An Old Hacker's Tips On Staying Employed
#1: Don't Be a Jerk. (That is just a bonus tip, in case you don't want to read past the subtitle)
I know my core audience is expecting crusty old tales of computing past, but this time I wanted to talk about something a little more topical — about job security, whether it indeed exists in any form, and what if anything you can do to improve your odds of staying employed.
Most people are probably familiar with the concept of Impostor Syndrome, the phenomenon whereby someone who is actually qualified in some area still feels like they are illegitimate in some way compared to their peers. I don’t think I often feel this way in my day-to-day career as an engineer, but that insecurity rears its ugly head frequently when I start to write about things, especially in the form of published advice.
I’ve talked before about me being a generalist, and as such, I do not consider myself enough of an expert in anything to be telling others how to do stuff, which probably plays into the whole impostor thing. But I realized after 35+ years on the job, maybe the thing I’m expert in is being an old guy in the tech field.
So here are a few things that I think were not obvious to me earlier in my career that I picked up later, sometimes even embarrassingly later. If I can give anyone a head start on learning these things before they reach their 50’s, so much the better!
Ride The Bull
When I started work at Digital Equipment Corporation in 1986, the company had never had a layoff in its 30-year history. This changed around 1987, after “Black Monday” rattled the stock market with a 20+% single-day decline. Digital had its first layoff not long after that, and they felt so guilty about having to do it, they gave all the lucky participants one year’s salary as part of the termination package. Most people pocketed the money and went right back to work - because in truth, this layoff was not so much the symptom of some macroeconomic collapse as it was due to Digital’s mounting woes.
I kept my job, but even so, Black Monday was a watershed moment in time for me. In my mind, it divided the previous years of (mostly illusionary even then) company-based job stability, from the era that followed. The era we live in now features a new kind of job stability, that is of the personal sort.
After that first layoff at Digital, further layoffs at the company followed, but also further opportunities elsewhere as many new companies sprung up. We had the dot-com bubble, a boom, a recession, another boom. And through all the ups and downs, companies big and small would lay people off — sometimes as part of a regular process, and sometimes due to unforeseen events.
Although there may be a few pockets of workplaces with more durable guarantees of continued employment (thinking about countries with strict labor laws, tenured professors, government work, and so on) for the most part, we in the tech world today have come to accept that there is no such thing as job security, and losing your job could happen at almost any time. (And sadly, you will probably not be getting a year’s salary if it happens to you now.)
I myself have been very lucky, and despite some close calls over 3.5 decades, have never missed a paycheck. I’ll go on next to talk about some things that I think helped me improve my odds, but to be clear, it is really mostly a matter of luck. I have seen really great people get laid off just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I’ve seen large numbers of people get laid off because either their company or the general economy had a downturn.
I tend to think of employment in tech as riding a bull. Not a big bull-riding spectator, but from what little I have seen, it really isn’t about whether you are going to stay on the bull or not. You are going to get thrown off, it’s just a matter of when. I am hoping to make it all the way to retirement and to be the rare guy who stays on the bull, but you never know. I like to assume though that if I do get thrown, I’ll pick myself up, dust myself off, and just move on to the next bull. So that is really the first piece of advice I’ll give; don’t take losing a job or having to move jobs too personally, because it’s almost certain to happen at some point.
Hopefully, this starting advice is useful, even though it is somewhat simplistic, and coming from someone who’s a little bit of a layoff-victim impostor.
Develop Your Personal Brand
I mentor junior engineers from time to time, and one concern that comes up is when someone is working on a project that is not doing well. In some cases, they are worried that they might lose their job if the project is canceled, and in some cases, it is more of a matter of them feeling bad about their career, partly because they have entangled their own self-worth with the success of their project.
In both cases, I offer the same advice, which is to develop your “personal brand”. If you think about a company that you have had a high opinion of in the past, you will probably find that your trust level for that company’s latest products is also generally higher, and you are more likely to shop there versus somewhere else in the future. Brand loyalty is a thing, and even if you do not slavishly follow it, you are probably at least somewhat likely to return to something you know is of good quality than take a risk on something unknown.
Personal brand also works like that. When you work on a project, even a crappy project, your personal brand is on display for all potential shoppers to see. And even when everything is going south, others will notice which people are easy to work with, which people can be relied upon to do what they said they would do, and which people consistently produce a quality result.
This is what job security looks like, in the post-Black-Monday world. If your project was canceled or your company tanks and you get laid off in the process, your personal brand will control your fate. If you were a complete pain-in-the-ass to work with, dropped the ball a lot, said things you were going to do but didn’t do them, then good luck. Your brand is trash, and you’ll have to find a place that doesn’t do backreferences in your probably-long job hunt.
On the other hand, if your personal brand is highly regarded, magic things will often just happen for you in this situation. Maybe some other project in the company will realize you are now free, and snatch you up. Maybe one of your fellow laid-off coworkers will find a better job and refer you as well. Maybe your boss will feel super-guilty you got laid off and give you a glowing recommendation, or even help find something for you.
So basically, your “brand” gives you not the security that you will keep your current job forever, but the security that you will be able to have a job, on some regular basis.
Make Your Boss Afraid
What about not getting laid off in the first place? Isn’t that more the goal here, Mad Ned? It sure is. I’ve given a lot of lip service so far to the idea that layoffs happen and just get used to it, but ideally, the best job security advice is about how to reduce the chance they will happen to you.
The best tip I have here is to make sure your boss is afraid.
Afraid? Yep. Afraid of what will happen, if you ever decide to leave. I am not talking about doing stupid stuff like leaving your resume conspicuously lying around on the printer, or brinksmanship games of claiming you have another job offer just to get a raise. I have seen people play these games to varying degrees of short-term success in the past, but inevitably it’s a long-term lose, as it destroys trust relationships (in addition to being petty and sometimes backfiring).
In saying “make your boss afraid”, I do not suggest doing anything to undermine the trust you have with your boss - establishing trust is important, with any coworker. What I mean is, you want to be so useful that it will create a lot of problems for your boss (and by extension project, and company) if you were not there for some reason.
There is an old Star Trek episode called “I, Mudd” where Captain Kirk and company faced an interesting adversary, a race of androids whose plans for domination centered around helping and serving humans, to the point where humanity became so reliant on this help that the androids would end up with complete control of the universe.
Even though I love this idea for an enemy threat because of its sheer novelty, my version of this concept is not quite so sinister. No Machiavellian plotting is required to accomplish this goal, but like the Star Trek storyline, a willingness to do what needs to be done, and to take ownership of things. If possible, important things. In some cases, even things that no one wants to do.
In a previous job as manager I ended up inheriting a lot of smaller technical work that no one else wanted to do, like getting the license token code updated, writing simple translators for file formats, and other small projects that fit within the available time I had when not doing the manager side of things. When my boss had something that was giving him a headache and he asked if I could look into it, I would do it without complaint, and my personal brand in this job was to be a reliable go-to guy that could solve problems, kind of like Winston Wolf from Pulp Fiction.
This approach served me well through many a layoff, when management would hold a lifeboat meeting to determine who would be cut. The goal in these situations is always to not be the lowest-ranked person under consideration, and the management-fear-thing does well for you in situations like that.
But it is not foolproof. In 2009 or so when we had the last tech recession, a lot of people lost their jobs at our company. My boss I am reasonably sure resisted laying me off for a while, again because he was probably afraid of having to deal with all these things I was keeping at bay. But none of my responsibilities, in this case, were key enough to prevent me from getting onto the layoff list, and I did actually lose that job because the manager position itself was eliminated.
My personal brand here saved me though, because my boss had a positive opinion of me after putting out so many fires for him, and he recommended me to another group that was looking for a developer (and in retrospect, turned out to be a better fit for me than the management job anyway).
So while I may have failed at making myself fearfully indispensable in that case, trying to get there was still worth it because it helped my personal brand, and boosted my overall job security in the process.
Make Your Boss Happy
Wait, what? Make your boss happy? I thought we were supposed to make our boss afraid. Well yes, he or she should be afraid, but only at certain times, like maybe raise time, or when the layoff list is being planned, or late at night when up worrying about life, work, and other existential matters. The majority of the time though you want him or her to be happy — happy because they are successful.
Doctors say that if exercise could be given in pill form, it would be the most prescribed drug because it affects so many health-related things in positive ways. Making your boss successful is Dr. Ned’s similar prescription here, because of the numerous positive effects it has for your career. It goes beyond just doing a good job with your own personal assignments. What it means is, putting yourself in your boss’s shoes, and thinking about what they need to be able to succeed in their boss’s eyes.
Give your boss stuff they can use. Maybe it’s ideas and suggestions about how to frame or present work the group has done, or explain problems you have faced. Maybe it’s a little bit of bonus content from time to time, that can be highlighted in a status report. Maybe it’s helping to defuse a situation that would make your boss or the group look bad. Sometimes it takes a little imagination to put yourself in your boss’s place, or maybe even some investigation on your part to find out what your boss’s true care-about’s really are, but this is worthwhile to do in general, anyway.
If taken too far, I guess these “managing up” strategies begin to border on sucking up to the boss or being overly calculating and political, but doing just the right amount of this can have immensely positive effects for your career, no pill needed!
This strategy by the way also includes the idea of letting your boss take credit for your work. That is super-not-cool if it’s say a peer doing it, but when your boss takes credit for your work, it is usually (unless you have an awful boss, anyway) done in a way that helps him or her, while simultaneously raising your visibility in the company, and improving your personal brand.
Successful bosses get more resources, more freedoms. And that is also quite good for you, and your team.
The “Do It Anyway” Principle
It’s unavoidable. You will hopefully work on many cool projects and be very productive in your career, but sooner or later you will end up on some task or project that is difficult to accomplish and/or generally unpleasant, all due to factors outside of your control.
This has happened to me on some occasions, and it is super-frustrating when it does. I spent a lot of time developing software features for a product once that had a horrible regression test and code versioning environment, such that it required a large number of very long test runs and updates and merges before any code could be checked in. Tests were unreliable and produced false positives all the time. It took hours if not days to integrate code.
This was eventually straightened out, but it took I would say, a couple of years. In that intervening time though, life went on. Products had to be developed in spite of the challenges we had with the environment.
At our team standup meetings, we would go over the progress of things, and I would see people divide into two general categories. The first category was people who were similarly frustrated and fed-up with the work environment issues we faced. They were more vocal about it though and would complain about these issues frequently, even though they were for the most part, out of our collective control.
Tasks assigned to people in this first group would frequently get delayed, due to the problems we faced with the development environment. Each day when we met and someone said they could not finish something because of some obstacle that cropped up, it was never really challenged because it was pretty unreasonable to expect people to be productive given various problems we faced. The net effect though was, the tasks assigned to this group of people were not really getting done.
The second category of people, which I would try my best to be in (but admittedly, not always succeed) would be the people that somehow got their tasks done anyway, even though there were ridiculous constraints imposed by our environment issues that made it a lot harder. My own personal way of dealing with this would be to look at it as a challenge, like: Can I pick up wet grapes with chopsticks? Can I run more than 100 feet without throwing up because I’m so out of shape? View everything as unnecessary feats I clearly was not expected to do but would attempt, anyway.
Gamifying things this way helped me get through some of these situations, but I think others used different strategies that also worked. In the end, it is really about mindset. You can take the stance that you should not be expected to be productive in a bad work environment, and you would be right. If that motivates you to affect change in the environment, it is great. But sometimes, we do not have that luxury.
There is something called the Serenity Prayer, written by theologian Reinhold Niehbur which goes like this:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference
Applicable. Whether you subscribe to a particular theology, or not. Coming back to the job security theme though, I will say that at least one person from the first category did get laid off later because they just weren’t getting enough done. Not fair I know, because you shouldn’t be expected to have your productivity measured when you are being held back by things beyond your control.
The brutal truth though is, you still do. We are all constantly measured in the eyes of our employers by what we actually deliver, and those who can find a way to succeed even in the face of adversity will always have an advantage over those who cannot, or do not want to.
The “Two-And-Done” Rule
I’ve saved my favorite piece of advice to the end. The “Two-And-Done” Rule as I call it was something that did not occur to me until I was almost in my 50’s, and I really wish I had come up with it earlier because it probably would have helped me in a lot of past situations.
It has to do with how to handle disagreements that come up at work. In my younger days, I would have a pretty strong desire to always have the right answer to things, and also to be seen as someone who has the right answer to things. When I got into situations where I thought I was right about something that others disagreed with, I would tenaciously argue my point, without letting go.
It did not matter if the person was my peer, subordinate, or superior, I would let them know just why they were wrong, and why we needed to do it my way. Sometimes the decision on what to do was out of my control, and management would pick the thing I was against. And even after the decision was made, I would continue to try to find ways to criticize it, reverse it, undermine it, or revisit it, because something that I knew was better was being ignored (and by extension, I think I felt I was being ignored as well).
But this take-no-prisoners approach to debate did not do me any good. Rarely would my continued efforts to upturn settled law ever yield any good results, and in fact much the opposite — it would negatively impact my ability to affect change. If I did this too often, people would begin to see me as argumentative, difficult to work with, not a team player, and so on. I started getting left out of meetings where decisions were being made because no one wanted to get into yet another argument over things.
I will admit, I am still a big fan of being right all the time, and of having people agree with me. What’s changed over the years though is first, an enhanced understanding that I in fact am not right all the time. But also that even when I am right, it isn’t always a guarantee that others will follow my advice, and if they do not, that it’s still OK.
So the Two-And-Done rule was born, wherein I will state my case the first time, and if whoever is arguing to the contrary does not agree after hearing my position, I’ll let it go. But the next time the opportunity comes up, I will argue my point again. Maybe allowing for a gap of time for people to consider my original point, or maybe allowing me time to refine and rephrase my ideas to be more convincing.
If I fail to get my way after the second time though, I am done. I will even say as much to whomever I am debating if they are the final decision-maker. I will say something like, “OK, let’s go your way then. I still don’t completely agree with everything proposed here, but I think I’ve made my case, and we need to move on.”
Yielding in an argument like this has some weird, powerful effects. One is, it kind of releases you from responsibility if things should go wrong. And if a truly bad decision has been made, it is actually pretty likely that things will start going wrong. (Important Note: If you fail to convince people after two tries, you really do have to get behind the decision, and not try to sabotage or undermine it)
If it goes bad anyway and you have been graceful enough in your concession on the original bad decision, you can then just skip over the “I told you so!” part (it will just be implied), and go straight to the getting your way part. This is because people will be more likely to revisit their decision if you did not make your original disagreement with it a super-unpleasant experience for them.
The added bonus of that is, it bumps up your personal brand, as someone who should maybe be listened to more often. Sometimes though you end up just having to live with not getting your way, and learn to truly let go of whatever it was. But more often than you might expect, this technique will end up causing things to pivot back your way, eventually.
Anyway, this is not strictly a job-security-specific tip, as much as it’s a “how to be more effective at work” tip. But being effective, indirectly, means job security.
You might also wonder — shouldn’t the rule be “Three and Done”? Things come in threes right, like three strikes, or the rule-of-three? I just think three arguments is one argument too many to have about something. You give your opinion once, and once more just in case you screwed up your pitch the first time. Beyond that though it has diminishing returns, in my experience at least.
Who Needs Job Security Anyway?
I’m someone who’s worked at only a couple of companies, for a very long time at each. I would say it’s pretty clear I’ve prioritized job security over other things, like maximizing my income or job title or taking risky bets on startups or equity-driven opportunities.
So maybe not all of this advice I’ve given applies to you if your priorities are different. Also, maybe I am not qualified to talk about how to deal with some situations like having to job hop between startups and so on. I can only offer what I have learned myself, take away what is useful.
If you take away only one thing though, take away the idea that job security doesn’t come from your job, it comes from you. The Buddhists have this philosophy regarding happiness, that you should not have any dependencies on external things to make you happy because happiness comes from within.
Like job security, subscribing to this philosophy has the downside of, it means you are doing all the work. Nobody is going to make you happy but yourself, and no job or company is going to give you job security, you have to do it on your own.
But it also means your fate is in your own hands. And that is a great thing.
Next Time: What it looks like inside the supply chain, from someone who has visited both ends. The world of bossy customers and needy sellers collide in: Vendor, Vidi, Vici !
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