I want to talk a little about the trend that’s arrived in late 2022 and into early 2023 (and possibly but hopefully not beyond) where a large number of developers, DevOps and SRE engineers, and other members of the IT community have been caught up in layoffs.

TL:DR

  1. No matter how much you enjoy working for your current employer, they won’t hesitate to let you go if it’s in their best interest
  2. Be curious; don’t stop exploring the next thing
  3. Focus on core skills; there’s often dozens of tools to all acheive the same goal, understand the concepts and not just the syntax so when you’re chosen tool falls in popularity you’re better prepared for the next one.
  4. Develop more than the basic skills; whether it’s communication (you definitely should work on this!), or contributing to successful project management, or just leaning more about the business, position yourself to do more than the basic description of your job.
  5. Think about plan B’s; if things aren’t looking great, what else?
  6. Give back; whether it’s contributing to another, maybe open source, project, sharing your experiences and knowledge. Stand out by standing for more than just yourself.
  7. Check out my posts on How To Write A Good CV (or Resume) and Top tips for a successful interview for some more ideas on how to stand out from the crowd.

Intro

The headlines ares grabbed by huge numbers from some of the largest names in the industry, but companies of all sizes have been assessing their positions of late and reducing headcount and hiring plans.

Before I get too deep into it I want to highlight a great, short opinion piece from The Primeagen on YouTube.

Side note: if you’re into software development and you’re not already following The Primeagen go do it now… I’ll wait. Seriously, he has some great insights into developing, tools, and the industry in general and has some fun with it along the way.

I could just leave it there, the advice from Prime really does stand out for itself; both in terms of now, but more importantly in terms of how do you build your career forward from here to try and protect yourself from these things in the future.

Obviously a lot of the traits and actions discussed both by Prime and by me below are a little after the fact for those already impacted; but many of the notes do still apply. Try to find the things that make you different, make you standout from the other 10, 20, 100 applicants who on paper look the same as you.

None of this is a critique of anyone who doesn’t engage with any or all of these traits; we all make our choices for our own reasons. These thoughts are just my ideas for trying to make sure we’re not sitting on that lonely branch when someone cuts it away underneath us and to help get back on it again as quickly as possible.

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Be Curious

Straight out the gate, Prime is on point with his advice here. It actually doesn’t matter if we’re talking about JavaScript devs in 2023, factory workers after the Industrial Revolution or whatever industry will be next. The reality of life is as things progress and change what was vital and necessary today is likely to be niche and redundant tomorrow. If we have a desire to continue working (and yes, that’s it’s own discussion for another time) then we must learn to adapt and develop to keep ourselves relevant.

As an example of my own, when I started out in IT what I learnt first was Windows XP and I got myself certified as a Microsoft Certified Desktop Support Technician. Fast forward to now where XP has mostly faded away and client operating systems have got to the point where they self configure and heal better than ever. My skills from then would be little more than a niche for the diehards still clinging to XP. Instead I used it as a springboard to learn the server side with Server 2003, and then core networking such as DHCP, DNS and VPNs; and then scripting to start automating it all, and then on and on until now.

The IT industry is in constant flux, it doesn’t matter whether it’s software development, system administration or networking. Wherever you look trends and tools come and go. I love it, there’s always something new to learn, to explore, to find out how it works and what problems it can solve.

So, be curious! It could be that you already know what you want to learn next, go do it. If not then listen to what’s going on around you, if you’re a frontend dev and there’s a trend towards a new framework, check it out. If you’re a DevOps engineer and there’s a trend to a new CI/CD or IaC tool, explore it. By doing this you might find new ways to bring value to your existing role by finding new ways to solve existing problems; and you will be better placed for the next one if you know 2,3,4 tools and options not just one.

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Focus On Core Skills

I said in Be Curious that there’s always a new tool coming along. That’s great for new perspective, views and ways of doing things. What I’m talking about here is to learn look under the hood, what’s the fundamental task or issue that this new tool is addressing. Take for example the recent trend in networking towards Software Defined Networking (SDN) it’s easy to focus on where to click in tools like Cisco Prime or Ubiquiti UniFi or the exact syntax of Cisco IOS commands, that’s the day job after all. But, what are these things really doing? How does DHCP work? After all without a unique address none of the network stack is going to be working very well. What about DNS? Everyone blames DNS and usually it’s because the folks using it or setting it up don’t truly understand how it works.

So, here I’m saying, understand how the core, fundamental technology works. How does a computer get a network address? How do you resolve an IP address from ? How does a browser render all your lovely JS code? How would you complete that configuration task directly on the system that your fancy Ansible module makes a couple of lines of YAML?

When coaching new engineers I always spend some time for each task we look at looking at how to do it manually first. For example how would you change a hostname on a Linux system before building an Ansible task to do it for us (hint: check out [Linux Rename Host Machine](http://localhost:4000/knowledge/rename-host-machine/) for some ideas). It may seem arcane or unnecessary, but if you don’t know how it works manually it’s much harder to troubleshoot when the task fails to perform the action you expected.

If you build this deeper picture it will not only help you use your tools better but also help you to see through fads and niche solutions as they come in the industry. If you understand the core fundamentals then you can still hold a valuable discussions with colleagues and peers even if you don’t know the specific commands and button clicks of a particular tool.

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Go Beyond The Basic Skills

This one is really a thing for all time, not just in the season of layoffs and cutbacks; but it might just be what gives you the next chance or keeps you in the current role when those times come.

Focus on your communication, can you build relationships so that other teams value you enough to vouch for you in the cutbacks decision meetings or welcome you into their team if a space arises? Learn how others communicate and meet them at their style rather than enforcing yours, they’ll warm to and engage with you and your message far more. Learn how to communicate ideas and persuade people that your idea is the solution they need so that you’re bringing solutions and not someone else; and while you’re at it learn to champion your own ideas. Hopefully your leaders are good and put you and your idea forward as a combo and not just take your idea as your own. Even if you have “that” boss maybe you can communicate in other channels, add the colour and detail to the idea your boss puts forward as their own. Build a reputation as a trusted individual who can deliver the solution not just the initial idea.

It’s not just communication though; we all work in projects, be they agile, kanban, waterfall, whatever. Can you learn about project management so that you can help your project leaders execute better or step up when they are not able? If we see work effort in terms of how the project is trying to approach the challenge then we can help make decisions with our teams about priorities and schedules etc. rather than letting someone else do all the planning. You don’t need to do it all the time if it’s not your role but seeing the bigger picture of the process can really help unlock the how and the why of the work items we’re being assigned.

Another big one, understand the wider business. Be familiar with the priorities and focus areas. If you’re able to articulate where option B is better than option A for the bigger picture of the business people will listen and see you. They’ll see someone thinking about more than just how to do the day job.

Combine someone who sees the bigger picture, with someone who knows how to get it done and can communicate why it should be this way not that way and you have a team member who is more valuable than the code they write or the systems they keep running. Code can be learnt or contracted out, but having a big picture view of the business takes time a new contractor just hasn’t had yet, and as for communication it’s a skill many tech workers just don’t have or focus on. If you’re the articulate one in the form there’s a very good chance you’ll be the one influencing and leading the discussion even if you’re not the domain expert on the technology you’re discussing.

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Plan B

OK! At some point you might hit that moment where the job you want just isn’t there or the bank balance says you need something and now! If you’re what Prime calls a “one tool Andy” where are you going to go? The name is harsh but he has a point. If you’re a developer and you’ve only ever worked in Java then you’re going to be in a tough spot if the market for Java developers dries up.

So what can you do? Think about plan B before you need it!

Maybe this is learn a new skill while you’re in your current job? Say that you’re a software developer, perhaps get involved with the next project to build CI/CD pipelines and/or learn a little infrastructure. Not only will it help you see new angles on your current job but maybe when the market for your development skill goes cold you can find a niche as a DevOps engineer building pipelines and environments for the devs who are doing your previous job. Or maybe it’s learning to write tests and give yourself a new angle as a test and QA engineer.

Or, maybe it’s take the opportunity to work some different roles; volunteer for that secondment into Support to help folks better support your current product. Often new development might suffer in a downturn but the products already in the wild will typically still need supporting. You might not want to be a Support Engineer forever but is it a better role than waiting for that next role and paycheck to arrive?

It could be that you’ve always had that idea to start your own business. Look into that, what would it take to do so? Can you put things in place to get started when the going is good so that you can switch to it when things are tougher? If you’re already in that tough spot can you make a start on it now?

There’s a running joke in some tech Twitter circles about quitting tech and going to farm goats. It is a meme for the most part but it reveals a truth; if ChatGPT or another AI ate your job in the future and tech isn’t there to give you a job what else could you do? Are you maker, can you build things? Maybe you love green spaces and gardening, maybe you love wood working in your spare time? Have passions, develop skills and have ideas for things that don’t rely on a laptop and someone’s cloud. If you don’t need them for work having a another outlet is healthy, and maybe just maybe one day it’ll take you in a new direction.

There’s a hundred and more ways to go with this; my message is to think about it in the good times so that you’re better placed in the bad times.

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Give Back

Another great way to stand out is to give back. Companies often love it if they see their employees contribute to open source tools, even more so if it’s a tool you use at work anyway. It shows your engagement, your passion and commitment (which of course they are hoping to take advantage of, but hey we trade this for money in our pay anyway), and hopefully shows that you can bring new ideas with these tools to the table in your role too. Plus it often looks good for the company to be seen to be involved in their community.

It doesn’t just need to be code commits in a repo though, maybe you have a skill for documentation? So many open source projects need good documentation writers, can you contribute here and learn your tools better by writing about how they work?

Or maybe you could build a reputation amongst your peers by sharing thoughts and ideas and promoting the work of others on places like LinkedIn, or maybe your own website? Build a reputation as a thought leader, share what you know and positively build up others. I’ll tell you this for free, build a reputation as someone positive to work with and who brings ideas to the conversation and the people you worked with once could just be the ones to back you when you need that next break, that new job. After all, who do you remember, the person who helped you to progress or shared ideas, or the one who never got involved and left you to solve all the problems yourself? Which would you want as a future teammate?

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Final Thoughts

As I said at the start, these are ways to make yourself stand out and either (hopefully) shield you when the layoffs come around, or at least put you towards the top of the pile when every CV or resume looks the same.

They’re also goals to aspire to and things to work on. Many of them are fractal in nature, for every new tool there’s new depth to learn and for every level you go deeper you’ll likely find new questions to ask. So these things are not ticks on a check list but traits to work towards over time. There will be times when you have the time and energy to go further and deeper, and others where the weight of the world will hold you back. That’s OK! Seriously it is. But, build the reputation as someone who exhibits these traits when you have the energy and people will see and remember that much more than just the next “one tool Andy”.

Bottom line; make sure that you look after yourself and prepare as best you can for these things coming around because while they might value your input now, if you cost more than your employer thinks you’re worth they won’t hesitate to let you go.

If this article helped you in any way please consider sharing this article with your friends and colleagues, or let me know via LinkedIn or Twitter. Right now, it’s a tough time for us all, none of this is easy, and we should look out for those struggling; so if I can help you find the next one or get started please do get in touch. If you have any ideas for further content you might like to see please let me know too.

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