Tech Layoff & Recruiting Advice, Light At The End Of The Tunnel and Managerial Humanity & Messaging - E238

· Southeast Asia,Founder,Start-up,Singapore,Executive

“Getting laid off is not a commentary on your worth as a human being. Think of it as a silver lining or an opportunity to reflect on the best job for you. There might be other opportunities you prefer to pursue. Historically, recessions or times when people get laid off are a period of great creativity wherein they finally have the time to do the things they want.” -Shiyan Koh

In this episode of BRAVE, Jeremy Au and Shiyan Koh discuss tech layoffs, other opportunities during the recession, advice on finding a job, and maintaining managerial humanity when conducting layoffs.

Jeremy Au: (00:51)
Hey, Shiyan, another week, another episode and this week, what I realized was that everybody was talking to me about layoffs, so I was speaking to one sales rep and he was very much like I don't know whether I'll keep my job, I'm staying for health insurance and another was like at Facebook/Meta was like I did not get laid off but I may get laid off after CNY. So, a lot of conversation about that so I figured this would be a good conversation. What do you think about this topic?

Shiyan Koh: (01:18)
I mean, way to start us off on a depressing note Jeremy. You know business cycles boom and bust, and maybe if you're relatively new to the workforce you've only experienced the boom but I'm old enough to experience the ‘08 financial crisis and I was in college during the ‘01 internet bubble and so lots of friends got laid off. Do you want to talk about personal finance, like you should have an emergency fund or you want to talk about how you get a new job and network for that,t which direction do we want to take the conversation?

Jeremy Au: (01:47)
So many ways we can go for it. Well, just last week, you stared at reality to face and the reality is layoffs. It's neither depressing nor whatever, it's boom and bust. And, that was interesting, there have always been recessions. There's a recession almost every 10 years, it's inevitable that the startup will go through booms and busts, it's also inevitable honestly, that as an employee, you're going to go through recessions, where layoffs are happening. And I was thinking to myself, like in Southeast Asia, this might be the first generation ever to face tech layoffs because the tech industry didn't exist 10
years ago, so you know, it's actually been a beautiful spring and summer and now I think autumn has had it happen.

Shiyan Koh: (02:34)
You always have these cycles where, when things are growing and money is flowing freely, people commit to really high growth numbers, and they hire up to try to hit those growth numbers. And there's this period of time where you probably have more people than you might need at that moment, because you're trying to hire ahead to hit that growth. And then when the slowdown comes, and you have to start making cuts, because either the next round of funding is going to be there, or you didn't hit the number you thought you're going to hit, or both, people will start pulling back. And we saw this, the financial institutions experienced this all the time. So you'll see bankers, the banks will hire up and lay off things like that. So it's not just tech. And, so the ‘08 crisis, the ‘01 internet bubble, those were all sort of notable periods of time where people got laid off. Just because you get laid off is not a commentary on your worthiness as a human being. Maybe try to think about it as a little bit of a silver lining, like an opportunity to reflect, and think about, what is the best job for me? Are there other opportunities that I prefer to pursue? And I think historically, recessions or times where people get laid off is actually a period of great creativity, where people are like, well, I finally have the time to do the thing that I wanted to do. And people start tinkering. And their friends might have gotten laid off too. So they get to start tinkering with their friends and start building things. And so that's something also that you see people doing. But, I've seen a lot of these posts recently on LinkedIn, where they say, I was affected by the Meta layoffs, I was affected by whatever layoffs, no hashtag failing company name, layoffs. This is the role I'm looking for. So I think the positive thing is that it's not a shameful thing. Everyone's going through it. And so you can be a lot more open about saying, I'm looking for a new role, and reaching out to your network, not just the immediate people you talk to most but your weaker ties as well, because they're the ones most likely to generate new opportunities for you.

Jeremy Au: (04:28)
What's interesting is that what you said is true. And I think everyone's expected that for early-stage and even middle-stage startups, no doubt and growth mode because everybody knows that startups are risky. But I think what's different is that for big tech, it's very much like global domination. Doesn't stop hiring, has great benefits, talks about mission and culture, keeping everybody, and suddenly people are getting cut, regardless of tenure, so that's a big difference, I think there's a different flavor to that.

Shiyan Koh: (05:00)
If you talk to buyers of technology, they're all looking for ways to shrink their budgets. So whether it's SaaS, whether it's ad spend, all of these things. And so that has a trickle-on effect. There was an Airbnb podcast or interview where they talked about how, early in the pandemic, they had to figure out how to grow without doing performance marketing, which is something they've relied on a lot. And so they leaned into the community. And they actually found that that did even better than what they had always just been relying on performance marketing. And so who does that impact; Facebook, Instagram, Google, everyone that they have been buying ads from? And then you talk to CFOs. And they're all like, Yes, I'm going through line by line all my spend, where did these 100 extra seats of Salesforce licenses come from? I think there's a sort of domino effect and people aren't immune to that. And yes, you were printing money before, you're probably still making okay money. But at the end of the day, people still have to report to shareholders, and if shareholders are seeing contractions across the board. And you're continuing with all your ridiculous benefits. There's some hedge fund guy who's like, Google didn't cut enough, the other like, 20,000 people or something. But, I don't think being a great business makes you immune to layoffs. Sadly, this is our capitalistic world that we live in.

Jeremy Au: (6:14)
Yes, it was interesting to see this financial analysis I was looking at. And one thing they were looking at was that 4 or 5% reduction in workforce, they think that you will translate to a 3 to 5% improvement in bottom line EBITDA for public, big tech companies, and these analysts were cheering them on, they were like, this is great, the best thing happening. And so it was interesting. I was at this fancy finance dinner, and everyone's cheering on the layoffs. And then in fact, in my head, I just sat down with a bunch of engineers who are really concerned about their jobs. And one person had been laid off. So I think that's the duality of the market.

Shiyan Koh: (6:51)
Those guys will cheer until they get laid off, then maybe they’ll remember they shouldn't cheer so much at other people's misfortunes

Jeremy Au: (6:58)
I know. Investors were like, this is a great time to start buying some tech stock soon in the coming months after all the layoffs are done. And earning reports are in actually as well. I thought it was interesting because I was actually reading a report and Jeffrey Pfeiffer who writes about power and about managers. He commented and he said, “Why is everybody cutting if the core requirement for technology stocks is to grow”? And then he was basically saying, maybe people are cutting just because other people are cutting, so they're not necessarily thinking through it. And his argument is that actually if you cut, it actually lowers your future performance of the company as well. I thought that was an interesting debate actually. Especially in the comments, it’s like yes, you got to cut because there's so much fight, and other people who are like, well if you're cutting, you're losing your ability to fight and stay ahead, and here's Jerry Pfeiffer was saying actually maybe companies are just following each other like a crowd mechanism like if they are firing, we must fire or if they are firing maybe we now have the opportunity to fire. So that was an interesting debate.

Shiyan Koh: (8:01)
I think it is one of those things though that hiring can’t get out of hand. So if you think about yourself, let's say you're a founder, you're 50 people, you know every single person, you're 100 people, you probably still know everyone. But imagine that you're running a 10,000-person organization. It is quite possible that there are parts of your organization that hired random people that are not productive. And then those people hired people. And so I don't think most corporations are running around at, 100% perfectly optimized every moment. And they probably shouldn't. That's not, you don't have the redundancies. And so then the question is, how far off are you? And when you do have an opportunity? Or do you have external pressure from your board or shareholders, to show that you are aware of the upcoming contraction or whatever, are you doing anything? But cutting is bad for morale. Because it makes everyone else look around and say, wait, am I next? Do I need to start interviewing? So you thought you were cutting to become leaner. But actually, you slow down your org because all these people are distracted and worried about their jobs. And then if the recovery comes faster than you expected, you're not well-positioned to capitalize on it. But, I was reading about, was an Indian startup that said, we're not going to cut anyone, but we're going to reduce salaries across the board, like shared pain with the execs taking a bigger cut, but then everyone started arguing about why they shouldn't get cut and started interviewing and leaving anyway. So there's this myth of like, collective responsibility, but people actually just want to look out for themselves. So it's a hard thing.

Jeremy Au: (9:33)
It reminds me of this conversation I had and it was like Netflix but they were, every startup says “Hey, we are family”. And then there’s a company that said “ A family doesn't fire people”. Yes, the
counter declaration was like, we don't call ourselves family because he says it increases expectations. We're employees and we're here to make money and create content, which is a big reminder and a big shock.

Shiyan Koh: (10:02)
I think their analogy is that they're a sports team. Because they're always trying to get the best player in a position. And obviously, sports seems a little bit more mercenary than family. They're trying to win. But your job is your job. And, I don't know, is it too cynical? You just can't expect anyone to really take care of you. Unless it's the government I suppose.

Jeremy Au: (10:21)
You're channeling some Jordan Peterson energy. There you go. You got to take care of yourself. I think there's a gap. It's like, all the sides are saying the family, big tech, especially the benefits is that right now, we're like hitting that sports team or, we're cutting. I think one thing, a question I got twice actually over the past month was, is it possible to keep my job or should I start looking in advance, so that's like their question. What do you think?

Shiyan Koh: (10:45)
How replaceable are you? I guess try to put yourself in your manager's shoes, or your managers, managers’ shoes. Like, are you essential? Are you pretty replaceable? Are you working on something where the revenue is really far out? Are you really close to current revenue? So, I think you have to take a step back and try to see yourself in the context of an organization, and working hard doesn't necessarily guarantee that you're safe from being fired, if the business is doing really terribly. But I think, this is why you need to have a backup plan. You need to have an emergency savings fund. All of these things you want to provide a little bit of insurance or cushion for yourself.
Don't live paycheck to paycheck. Continue to build your network. Talk to people, be aware of what's out there. But I don't think anyone's immune. Also, not to be depressing, but just because someone has done one layoff doesn't mean that they won't do more. Because what people find is, they might not have cut deeply enough in the first round of layoffs, and then they find themselves having to do more, which of course is terrible for morale.

Jeremy Au: (11:42)
Yes, definitely heard some horror stories where folks have taken out large mortgages, or they bought a car or some other large expense. And now they're caught in that dynamic where they're really worried about losing their job because is this not tenable as an expense? And I don't know, I don't think there's a good answer. My advice to them has been very much like just proactively cut and then go from there. You always get it back later if you can. But I think that's easier to say than to do. And especially for mortgage, that's a big tough one to take a big loss on there. So how do folks find a new job? I was talking to a headhunter and she was like, just seeing the market is turning from I could hardly find anybody to being swamped with candidates for very few jobs. So I think there's an interesting dynamic where I'm not sure how to advise folks on finding the next opportunity other than, talking to all the headhunters and recruiters that they can. So what would you recommend for someone who is potentially needing to find a job soon? What would you recommend them to do?

Shiyan Koh: (12:45)
I would just try to tell everyone you know what you're looking for. So I think sometimes people feel like paiseh, they don't want to say anything. But actually, what you need is, a lot of opportunities are on websites, you're not going to find them because you saw some job posting, people find out because they're there, they know about it, and they can let you know. And so you need to tell people what you're looking for. And try to be as specific as possible. I'm looking for a role in this size company that has this type of responsibilities. Not like I need a job, nobody knows what that means. Like, how are they going to think about it? And you want to be top of mind for them. So letting people know you're looking and that you're open and you want to explore stuff. I think that helps to keep you top of mind so that when they do see something, they send it your way. And ask them to ask their friends too because generally, these opportunities don't emerge from your first-degree connections, it's generally second and third-degree connections that wind up bringing opportunities to your attention.

Jeremy Au: (13:39)
Is it awkward to tell your friends that you're potentially looking? Because you know like you might get me heads up, could be coming down the pipe I think most folks know is potentially happening. How would you recommend someone to start that self-search, I think a lot of folks are scared about I don't know triggering the current managers or letting them know that a search is going on.

Shiyan Koh: (14:00)
I think that's more probably just when you like one on one, talk to people. Where you're like, I'm starting to look around. I'm not definitely going to leave. But I've been in this role for X number of years. And I'm curious what else is out there? Have you heard of anything? And don't tell your blabber-mouth friend, tell your more discreet friends. But also, the process of saying things out loud will also help you refine in your head what you're looking for. Because if you haven't looked for a job in a while, it feels a bit foreign. And then you also have grown in responsibility since the last time you were looking for a job. And so part of it is just fact-finding, understanding what's going on, who's hiring, whose businesses are doing well. And, you want to do that when you have time and not when you're under the gun. Because you've just been laid off and you don't think you could make your next mortgage payment or whatever it is.

Jeremy Au: (14:53)
And I think there's a lot of stress involved with that, because of the stigma like you said, it should be less stigmatized because so many people go into it simultaneously. But also like still just because you could tell someone that lots of people are going through it doesn't mean that their internal reality is like they're and there's a reason does this think about like how suicide and depression doubles or triples right during this time. Because of this combination like you said, mortgage or the job and also the identity. So what's the light at the end of the tunnel for folks who are transitioning? How do you see that?

Shiyan Koh: (15:22)
I think most people in tech are very capable. So it might not be your dream job, the next job, but it might not be something you would imagine yourself doing. Maybe you were like a big company person, and you find yourself at a smaller company. But you can think of that as an opportunity to grow your skill set. Or you're like a startup person who was like, I'm never going to work for the man or you don't want to take a title deflation or you don't want to feel like you're going sideways. But there are opportunities to learn in these environments as well. Or maybe you decide like, maybe it's time to work for yourself and control your own destiny. And you have an opportunity to explore new technologies or new products you've been wanting to build. One of my friends is thinking of leaving his job. And he was saying to me, I thought I would be sad, but I'm actually excited because I've had this backlog of products I've been wanting to build and now I feel like I can give myself permission to start playing around with these ideas. So I don't know how uplifted you feel by this Jeremy but that's all I got for you on that front.

Jeremy Au: (16:24)
Well I like what you said, is that, if you're in tech and got laid off, or you're potentially getting laid off, you're probably at the best position of all occupations to find a new job. Even though it's a bad season for you. Because you and I were discussing about designers, so many designers are going to lose their jobs or have to retrain or reskill because of Generative AI replacing their jobs. So many copywriters are going to redo their jobs as well. So that's an interesting piece where if you have the right tech mindset and you're tech-savvy, there's a chance that you can stay on top of these tools. So there's probably the best occupational training for you to stay afloat.

Shiyan Koh: (17:05)
But, the flip side of that is, how do you prepare for some of this stuff, is try not to put yourself in a position where losing your job makes you totally hosed. And so, I used to work in personal finance. We tell people to have six months of emergency savings and to try not to blow everything on big things that are beyond them. Because the other thing that happens is that your lifestyle always could grow more expensive. Once your lifestyle becomes more expensive, it's harder to dial it back right versus your lifestyle is pretty conservative. And then you occasionally give yourself a splurge but you don't lock yourself into that higher spend.

Jeremy Au: (17:45)
Well, light at the end of the tunnel, one piece I do think about is that, I think that the Fed is going to stop raising interest rates in the middle of this year, earlier this year, that’s what the market is starting to price in. And if that happens, there'll be a little bit of a breather and layoffs should slow down as people digest the news. So I think if you survive this year, with your job, you're in a somewhat decent spot for next year. So that's what one light at the end of the tunnel could be. What do you think, Shiyan?

Shiyan Koh: (18:08)
I feel like you always want to feel like you have agency. And it feels crappy that someone else is holding your feet in their hands. Whether it's Jerome Powell or your boss or whatever. And so I don't want to be like, you're probably safe if you make it through the year. Maybe it's just a good reminder on people to stay nimble and stay networked and keep trying to build their skills because that's the thing that's going to help you figure it out and also that you can do it. People have an incredible amount of ingenuity inside them and it often doesn't really show itself until they're challenged, so use this opportunity to challenge yourself.

Jeremy Au: (18:49)
You certainly reminded me of the comic, whereas the right way of the tunnel, is that an exit? Or is there a train coming? It's a tough one, I agree with you about it's really about a mindset, which is that a job is a job. And, you just got to stay afloat. And all this macro stuff that's happening in the news is really out there. But at the end, it's your job, your family, your salary. And like you said, you got to network and you just need one job. You just need to manage the budget. And all the other stuff, all the news about the war, inflation, interest rates, it's almost non-controllable. That's the big part. I think people should emphasize internal locus of control, you can control everything, and then there's good advice to be like, you can control what you can control and everything else is just background. Any thoughts about what managers could do during this time? So a lot of managers are somewhere in between. So I just talked to another manager and he's like, okay, I let go of one person on the team, and my job is safe, but how do I maintain my humanity? I don't think he said it that way but I think that's what I have got from the conversations, like how would you recommend managers who are also dealing with the possibility of layoffs but also having to conduct layoffs, any advice on how to be a human?

Shiyan Koh: (20:03)
Just think about how you'd want to be treated in that scenario. But the reality of it is when you tell someone, you're laying them off, they're in shock. They can't process tons of information. So you want to keep everything really clear. So sometimes what happens is, you feel bad about doing the layoff. So you say this very unclear, long-winded thing. And then the person is like, do I have a job? What's happening? I would just recommend being really clear about what's happening, there's a layoff going off in the company, and unfortunately, you're one of those impacted. This is your severance package. And I know this is probably like a lot to digest. If you want to go home, and not talk to your colleagues right now, we can come back to the office another day, to pick up your stuff, or we can
send it home for you. So it's very clear what's happening, you don't have a job, here's your package, do you want to go home, or you want to grab your stuff and go? The one thing you have to be concerned about with a layoff is whether are they going to like cause a scene because then you don't want to let them go back to your desk, you want to send them their stuff. Because if they cause a scene, then that creates a bigger issue for you and everyone who's left. But, you can say it's through no fault of your own. Because people always like, what did I do? Could I have done anything to change the outcome? And, you want to just be like, no, and you don't want to get into a debate. But just trying to be simple and direct and straightforward. And don't be a robot. And, you can offer after the fact, which is like, I'm happy to provide a reference for you. I'm sure you're laying on your feet, whatever it is, and these sorts of things. But, just think about how you'd want to be treated.

Jeremy Au: (21:34)
That's a tough one. I find managers really struggle to be as clear as possible for sure. And I think it's a tough position for folks. On that note, any personal stories of folks that you know who got laid off and then figured it out afterwards? Feel free to share some counter-examples as well if you have them but I'm just curious if there are any stories.

Shiyan Koh: (21:56)
I know a lot of folks who got laid off and honestly, tech people are incredibly capable. So some of them took the opportunity to be funemployed for six months. And they're like, I was pretty burnt out anyway, I'm going to take some time off before I start looking for a new job. Or they take the time to, go learn something new, like, I've been really interested in AI, but I never had a chance to play with it. And my job was so busy. I want to spend time building some projects. And for a lot of people I know, who were laid off at that moment, it was like the worst thing ever. But then, if you look at where they wound up, they did great, there was a bunch of junior members on my team that were caught up in a layoff. One of them is the CFO of a unicorn now. So I'm saying, the layoffs are not about you. It's not a judgment on you. It's like, don't take it to heart. Instead think of an opportunity to say like, how can I actually use this event to try new things and explore new opportunities? But I probably know hundreds of people who've been laid off. So, in fact, the founder of my startup NerdWallet was laid off during the ‘08 financial crisis, and that's how he started NerdWallet. That's pretty much it. He got laid off. He was working at a hedge fund. And he started writing code on the side. So it's like his little side project but he was still interviewing for other hedge fund jobs. And then he was like, maybe something's happening here. And then he decided to go full time on it. But he was a portfolio manager, I don't think he thought he was going to be a startup founder. It's just something he stumbled into.

Jeremy Au: (23:33)
On this note, if there's one piece of advice you want to give folks, what would that be as we wrap up this episode?

Shiyan Koh: (23:37)
Don't be shy. I think people are always shy to ask for help, don't be shy, just ask and you never know what's going to come up. So just go and ask, it’s fine and most people want to help you. Assuming that you're not an asshole, most people want to help you, so don't be shy about it.

Jeremy Au: (23:52)
I think my advice would be, a job is a job, it's not your identity, it's not your family, it's not your happiness, it's not your hobby. And so, you are so much more than it, a job feeds you and you create value in a job. And there's that, that's the transaction. And then you can continue those relationships with your colleagues, even after the job is done. And you can still do business with them again, probably, who knows down the road, five years, 10 years, 20 years down the road. So keep the long game going on the business side, and don't burn bridges on the way out. Because, the world is small, and tech is even smaller. And the same point, the short game is this, focus on yourself and your own humanity, and, things were sought out from there. As long as the caveat is, you don't have a very expensive mortgage that you don't have to unwind. Yes, this is like, we're on another caveat, you didn't do something illegal, didn’t do something unethical. You are not, you're in a stable country. You've got internet. All right. Thanks Shiyan

Shiyan Koh: (24:53)
See ya!