Being a Developer During a Recession Part 2

maanantaina, tammikuuta 19, 2009

A year ago I wrote some thoughts on preparing and weathering a layoff. I reread it this week after meeting a fellow in a hotel lobby. I was there with my wife and son because we had lost power in the recent ice storm that struck the north east. We lost power for several days and needed to find warm places to stay. He was there for the same reason.
He was a tech writer for a Massachusetts company for ten years. He had been laid-off just a week ago. He was going through loss and anger at being forced to go away. His income was taken away along with pride and purpose. You could see the pain on his face and it struck a chord within me.
My layoff was not an easy time, especially the months just after the layoff, because I felt terribly betrayed, bitter and lost. It was winter and its hard for me to be cheerful when the days are short, grey and cold.
I lived in a condo about an hour north of Boston and fortyfive minutes away from my old job and the friends I had worked with for nearly three years. I was single and a little overzealous in my love for writing code, so my work became my life. One day I was evicted from my life and things felt pretty bleak.
I watched in 2002 as every other department had significant staff cuts. The development team wasn’t going to be touched because we were in the middle of releasing a “game changing” product that would seal the company as the leader in its space. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that layoffs in engineering would follow the release. It was of a question of when it would happen rather than if. I stopped spending and saved everything I could except for going out for dinner and drinks with friends.
The year leading up to my layoff was tough. Everyone was working long hours and weekends for months on end. Vacation time had been canceled. Getting more than one or two consecutive days off was difficult.
I was a principal developer and had several critical components to develop. I was always writing middle-tier core code that nearly every other component called. I designed the entire security component and wrote all of the method level security methods. I also wrote the interface and all the components for our content management system, which also included a fairly complex collaboration model that managed an editorial process for content publication.
Writing so much core code gave me a false sense of security. Who would seriously layoff the only developer that knew both security and document management. Getting rid of that developer would be a huge setback to any project. Of course, you have a lot more time to learn what that developer wrote after you release the product and have six or eight months before your next release.
The first round of engineering layoffs occurred in October of 2002 after a September release. We all knew who was being laid-off too. The management team scheduled reviews and raises for all the employees that they were keeping. There were eight people that didn’t have reviews scheduled. It was terrible to watch one of my good friends break down and cry every day for two weeks as she waited to be let go. She was the sole income for her family of of four. They were kept on for about three weeks before they were let go.
The second round consisted of a couple of great UI designers and a few people in another office that I never met. The UI designers built a really amazing user interface and kept a product with dozens of web pages looking cohesive and made the work flow from one task to the next logical and elegant.
Round three had lost five people, myself included. There was a product manager that was pushed out. All five of us were hard working and had made significant contributions to the product.
I found out about my layoff about a week ahead of time because the VP of Human Resources left a memo on his desk with the five names and a helpdesk guy was called in to work on his laptop. The helpdesk guy saw the names and told me I was on the list. I found out in the parking lot while another friend of mine and I were heading out to grab dinner and drinks. That was a night of very heavy drinking.
That following Monday the VP of Architecture called me into his office. He wanted to go over the document management system and document how it worked so we could teach the other developers how to work on it and improve the system. I smiled and said “Ok, but if you are going to lay me off, please do it on a Friday. I don’t want to have to drive all the way down here on a Monday and then drive back.”
There are statistics that show that suicides occur more often if you lay a person off on a Friday than on a Monday. I wasn’t going to commit suicide over that job so I was planning my weekend ahead of time. I had an idea for a new product and just needed time to write it. I knew I would have plenty of time to work on it now.
I spent the week writing up documents and having daily talks with the VP of Architecture and his chief architect. I liked both of them. It was hard knowing that I wouldn’t see them again. The meetings would go on for hours and then I would work on the document. In the middle of the document I wrote something like:
“I’ve spent this week writing all this documentation but I know you are not going to actually read it. It is really pointless for me to be doing this and if I drew some diagrams you may have a shot of comprehending the mess you are in. Unfortunately, the only tool I has is powerpoint, which isn’t known for its high quality diagraming technologies. Good luck!”
That was the extent of my sabotage. I finished everything on Thursday and went home knowing that the next day was to be my last.
I got in around eleven AM and asked my friends if we could go to lunch. I mentioned something that it was important and meant a lot to me. I told one of my friends that I was going to be laid off that day and he thought I was nuts until the VP of Architecture swung by and wanted to meet with me.
I wandered into the VP’s office and was handed my package, which I read through and tried to keep calm. I was gasping for air every time I spoke. I could hardly get the words out when I needed to ask a question about health insurance, severance or my remaining time off. My heart was pounding so hard. Then I got up and asked if I could say good bye to my friends. I was allowed that honor because I had put in so much time and effort, everyone else was walked out the door with little time to clean up their desk.
I swung by a few desks after lunch and said my goodbyes. I went home and drank a bottle of wine and watched some bad science fiction movie. I had to watch it a second time the next day because I didn’t remember anything from the previous viewing.
I started writing code that Monday on an application analytics platform. I wanted a tool that could tell me the features and the order that customers executed in a given product. This would tell me which features customers actually cared about and would let any developer prioritize the heavily used features over the rarely used. I wanted the reports to be web accessible. I needed a way to collect the data from an arbitrary application and dispatch it back to some import server that would dump the data into a database. I needed an analytics engine to convert the raw data into summary information. It was something big enough to keep me really busy.
It was a great project for me in that I didn’t know UI development at all but knew EJB 2.0 inside out and was also decent with database work. I spent a year writing code and living off the money I had saved.
I buried myself in work for weeks. I would get up at around eight AM with no alarm, eat breakfast, write code till two PM, shower, eat, write code until eight PM, eat, watch a movie and go to bed. I edited my spending habits to food, utilities, healthcare and mortgage. I had to cut the house cleaning service. I cut beer and going out for meals. I stopped buying stuff almost entirely except I did buy a new desktop computer to build my new application.
I kept in touch with many of my friends via email but I was pretty dedicated at developing my own project. It’s not entirely true that I was dedicated. I was incredibly hurt by being laid-off and the way I dealt with that emotional pain was by hiding in work of my own design. I was angry at the company where I had sacrificed and worked so hard. I had given up weekends, nights and even dental appointments because I felt needed and couldn’t let the team down. I had hardly dated or done anything with people that weren’t in the company. It had become my life as many of us would go out to dinner or hang out together regularly. I missed my friends terribly.
I worked on my project for about three months before I hit the wall. I looked like a wreck. I would shave only every couple of days. I was dressing as a flannel clad Hugh Heffner though I wouldn’t go outside in that outfit. I hardly went anywhere except to the supermarket. Most of the light bulbs were burnt out but I knew where everything was even in near total darkness. Only the kitchen was kept up lighting wise. I did keep the house pretty clean though.
Things got to a point where I couldn’t code well anymore. I was getting wrapped up in simple problems and looking for really innovative and exciting solutions. I realized that the solutions were not practical anymore. They were complex and strange but looked like they would work really well. I was losing or had lost perspective. It was time for a vacation.
I didn’t go anywhere. I stayed at home and cooked. I was a terrible cook and that’s why I ate out so often. I ate out every night before the layoff. Was it expensive? Only marginally so since factoring the cost of electricity, food, water and cleaning that dinner out only cost me a buck or two more per night. That came out to somewhere between 30 and 60 dollars I could save if I cooked at home. I cooked dinner every night and ate the left overs for lunch.
I ended up going to the supermarket pretty much every day. The idea was that I only bought what I could carry in one trip from the garage to my kitchen. I also didn’t know what I would feel like eating from one day to the next. It felt better to be around people anyway.
I watched “The Recruit” one night and an idea lodged into my head that I hadn’t been reading very much fiction in the past few years. I wanted to read some Kurt Vonnegut because of a reference in the movie to ice-9. I was hoping to cheer up by reading his works. I got in the habit of going out to lunch and reading while I was at the restaurant. I was able to go to a different restaurant pretty much every day and that was fun. I cheered up a lot, especially after changing out all the lightbulbs.
Spring was rolling in. I went back to hammering on the keyboard to build my application. There was a UI, a middle tier and a database that were coming together nicely. Writing the UI is rather difficult for me still but that’s where UI development really started. The product was almost in a demonstrable state.
My schedule changed a little. I was still up at 8, breakfast, shower, Babylon 5, code, lunch, code till 7, cook, eat, movie and bed.
Reading Vonnegut was brining me down so I thought I would cheer up with a new author. I wanted to read something that had influenced the way literature was written. I reread Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”, which is still one of my favorite books. I started reading Hemingway and read three of his novels before stopping. Why? Why did Hemingway’s chicken cross the road? To die, alone, in the rain. That’s why. Don’t read Hemingway if you are feeling down.
I was feeding data into my application using some test cases and now I wanted to get the system more automated. I used Java byte code injection to instrument a target application. Getting injection working is simple but getting it to work in a wide range of applications and perform was far more difficult. I spent a bit more than a month getting everything to right.
Looking for a job was also a big aspect of my life. I would hit the web and visit a number of job sites like HotJobs and Dice. I also talked to a recruiter and worked with him. I had only one interview in six months. It was with a CMGI company. The company went out of business a month later and sold off all its assets. All the employees were out of work.
You could go on to HotJobs and do a search of Java development jobs in the summer of 2003 and get back zero results in the Boston area. Right now you can find around 110 on HotJbos and 438 on Dice. I kept looking and submitting resumes to meet unemployment insurance requirements, but there was no chance of actually finding a job at that point. Congress kept extending benefits out to a full year. I thank God for that.
A friend of mine and I decided to launch a company with my product and look for some kind of financing. We met with SCORE, which was a complete waste of time. They are fine if you want to start a restaurant but they are out of their league with tech startups. Things have changed in the way software is developed, financed and sold such that their experience is not generally relevant.
We did get a few chances to pitch the idea to investors. It didn’t go anywhere. They would nod and think that it was an interesting idea but they were not interested in investing. All the entrepreneur wannabes should take note of this one statement: Investors invest in people, not ideas. We did not meet their vision of investment worthy individuals.
I was not put off much. I kept working because there was nothing else to do. I did spend more time during the summer goofing off though. I had Friday lunches on the deck of this restaurant and have a beer too. I decided that I could reintroduce beer into my nightly diet.
That summer I got a number of charity requests. Calls from my old college asking for money. I told them that I was on unemployment and couldn’t afford a donation this year. They suggested that I go on a payment plan. How can a person even suggest going on a payment plan to fund a charity like a college when you are concerned with paying your mortgage, healthcare and being fed? I haven’t talked to the college since.
I put up a dating profile on that August. I changed the profile’s “about me” section about once a week hoping that I would eventually write something interesting and get a nibble. It worked too, I was having a number of email conversations and that was fun.
Fall started and I launched the product on the web. I was not about to give up on the idea so I just took a different direction. Nibbles? No, I could count the downloads with my fingers. Still, it was getting out there and every download gave me hope.
In October I traded emails with this one gal that winked at my on She was a little goofy, brainy, had a great sense of humor and she stuck by me as fall turned into winter. Our dates were so fun. She would go to her work and I would keep working on my project. Life was becoming so much better.
January marked the end of unemployment insurance. I had plenty of savings still so I wasn’t very worried. I was emailing more resumes and kept developing the project. I had a few interviews and they actually downloaded the project. The UI was pretty bad looking back at it, but I was getting back into the groove of being interviewed and it helped get me in through the door.
One morning in April I saw a job on Craig’s List. I put in the resume and went from my home office to the basement to do some work. I got a phone call from the recruiter I sent the email five minutes to and she was scheduling an interview. I got the job and a surprise: I got my old salary after being out of work for over a year! It was a miracle as far as I was concerned.
Working on the project kept my skills sharp. I had gone deeper into a number of technologies and worked with many new ones. It was wonderful to have a new job thanks to the project.
I didn’t stop with the project though. I showed it to this one guy and he showed it to another and pretty soon we were raising money. It took a year and we raised $750,000 by the end of the Summer of 2005. It was huge. He was the key, he was going to MIT Sloan School of Business and he made all the financial connections. I kept writing code.
The experience of being laid-off was devastating at first. It was so gut-wrenching to be evicted from my life that I can’t put it into words still. I can’t explain the anger at having given so much and then be told that we don't need you anymore. Being laid-off is a crueler thing than most people can understand.
It worked out in my case though. One could argue that it was the best time of my life and that only the first three months were really bad. That actually isn’t true as I still reflect on it with bitterness and I’m not sure I’ll ever be free of it.
We read a lot of advice on how to keep your job during a recession too. Many say to be the critical employee that the company cannot afford to layoff. Companies layoff C-level staff all the time and they are supposed to be the most critical employees in the company. Only a few companies will see the value of a developer being greater than some executives.
I have only four pieces of advice. The first is to save your money. The second is to find a way to keep your skills sharp. The third is to find a purpose to drive you forward everyday. The fourth, and most important, is to be thankful for what you have because there are those that have far less.

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