The Layoff: One Year Later

Exactly a year ago today, I lost my job.

In so many ways, it was a first for me. I started working at this place–a software company–part-time while I was in college. The only other jobs I had in that period involved babysitting computer labs for minimum wage, and doing some consulting work for a CPA. Eventually, I left both of those for the sake of the software company, so I could work more hours there, but I was still considered an intern. The pay was better, and the work was more challenging and interesting.

Eventually, they picked me up full-time and put me on salary. It was a nice pay increase, and I got benefits, too. But, perhaps more important than that, they decided they liked me well enough that they didn’t want me to go anywhere. I enjoyed working there. I made friends. I learned a lot. The company had a strong culture of trust. You could walk to anyone else’s office, no matter where they were in relation to you on the org chart, and talk to them. The company felt like a family. They were understanding when my (then-future) wife was dealing with difficult medical issues that had me taking care of her instead of going to work. In general, they weren’t even that concerned at what times you were in the office, as long as you got your work done. Like I said: trust. They trusted you to do your work and put in the time they required.

One of my favorite stories from working there involves the new employee orientation. Mind you, this was while I was still an intern, and I’d only been there a month or two. Nobody knew who I was at that time. Most of the orientation was your typical “welcome to our company, this is how we do things” sort of presentation. I don’t recall it being very memorable. But for lunch, we went out to a nice hotel restaurant, and I ended up sitting at the table with the man who was the President and CEO of the company, not to mention one of the founders. I’m the sort of person whose instinctive reaction to “suits” is one of suspicion–that they’re putting on an act and would just as happily stab you in the back if it was good for the bottom line. But Wil was different. He spent most of lunch listening rather than talking, learning details about his new employees. We even talked about programming techniques for a while. There was no subject he wouldn’t discuss, and there was a kindness and integrity about him that I’ve seen in very few people over the years, especially those so high up the corporate ladder. Needless to say, he made a strong impression.

After lunch, we headed back to the office. I rode with one of the other Vice Presidents. I realized sometime later that I’d lost my keys somewhere–most likely in that same VP’s back seat. Now, VPs being such busy people, he was booked up in meetings for a while. So, I checked his schedule and went to wait by his office around the time his last meeting was set to end. Meetings being meetings, it apparently went long–he didn’t come to his office, in any case. Along came Wil, who had probably just gotten out of a meeting himself. He remembered my name, asked me if I was looking for someone, and I explained the situation. “Well, let’s go find him!” he said.

And that’s what we did. We went to the meeting where the VP was, who gave us his keys so I could go get my keys. I retrieved them, handed the other keys back to Wil, and thanked him for taking the time out to help me. It certainly wasn’t something I would have asked him to do. But that incident always stuck out in my mind as exemplary of him, someone who would always take the time out to help someone, even if it’s with something trivial.

Time passed, the company grew to over 500 employees, and I got immersed more and more in their development processes and tools. Version control became my specialty, which turns out to be quite a complex and interesting task when you have over a hundred developers to worry about. They all want to code their own way, and they absolutely do not want to be hampered or slowed down. Yet, for an effective version control system, you must require certain steps at certain times, and people have to follow the procedure in order for the process to work. All in all, it was a highly educational experience and I’m confident those skills will serve me well for the rest of my career.

The company, for various reasons, ran into financial trouble. Though every quarterly meeting we were told the company “didn’t make budget,” the blow was softened by the numbers. It looked like cash flow was decent, that the company was turning a profit, even if it wasn’t as big as the owners (a private investment firm) wanted. But things got worse and worse. A fair number of the Vice Presidents and Directors were trimmed, and there were several small layoffs–no more than 20 or so at a time, so none of them seemed dire.

It was determined that what the company lacked was strong leadership. Not that Wil was a poor leader, but that in dividing his time between duties as President and CEO, he more often neglected the CEO part and delegated the day-to-day operations of the company to others. However you’d like to explain it, the point was simple: insufficient executive leadership let the company get pulled into too many directions, and led to declining profits and eventually, losses.

A new CEO was brought in, a man who had a reputation for coming into trouble companies and making them profitable again. I had kind of a weird impression of him, at first. He had a larger-than-life personality, a definite presence that was felt when he walked into a room. He wasn’t the same kind of guy as Wil, that much was certain, but I didn’t know if that was good or bad. You need a different skill set to run a company than you need to hobnob with customers and investors. So, I was willing to give him a chance.

He said he would “transform” the company, and in fact laid out a 90-day timeline for doing just that. Those 90 days would be spent identifying the company’s problems, working out a plan for solving them, and then beginning to enact that plan. Nothing that would take longer than a year would be on the table. The company needed results now, not in 5 years.

Teams were formed to carry out the information gathering. There was some shuffling done at the executive level again. I wasn’t really involved with the transformation, but I kept my ears open to hear what was going on, and it sounded like a lot of issues had been spotted and some new sources of revenue were proposed–many of which were lines of income we had at our disposal, but simply hadn’t exploited yet.

On December 4th, 2008, when the transformation was close to completion, there was a large reduction in force. I was unaware it was even happening, since I was too busy doing my work. Around 11AM, my boss came by and asked if I had a moment. He led me to one of the computer labs near the front of the building–secluded, I realized–and sitting in that room was the VP of the Quality department. I knew this was bad, considering I rarely saw her. I figured out what was happening before she got too far into her explanation. I went numb. I’d been at this company for seven years, and this was how it would end? A little talk, an envelope with a severance agreement in it, and then out the door?

I’d never been let go from a job. The decision to leave had always been mine, and I thought I was valuable enough to this company that they wouldn’t shuffle me out the door. But when it came time to cut costs, how valuable you were to the company didn’t factor into it that much. It was all about how much you cost the company, in terms of salary and benefits. No matter how good your work was, no matter how much time you put in, if they felt you were too heavy on the “expense” side of things, you were gone. They cut people they needed, but they had little other choice. One hundred and twenty-six people lost their jobs that day, out of a company that had around 450 employees at that time.

About a week later, my wife found out she was pregnant. That news didn’t go over so well with me, since I was unemployed and panicked about how we’d survive, much less take care of a new kid. But I buckled down and did what I had to. The company hired an outplacement service, which sounds like they help you find a new job, but it’s more indirect than that. What they actually did was help us build our resumes, polish our interviewing skills, and get lists of potential employers and recruiting agencies. They were a big help, but it was only the first step.

After getting a new resume put together, I signed up with several job sites, hooked up with recruiters, and started applying and interviewing. Several jobs fell through. Some of them, I thought I was perfect for, and even the interviewers seemed impressed, but it was not to be. This was late 2008, early 2009, and employers quite simply could afford to be as picky as they wanted. With so many workers coming back into the market, having lost their jobs, there was a multitude to choose from. There was no sense in picking someone who didn’t have the exact skill set you wanted, and then some!

Nevertheless, I tried to carry on with my job search, knowing that even when I did my absolute best in an interview, factors outside that could cost me the position. I did decide I would be willing to relocate, but that my family would remain in Indiana. I could live very cheaply on my own and still be able to support my family without uprooting them. Hardly an ideal situation, but then those are the choices you’re left with, sometimes.

In late January, I interviewed with a software company in New Jersey. They reminded me in many ways of the company I worked at before, as it might have been ten or fifteen years earlier. Small and agile, with a lot of bright people putting their expertise together. My wife and I flew out so I could interview, and it went very well. Once we got back, though, I didn’t get my hopes up–anything was possible and I didn’t want to get my heart set on any particular job, knowing it could fall through.

The week after we got back, however, I got a phone call from the recruiter that first got me involved with this company. They made an offer, I went over it, and then I accepted. I made arrangements for a place to live, and a couple weeks later I was living in New Jersey. I started work, sunk myself into the company’s atmosphere, and have since made the best of the situation.

I enjoy my new job, though I don’t like being away from my family. I make it back to visit when I can. Given how soft the market remains, I don’t have any plans to return to Indiana in the foreseeable future. This is a good job and I intend to keep it for a while. It does amaze me, though, how different my life is from a year ago. Looking back on it, I’m glad I was let go from my last employer. I’ve had so many new experiences since that happened, I wouldn’t trade them for anything. While my present circumstances are less than ideal, they are a fair sight better than being jobless, or working for a company where the entire culture and philosophy has changed, in my opinion, for the worse.

Having gone through a layoff, RIF, whatever you want to call it, though, I can honestly say I’d never want to experience one again. One per lifetime is enough for me.