An Old Hacker's Tips On Staying Employed

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!

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.

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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.