“It has been a year in a week” for Zac Bowling, who got laid off from Google during the tech giant’s 12,000 employee cut in late January.
For the past nearly eight years, Bowling has been working as a software engineer at Google, based in San Francisco. And since he was given the bad news on Jan. 20, along with thousands of other Googlers, he’s kept busy searching for his next gig and reaching out to people in his network. “I put my name out there and I’m already getting pings” from other tech companies, he told me last week.
Bowling is one of tens of thousands of tech employees newly out of work over the course of a somber couple of weeks. And it’s not just coming from the Googles and IBMs and Microsofts of the world: Startups are also feeling the pain and cutting staff. But what happens to the tech talent freshly out of a job?
For a while, I’ve been hearing about how this is a huge opportunity for startups to snap up ex-employees from the likes of Google. And I think that’s true: “For every Big Tech company that’s laying off, there are still the [small and midsize] companies in these markets that are eager to absorb the talent,” Megan Slabinski, a Bay Area and Pacific Northwest district president focused on tech at staffing firm Robert Half, told me last week; meanwhile some startups are seemingly salivating over the flood of fresh ex-Big Tech workers. Of course, the massive caveat here is that your startup has to be one of those that still has cash to spend on new employees. If you’re in that position, then you’ve got a stellar talent pool to choose from.
But not all startups are able to capitalize on the opportunity. They’re also getting the message loud and clear that they need to keep things tight and rethink their staffing needs (i.e. drive efficiency with fewer employees). That’s what VCs have been advising for nearly a year now (remember Sequoia Capital’s “crucible moment” memo in May?). Startups are also laying off employees left and right: One-click checkout startup Bolt reportedly recently cut staff again for the third time in the last year, while others like crypto startup Gemini also recently laid off 10% of their employees. In all, by layoff tracker Layoffs.fyi’s count, over 220 companies have already laid off more than 68,000 employees in 2023.
But as Slabinski tells me, while the continual slew of headlines about layoffs may make things look dire for tech employees, the data tells a different story. The unemployment rate for professionals in the tech sector is low—less than 2%, based on some measures, like CompTIA’s, a tech workforce nonprofit association. And she says she’s still seeing a lot of demand.
According to Slabinksi, “That demand has just shifted from the Big Tech industries to the more small to medium-sized companies, as well as other industries like education, health care, government, [and] financial services.”
From her view, “As soon as people are hitting the market, they’re being pursued and absorbed by those other industries and other companies.”
Slabinski does note that while last year the employees her firm works with were getting maybe four to five offers, now that number is around two—closer to pre-pandemic trends, she says, and a slowdown other recruiters have noted in recent months. “That’s a shift, but you still talk about the employees being in high demand if you’ve got multiple opportunities that you’re pursuing,” she says. That seems to be in line with what recently laid-off employees like Bowling are seeing: He tells me he’s been getting hit up by recruiters, including by some Big Tech companies as well as startups.
For some tech employees, severance packages were fairly generous. At Google, for example, employees are getting 16 weeks of severance pay, plus two weeks for every additional year they were at the company. With four months or more of pay, I’m wondering: Why not take a nice break? Bowling, who says he’s in a Discord chat with other laid off employees, says that other ex-Googlers are doing just that, thinking they “might as well take vacation.”
As for himself, Bowling considered taking time off and getting more involved in his work with nonprofits, as well as working on his TikTok presence (things he’s done in his spare time), but says he wants to test the waters in the employment market before he’d feel safe taking a couple weeks to rest. “I would rather jump back into the game, go find some interesting projects to work on, kind of treat my severance as a bonus, and just get back down into it,” Bowling said.
Some may create their own jobs—or rather, start companies, something plenty of folks are predicting will result from these cuts. Indeed, Bowling told me some VCs and angel investors are “trying to hit up” the Discord channel he’s in with ex-Googlers to see if some would consider becoming a cofounder of startups that had pitched them, he said.
But there’s another component here that I also wonder about: What’s going to happen with salaries? The last year or two has been characterized as “the Great Resignation,” where companies were bending over backward to retain employees or offering extravagant benefits and salaries to draw in new talent as they grew their companies rapidly. But 2023 is clearly a shift. If a startup wants to attract one of the thousands of workers laid off from Google or Microsoft in the last couple of weeks, what’s it going to take?
“Salary is still king,” Slabinski says, “but right behind that is the workplace flexibility. Hybrid and remote work is a large driver for what in-demand employees are seeking in their next opportunity or if making a career shift.” She notes that while small and midsize businesses historically haven’t been able to compete with Big Tech’s sign-on bonuses or stock options, now may be an opportunity for those smaller companies to attract that talent. She hasn’t seen salaries dropping yet.
Parsing through this, it seems the upshot is that there are still plenty of companies excited to hire tech workers, though talent may need to be open-minded.
As for Bowling, “I worked on the same project for more than seven years. And I’m looking forward to working on something new.”
See you tomorrow,
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FUNDS + FUNDS OF FUNDS
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