused me a fair amount of pain on both the interview front (I wasn’t as aggressive in pursuing opportunities as I should have been) and in my personal life (I didn’t have enough savings and was broke). Out of all the hard lessons I learned, this was the easiest to avoid. If I had just applied that old engineering adage—take your worst-case estimate, then double it—I would have been signifcantly less stressed. Don’t be like me.
Hard Truth #3: Interview invites are a poor proxy for your desirability
Just because you’re getting a lot of offers to interview does not mean that you are a hot commodity. Nor does it indicate a high likelihood of obtaining an offer. There are a few rational reasons why it makes sense for companies to interview large numbers of candidates even if they have no real plans on extending an offer:
- The “diamond-in-the-rough” strategy—Companies will continue to run their interview processes, but the internal bar for extending offers has risen dramatically. Offers will only go out to “senior” candidates, junior candidates who excelled in the interview process, or to candidates whose bona fides can be verified through unofficial channels.
- The “ice box” trap—Companies do not have headcount for engineers now but want to have a bench of pre-vetted engineers that they can immediately extend offers to when the macro environment changes.
- The “I’m next if I don’t do my job” facade—The recruiting org is just as vulnerable, if not more so, than R&D in a downturn. That interview you landed at your dream company may just be an artifact of a desperate technical recruiter’s attempts to demonstrate that they are still providing value to their organization.
- The “our way or the highway” strategy—Companies may be looking to reset expectations around compensation and working conditions. Offers are extended, but with extremely unpalatable terms compared to prior jobs. For unsavvy candidates, this won’t become apparent until late in the interview process.
Always be putting new opportunities into your pipeline, no matter how well you think you did on that final round interview.
Hard Truth #4: You are going to have to do things that you don’t want to do
Look, everyone here on the Internet feels bad for you. We all agree the interview process is broken. We know. Yes, it’s dumb you have to spend 8 unpaid hours on a take home project. We get it. That being said, it’s an employer’s market out there right now.
You’re going to have to grind Leetcode. Yes, even the dynamic programming problems.
You might need to commute to the office again. Perhaps every day!
You may have to take a job at a “less prestigious” company.
You might have to pay for coffee at the office. And it may even be drip!
You’re probably going to have to fake enthusiasm for the AI-enabled TikTok outfit generator you will be working on. No, it’s not going to make the world a better place. Yes, it might even make the world a worse place.
But you will be employed.
The sooner you accept that you will have to do the interviewing equivalent of eating your vegetables, the less you will immolate yourself and, by extension, the opportunity in front of you by dying on some absurd hill. Suck it up and play the game. Sounds obvious? If so, I will politely refer you back to the title of this post.
Hard Truth #5: Most offers for help are reflexive responses
I suspect the phrase “let me know if I can help!” has become a reflexive response to hearing bad news, especially within Silicon Valley startup culture. In your case, this is just a polite way of saying “let me know if I can refer you to my employer.” Nothing more.
That being said, there’s nothing wrong with making a strong, specific ask to folks who offer assistance. Just be sure to set your expectations properly (i.e. at zero). Examples of concrete asks that I found helpful in my search:
- “Can you send me five companies you would work for right now? Could you include some thoughts on why you think they’re so interesting?”
- “Do you need a surge in engineering capacity to get that big project out the door? If so, could I come on as a contractor?”
- “My goal is to push one feature to my open-source project a week. Can you call me every two weeks to check in and hold me accountable?”
- “I know you’re really into machine learning. Could you buy me your favorite book on the subject if I promise you I’ll read it cover to cover?”
- “I am interviewing at $YC_STARTUP and am really excited about it. Do you mind backchanneling with the founder/lead investor on my behalf?”
These are big asks for busy people! They may not say yes. But that’s okay! You asked (politely I’m sure) and that’s all you can do. On to the next one.
Hard Truth #6: Honesty can only hurt you
Don’t lie. But don’t tell the whole truth either.
Come up with a more, uh, positive reason for why you’re interviewing instead of disclosing that you were laid off. Do not disclose the current status of your interviewing process. Don’t badmouth your former co-workers, even if they really are to blame for your present situation. Scrub your public social media profiles of anything that can be considered, even remotely, as controversial.
Here’s an example of how radical honesty backfired for yours truly. I am a big believer in transparency: I respect people who try to shatter the “everything’s flawless” facade that social media bombards us with. Whether that’s discussing their struggles as a startup founder, opening up about past trauma, or posting an unpopular, yet well-reasoned, political opinion: it takes guts to put a side of ourselves that we have long kept hidden into the world. After nine fruitless months on the interview circuit, I was fed up with failure. Every day, I would see founders post “We’re hiring!” on LinkedIn as I received yet another rejection. As a way of venting my frustrations (or perhaps to garner sympathy, I don’t know), I posted my interview tracker spreadsheet on Twitter under the guise of “being transparent.”
The very next day, I was on a phone screen with a recruiter when they said “Yeah, I looked at the interview spreadsheet you posted on Twitter and just based on that I can tell you’re not going to be a good fit here. I just took this call as a favor to <redacted> since they referred you.”
Call me naïve, but I never would have imagined that post being interpreted in such a manner when I posted it. Only in retrospect did I understand the connotations that post broadcast to potential employers.
Hard Truth #7: You probably should turn down that job offer
There’s no better feeling than finally securing that first job offer after several weeks (or in my case, months) of effort. With one click, you can make it all the stress go away and return to the sweet embrace of a life full of $6 lattes, $20 cocktails, and functional health insurance.
Wait. Take a breath. Remember that a new job represents a new opportunity—but that comes at a cost.
People want different things out of a job. Some crave meaning. Some want to make as much money as possible. Some seek internal mobility so they can make a lateral move as a PM or designer. Whatever you’re looking for, the reality is that some (most?) jobs aren’t set up in a way that will allow you to pursue your goals.
Sure, you can always quit a job that’s not a good fit. But it can take awhile to really discern culture fit with any degree of confidence. I always allocate a year: six months to get up to speed on the internal culture, tools, and processes; another six months to get your first performance review as a “ramped-up” engineer. Only then can you begin to understand the true trajectory of the company (from both a business and product perspective) and your place in that story.
A year is a really long time! Remember Clubhouse? They went from the hottest startup in the Valley to an afterthought in a year. A lot of startups IPO’d, grew their stock price 5x, then saw their stock price crash to 10% of all-time highs in that time frame. In a year, friends and former coworkers are going to start companies, raise rounds, and find PMF during that time. A role at your dream company, or within your dream niche will open up. And you’ll be sitting there, at a job you don’t like but gives you the stability you crave, with The Clash running through your head.
It’s okay to make mistakes. Very few of us are going to bat 1.000 during our careers, especially with the industry reshaping itself under our feet. But really interrogate whether or not the offer before you will help you accomplish your personal goals. And ensure you’re taking the entire role into account: the current trajectory of the company, the health of the market segment it is in, your compatibility with your future day-to-day responsibilities, your rapport with your future manager, etc.
And finally, Hard Truth #8: You’ll learn more from getting laid off than you did at your job
“When faced with two choices, flip a coin. When it’s in the air, you’ll know which side you’re hoping for.” —Former gangster Arnold “The Brain” Rothstien
After I got laid off, my primary emotion was one of relief. This was unexpected. I was in a pretty tight spot: COVID was in full swing and I no longer had insurance, the stock market was cratering and I had little cash on hand, I was living abroad but countries were going into lockdown. Why would I feel relief, of all things? Because I knew I didn’t like my job but I didn’t have the courage to quit once COVID hit. They did me the favor of pushing me off the ledge.
I learned a lot of things about myself through the layoff experience. There are two unique dynamics to layoffs that result in these epiphanies. The instantaneous switch from “buried by work” to “I can’t do work on those things even if I wanted to” allows folks to analyze their day-to-day work in a clinical manner. It leads to subconscious reactions like, “I really wish I was able to launch that product, it would have changed the entire market” or “I guess this means I don’t have to do performance evaluations now, thank goodness”. For me, these insights occur regularly; they are just drowned out by the constant drumbeat of work.
Similarly, being unexpectedly laid off provides folks with the time and space to truly unwind and think more deeply. For once, your thoughts are entirely your own. Contrast this with the normal job-switching process. You spend your last month at your prior employer handing off work. Maybe you take a month of vacation, but with the next role looming large on your mind.
I didn’t know it at the time but I really needed several months to process what I had accomplished, and where I had failed, during my early twenties. The insights I gained during this period of reflection directly motivated my current pursuits. And apparently, it worked: I’ve never been more content, nor more productive, than I am now.
And what better note to end on? If you were recently laid off, don’t hesitate to drop me a note. I can’t promise I can help but I know how cathartic it is to vent and I’m happy to lend an ear.
It is a pretty wild story, even by Steven Buccini standards. Maybe I’ll even write about it someday. ↩