A rude awakening
The Big Tech Layoffs of 2022–2023
Amazon 18,000. Google 12,000. Microsoft 10,000. Meta 11,000. Twitter 6,000. Salesforce, Doordash, Snap, Lyft, Stripe, Redfin, the list continues on and on and on.
I’m usually a pretty positive guy, but this week, I have not been feeling it. My apologies in advance for the negative tone, but it’s hard to feel otherwise at this point of software engineering history. Friday night, I was upset by the way the layoffs were conducted at the large tech companies and I posted some thoughts on LinkedIn. I didn’t expect that post to go viral. Over the course of a week, it reached 2.3 million reads, 23,000 likes, 400 reposts, and suddenly I had 1500 friend requests and 10,000 followers on LinkedIn. I am glad my thoughts touched so many people, but I think I’m a little overwhelmed!
I wanted to share that write up here as well:
I was NOT affected by Friday’s layoffs at Google.
But in 2009, given the subprime mortgage crisis and banks collapsing left and right, Microsoft decided to lay people off for the first time in its history. I was in that first batch of 5k people laid off, along many teammates. I had literally just been promoted months prior, and now I was losing my job.
I still remember the day, 14 years ago almost to the date. I got to work, and my boss had scheduled a meeting in the morning. I didn’t think much of it, but when I walked in the room and there was an HR-person, I knew exactly what was about to happen.
My manager and I had a chat. He was upset, and I was upset, but not at each other, just with the situation. He was an amazing manager, and a good friend, and he even got a little teary-eyed that day. We hugged, and I went and packed up my things, and had a lovely lunch with my co-workers to say goodbye. Even though my job had been eliminated, I had access to the Microsoft corp network for 2 months, and we had special recruiters assigned to help us find internal jobs during that time. I even came to campus several times to have lunch and coffee with dear friends. I had spent 11 years there, so this gave me a chance to say goodbye and get some closure on a very emotional departure.
Oh how far we have fallen from those days.
Finding out that you’ve lost your employment because your corporate email doesn’t work, or your badge doesn’t work, is heartless. It’s cold. It sends a signal that you didn’t matter enough. My heart is broken right now thinking about the peers we lost and how these companies treated them. We are better than this, aren’t we?
To me, that time that Microsoft gave me in 2009, to heal, to see my friends, to say goodbye, to get closure, mattered. To me, that face-to-face conversation I had with my manager and that last final hug, mattered. I was a casualty of a business decision given the macro-economic conditions, but also, I was a human being that had poured his heart and soul into making Microsoft a better place for over a decade, and to their credit, Microsoft at the time treated me like one.
We can, and should, do better. Somewhere along the way we really have lost a crucial element of dignity, empathy and humanity.
The next day, I was pretty shocked to see how that post had taken off
All of a sudden, I had a few more new friends too
And a few who wanted to be closer friends!
Being a data-driven and curious engineer/nerd like I am, I also had fun looking at the demographics…
Now, for more thoughts on the Big Tech Layoffs…
Here’s some additional thoughts that I developed this week.
Note: While I work at Google, my comments are not Google-specific, they apply to all the tech companies that have laid people off in an absolute classless and dehumanizing manner in the last few months.
These companies grossly over-hired
“We hired for a different financial reality” gets thrown around a lot recently. It’s just a platitude. It is frustrating to see how little foresight these executives had when they went on an unchecked hiring spree between 2020 and 2022. They all did, minus Apple, who showed restraint. And guess what, Apple is so far the only one that hasn’t had to lay people off. But, don’t listen to me, listen to the data (the chart is missing Amazon, but it’s the same story there):
No, there will no be consequences to executives
Here’s another platitude: “executives will have their bonuses reduced in 2023.” Why? As you grow in your career in Big Tech, stock surpasses cash in your overall compensation. As a Principal Engineer at Amazon, less than 25% of my compensation was cash, and the rest was stock. You can guess the ratios are even more dramatic for Directors, VPs and SVPs. My blend is a little more balanced at Google, but it’s still a lot more beneficial to my wallet for the stock to go up by a few bucks than it is to get a yearly bonus. Telling your employees that the executives that made the poor over-hiring choices will face consequences by having their bonuses reduced is not only a platitude, it’s condescending. It signals that whoever is telling you this thinks you’re stupid enough to not do simple math.
Now the ugly truth
OK, now that we got those out of the way, here’s the ugly truth. These are for-profit companies. Their objective is literally to make money, despite any platitudes you may see in the company literature about employees being the most important thing, or “Strive to be Earth’s Best Employer.” I get it. After having worked at Google for 3 years, Amazon for 11 years, and Microsoft for 11 years, a significant percentage of my net worth and retirement plans are tied to the ups and downs of GOOG, AMZN and MSFT shares that these companies gave me throughout my career. I am betting on them to succeed and I want their stock to go up. Yeah, ultimately, decisions are driven by business need. So, I think I can understand a company having to lay people off during an economic downtime.
But does it need to be done this way? It wasn’t always done this way.
Your ex-coworkers weren’t criminals
Terminating thousands of employees, is a daunting task with scaling challenges and an interesting set of constraints. Sure, there’s risk of an employee angry after loosing their job doing something stupid. That could range from walking into the office and stealing a bunch of things, to destroying a bunch of things, to physically attacking peers or managers, to maliciously ssh’ing into a production box to bring down a service, to deleting both your database and its backup, to stealing your codebase and leaking your precious trade secrets. So many bad actions here.
But all that damage I just mentioned can be done by a current angry employee, not just one that was terminated. If you’re that scared that your employees can do any of those things, you’ve failed to build security and appropriate blast radius controls in your organization as well as a healthy culture of respect. That’s on you.
Meta did it somewhat humanely: “We made the decision to remove access to most Meta systems for people leaving today given the amount of access to sensitive information. But we’re keeping email addresses active throughout the day so everyone can say farewell.” Google did not.
Maybe I’m naive, but I believe most human beings are good, and if a company treats them with respect and dignity, they’ll return the favor. Simple as that. When I got laid off at Microsoft, I was angry. But because the company had shown me respect, I didn’t just walk in there and steal or destroy a bunch of stuff.
Big Tech has a stringent interview and hiring process, that is supposed to bring in the best engineers to the company. I took a huge amount of pride in being an active participant with 200 interviews at Microsoft, 800 at Amazon and 50 at Google, always holding the bar high. I believe the people that I helped bring into these companies were amazing, and if treated with respect, would have returned the same amount of respect.
If the layoffs were for entire projects, that indicates those same executives that are not facing any consequences made poor decisions as to where to invest billions of dollars. And also, given how hard I and others around me worked to attract, vet and hire that talent, letting it go is a tremendous tragedy: great engineers are hard to find. If the layoffs were for poor performers, it speaks volumes about how inefficient the performance review process was that it didn’t handle the poor performers naturally.
Last, but most important: terminating thousands of people by simply eliminating their email account, corporate access and badge access is dehumanizing. I am deeply disturbed that one afternoon those engineers were our friends, and suddenly in the middle of the night they turned into our most feared potential criminals. I refuse to believe that the best option was for those individuals to awkwardly try to scan their badges that morning after an hour commute in front of their peers, and feel the embarrassment of their badge not working.
There are dark times ahead for our economy. These companies had an opportunity to show the world how to lead with empathy and dignity, and they blew it in the most horrible way. I think it is at times of peril that true leaders rise up.