The home team talks with Wesley Faulkner, Senior Community Manager at AWS, about what’s going on with this cycle of tech layoffs, how to position yourself for success on the job market, and why it’s worth interviewing for jobs you might not want. Plus: The two things you should do as soon as you get an offer.
Per one count, more than 280,000 people were laid off from tech jobs in 2022 and the first two months of 2023.
What do layoffs have in common with farting at a party? Both are a bad look if you’re the only one doing it.
ICYMI: On a recent episode, we talked about how these layoffs are reshaping the job market and where to find software engineering roles outside of tech.
Just laid off, or worried you might be? Cohost Ryan Donovan has some advice.
Connect with Wesley on LinkedIn.
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Ben Popper Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk all things software and technology. I'm your host, Ben Popper, joined as I often am by my wonderful collaborator, Cassidy Williams. Hi, Cassidy.
Cassidy Williams Hello! I'm excited for today's episode.
BP As am I. There's no getting around it. We've written about it on the Stack Overflow Blog. Lots of churn in the tech industry these days. First there was the great resignation and a lot of competition for talent, and then more recently a lot of layoffs, unfortunately. And so today we wanted to chat a little bit about how folks can set themselves up for success in that hunt for the next role, whether that's because they want to move on from where they're at or because they’re unemployed and looking for work, whatever the situation may be. We have a great guest coming on to discuss this with us: Wesley Faulkner, who is a Senior Community Manager over at AWS. Hey, Wesley.
Wesley Faulkner Hey. And don't forget the quiet quitting.
BP Quiet quitting, I won't forget.
WF And now we're in the loud layoffs.
BP Oh, gotcha. Quiet quitting to the loud layoffs. I guess first things first, when you look out at the industry right now, I would love to hear from both of you, do you think that things have calmed down? Did we go through a period and now there seems to be a cessation? Or do you think we're in for more noise over the next six months?
WF To me it feels like they're tracking with profits or earnings announcements, and so I wonder if there's a full cycle that needs to be gone through. So we have like another month, depending on when companies announce their profits, before we'll see an actual ending of this cycle of layoffs. That's my personal opinion.
CW Well and it's also just kind of a very weird time where it's earnings and everything, some companies are doing really well but they're still doing layoffs, some are not. Some are hiring a ton and some are hiring nobody at all. There's lots of reorgs and restructures and stuff. I don't want to just throw around the word unprecedented, but it kind of feels like it is because it’s different from previous layoff spells that we've seen before.
BP I heard a good analogy, I think it was Joma Tech, just sort of saying when everybody's doing well nobody wants to be that one company that stands out like a sore thumb and does layoffs. Like, why are you doing that? It was all about perks and everything else. When everybody's doing layoffs it's like if you're at a party and everybody just starts ripping farts, well you can too. Nobody's going to look at you a scant because I guess everybody's doing it. So in some ways it feels like folks are taking advantage of this moment to maybe correct for some of the very aggressive hiring that they did. I think Cassidy, you and I have talked about this before, overall for most of these large tech companies, their headcount is still higher now than it was in 2019 or 2020, so. If you are someone who is thinking about how to position yourself in the job market, Wesley, what are some of the things that come to mind first? Is it the way you set up your resume? Is it your LinkedIn profile? Is it getting out and doing talks? Just from your perspective, what are some things people can do to kind of set themselves up for success?
WF You mentioned that right before we started the show that you looked at my LinkedIn, so I'm sure you can see that I have a lot of experience with switching jobs or finding a job. So the first thing to do in terms of if you're lucky enough to understand yourself, that's kind of where you start. What's important to you? Is it work culture? Is it the size of team? Is it the size of company? Because those aren't synonymous, because if you're at a startup that's engineering heavy, the engineering team could be the largest team in the company as opposed to a company that's less traditionally in tech where that team might be smaller even though the company itself might be big. So understand the team size that you feel is important to you and the company size that you would like to be subsumed into. Figure out if you need to be remote or if you need to be with other people so in person is something that's important to you. So before you start looking, really understand everything that drives you, that kind of sets you up for success. Also when you’re looking for a new job, it's also an opportunity to upgrade, so see if you need to go for a more senior role. Look what title you want to hunt for, and then also kind of look at the kinds of the projects that you feel passionate about. Are they working in the developer stack that you need or you want, or are they more maintenance mode where they have something that's good and you just want to work on making small changes to the outside of that. So really understanding what drives you, what's your passion, and make sure that you're in an environment that when you think about going to work you don't just start chipping your eye out with an ice pick. You want to actually be invigorated and you want to kind of be energized and saying, “That's what I want to do.” So start from a place of optimism and don't start whittling down saying, “Oh, well I don't think I'm good enough, or I don't think I'm qualified enough.” Don't self-censor and edit before you even get started because that's not setting you up for success.
CW One thing that I often tell people is, when you’re job hunting or even just if you're doing a life audit of yourself, you should be writing down, “What am I good at? What am I not good at? What do I like to do? What do I not like to do?” And kind of use that to guide the decisions that you're making, because a lot of times you might be just chugging along and if you are not making any of these life audits for yourself or career audits, you're just kind of doing what you feel like you should be doing but you might not be liking it, you might not be growing enough. But if you are realizing, “Wait, I actually want to be going in this direction or that,” it could really affect the decisions you make, the companies you apply for, that sort of thing.
BP Yeah, I think that's a great point. Somebody was telling me the other day that they take job interviews even if it's a position they're not interested in. They're at a company, they don't really want to move but they get an offer and the company is intriguing to them in some way. And the value there is that you can go into the interview and just be totally honest. It's hard for me in an interview setting or even a managerial setting not to want to be nice and tell the occasional white lie or round the edges off. But if you have no stake in this at all you can just say, “This would be my dream version of this job.” You kind of go through that. You’re kind of rubber ducking it a little bit with yourself, and you're having the interview and you get the position, don't get the position. But that's a good exercise to sort of say, “What position would kind of be perfect for me?”
CW Yeah, I do that too, actually.
WF Yeah. I love taking interviews. Just like this podcast, but for jobs.
CW Well it's one of those things where I often tell people that the best time to apply for jobs is when you don't need one, because it's kind of like what you said, the pressure is off a little bit and so you can be a bit more honest about things and if it doesn't work out, it's fine because you have a job and you don't necessarily need that job. But in the best case scenario, you might discover a role that you might not have thought about before because it answered questions that you didn't realize you had.
BP Yeah, I think that's right. So Wesley, you mentioned that you've had a lot of different jobs over the course of your career and that you as well enjoy taking interviews. We talked a little bit about sort of setting yourself up for success and how to position yourself in public. When you look out there, how would you decide which company you feel is right for you? How would you evaluate that without actually being in the company? I know some have interesting interview processes that maybe are helpful for that where you get to spend a week working with them inside of their repos and actually working through a change that the engineering team or whatever team you're going to be on was doing so you almost have this simulation of what it would be like that's really cool. But barring that, what are some of your strategies for figuring out if a company would be the right fit for you before you make a big life change and kind of commit to that new organization?
WF Right. Just to touch on what you were saying before, like taking interviews just to see and explore. What you want to do is make sure that your online profile is aligned to your skills and your passions, and make sure that's kind of consistent between LinkedIn, Mastodon, I use Polywork which is a great aggregator of different work samples. That's all great to make sure to allow the thing or the perfect job that you didn't know about to find you and come to you. But then also once you have your list of what you're looking for in your perfect job and you do the work to find it on LinkedIn or through your own network, in order to vet those companies, one thing that I like to do is to, of course, use the online tools that are available: Glassdoor, Levels, Blind, to kind of look behind the scenes to see how they treat people, how they pay people, and generally what the work culture is like. And then there's your peer communities. So I'm in a Slack group for developer relations. There are several different Slack groups or Discords or different types of groups where people are birds of a feather where you're all kind of understanding where the industry is heading and what kind of companies are players in that industry and so you can kind of reach out to that network as well to figure out general temperature, sentiment, what do you feel about this company? What have you heard about this company? And if you get a lot of personal experience, either with people who are currently or used to be with the company, try to see if you can set up a time to chat with those people. And of course, people, like you're saying, who are no longer with the company usually are a little bit freer to express how things actually work, how the sausage gets made. But then what you want to do is take that, make a mental note, and realize that there is a possibility that it could be their department that they’re in, the specific manager that they had, or a specific company culture at the time. So realize that this is all encapsulated into those kind of caveats that are up to changing over time, especially with past employees. And if you can talk to current employees, what you can do is maybe have a different kind of conversation where you can look for those red flags or green flags that you were told about and see if they give you evidence to verify those things. And then once you gather all of that information, hopefully you can take the online sources, the community feedback and all those face-to-face one-on-one interviews that you had, and when you take those into the actual job interview or when you talk to a recruiter, know that those are the things that you need to kind of key in on to see if what you hear is reinforcing or actually contradictory to what you've heard from the street or the vine.
BP Yeah, makes a lot of sense. So let's say you've presented yourself in a light that makes sense for you. A company has come along that's aligned with what you are seeking next and you've done a little research and it feels like this company is going to be a good fit after talking with some folks. Now you're going into that interview phase. Let's talk a little bit about interview tactics and then we'll play it out. Let's say it was successful, we'll talk about what it would mean to negotiate for a position. Let's start with the interview. To both of you, how do you approach an interview at a tech company? And I don't know if necessarily a technical interview is going to be a piece of it, but often that's where folks find the most anxiety, I think.
CW I think the technical interview is one of those things that varies so much from company to company that it's just stressful because some companies will want you to implement merge sort from scratch or something. And unless you have a traditional computer science background and you just graduated, you probably haven't done that for your job in a while and so there's a lot of studying involved. And then some are much more practical where it's just like, “Solve X, Y, Z, and this is something that we actually do regularly in the role.” And so that technical side is definitely a challenging part that often stops people from applying in the first place because they're just like, “I'm not ready because I have to study before I can actually start applying for these roles.”
BP Yeah, that's unfortunate that it creates that hurdle where you might disqualify yourself without really needing to.
WF Yeah. I've got to say that that's kind of almost itself a task to measure a company, because I've also applied for a PM role, and I would have to do some technical coding challenge where it feels like they're not necessarily matched in terms of the day-to-day and reflective of the role, which almost shows that maybe the company themselves don't know what they're looking for, or don't know what's important. And the reason why I mention that as a red flag is because if they don't do a good job of understanding how to evaluate candidates, then that means that they could be misguided in terms of how or what it looks like to be successful in the role. And in the interview process there's a few things that I do to make sure that I understand and they understand what the role actually is. One is even the job description. If the job description seems like a template, like they just downloaded it and then they posted it, then it seems as though it's not bespoke. They don't know what the person is going to do. Have you ever been to a job where you say, “Okay, my role is –I don't know– lead developer. What is our first thing we're going to work on?” And they say, “Well, that's what we hired you for. You’ve got to tell us what that is.” And there’s even a post that says, “Be on the ground floor,” or “Really lead the team.” So those seem good, but those could be really red flags because they could say, “Tell us what to do, but then when you tell us what to do we will still push back because we're not fully convinced.” And so it's always a fight between, “This is the agenda that I think we should be doing,” to, “Okay, now give me all of the evidence where you're doing more work to justify the job rather than doing the work to do the work.” So that's one thing to look for. Some other things that I ask for too during the interview is resources and costs. So if you are let's say in marketing, you're looking for a marketing role and you're going to need someone to do graphics design, you're going to need someone to do some copywriting or to create an e-book or to do anything that's related to being successful with the goals or the things that they say they want you to do, don't take for granted that the resources are also coming with the role.
BP Yeah, get it in writing if you can.
WF Yes. So if you say, “Okay, thank you for hiring me as your first developer advocate. I'm also going to need some way to make sure that I upskill or stay in sync, so is there an allocation for me to go to conferences purely for educational purposes?” And if their answer is, “Huh, I've never thought about that,” that's a clue. If it's something where they’re like, “Of course. Yeah, that's something we want you to keep learning and growing,” then that could also give you a sense of if they're fully going to give you the benefits to actually do the role rather than just really focusing on hiring you and then you have to figure it out, and then now there's no budget for anything and you have to be super scrappy. And when there's no money, you replace that with time and that goes into burnout but I digress. Next question I ask is, “What is your onboarding process?” And if they can't answer that question in detail or generally what timeline or what they expect for you in the first 30/60/90 or when you get into the office, that means that they're also really not defined on setting you up for success, which is another clue to really make sure you ask those questions during the interview. And then understanding their timeline for hiring. I've been in the interview process where you wait for months and you don't know, are you ghosted, or were you earlier in the process? And so getting that cleared also tells you if they are looking for the right person or are they looking for the right person for right now? And you have a different approach to interviewing depending on either of those scenarios. If they're looking for the exact right person for the role, this unicorn that has this halo when they show up for the interview, that may be a red flag that they are either looking for a personality or they're actually really defined in the role and they know exactly what they need to do to be successful. Some of that right person right role is super protective because they've just been burned by someone who was in the role before and they're like, “Oh, we can't do this again,” and so they have a list of all the things that the person shouldn't do, more than what the person should do. So understanding that hiring timeline also gives you insights into how to prepare for the role, because you may need to ask more questions rather than give more answers if that is indeed the case, to make sure that you are the right fit and make sure you're vetting both ways– that it’s not just them looking at you, but you are looking and understanding exactly why they have this type of restriction. And then one of the questions that I think I don't think a lot of people talk about during interviews is the quality bar. Because people assume that you have to be the best or the quality needs to be high, but some expectations for a company is, “Get me an MVP. Let's iterate, let's test it, let's get it out there.” And so the pace of work and understanding when you need to deliver things and what level of quality or finality that they have to be in before you can actually show it to someone or present it is something that's extremely important. Because you don't want to turn something in and they say, “This doesn't meet our quality bar.” Or you turn something in and they say, “Well, I wish you got feedback earlier,” or, “We wish we got this earlier so that we can be more collaborative.” So understanding how the quality of the work is during the interview process will help you set yourself up to set expectations and make sure that you can meet them.
BP It's interesting to hear it from that perspective. It made me think a little bit about folks who are listening who might be considering applying for a job. You mentioned if the job description feels kind of boilerplate that could be a red flag. It makes more sense in my opinion, maybe this isn't everybody, to send a very short CV that's actually about the job you're applying for and says something specific and unique to you, then a very long cover letter that is clearly boilerplate. So if you're listening, save yourself some time. The spray and pray method of boilerplate CV goes everywhere hasn't really worked for folks I know in the past. It’s better to write something nice and terse, what interested you in the job and one thing that you've got that you think qualifies you for it or excites you about it, and then let them look at your resume and take it from there.
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CW One question that I like to ask in interviews, and this is kind of later in the process but it’s been pretty helpful for me to kind of gauge company culture, is I like to ask each of my interviewers what is the most important thing to the company? Is it the employees, the customers, or the product? None of these answers are wrong, but what is interesting and very insightful is, does everybody have the exact same answer, and can everybody explain why it's the exact same answer? Because all of these things are important. The employees are important, the customers are important, the product is important. But by everybody saying the exact same thing across the team, you know that the team is aligned communication-wise. Where for example, when I also was an Amazonian at one point, Wesley, every single person was like, “Oh, it's customers, because customer obsession is a core leadership principle at Amazon.” And I knew that everyone communicated well on that front that this is the priority. And then there have been other companies that I've been to where they're just like, “Oh, it's employees. Employees number one first and then everything else follows.” Or, “It's the product.” And once again, none of them are wrong answers and it doesn't mean the other things aren't important. It just is really good to see how the team is aligned and their reasoning behind it as well.
BP Right, makes a lot of sense. So Wesley, last question before we wrap things up here. Let's say you've set yourself up for success with your online profile. You've been reached out to by a company that you think is a good fit and after actually getting to have a conversation with that organization, they make you an offer. What's the approach to negotiating on compensation, and what are some things you think folks can do to avoid basic errors, or to maximize really their value?
WF I think usually, even if it's a phone call or an email, when you actually get the role– yay, celebrate, be happy. Don't poo-poo any offer that comes your way, whether it's good or bad. But the first thing that I suggest that everyone does is respond with asking and getting clarity about two things. One, can they send the entire comp package, which means healthcare, days off, vacation, 401k match, all of that to make sure that they get a full breadth of all of the benefits of the company and say, “I would like to evaluate this compensation in total.” The second thing that I say that they should do is ask specifically when they have to get an answer by. When you get an offer, I know the reflex is to respond with a yes or a no, but make sure you respond with getting a timeframe of when you have to do that. There's a few reasons for that. One, if you're doing multiple interviews, you want to make sure that hopefully you get into a bidding situation and having more time allows for that to be more of a possibility or probability. Two, you don't want to react from a place of emotional compromise where you're so excited that you want to say yes. Even if you feel in your heart you're going to say yes, give it some time. You might even get a reaction or a response in which they up the offer without you even doing any negotiation. But the other thing and the last reason why you don't just say yes immediately is no matter what, this is life changing. This is changing someone's life, mostly yours, but your family or whoever you're in a relationship with. Time commitments could be changed. Take the time to talk to people, get some consults, talk about all the pros and cons. Make sure that you're coming at the decision from one that works for your left brain and your right brain. And if they can't give you time or if they're not willing to give you time, you kind of understand why. To me that feels as if like the final question mark of why this company is giving you the offer. Is it because they feel that you make great decisions and if they feel that you make great decisions they should give you all the information and the time to make sure you consider that wisely? Oh, and before I forget, going back to what you're saying about questions, these aren't mine, but I thought these are also really great for interviews. One question is for the people who are still at the company, just ask your interviewer, “Why do you think people stay?” And then ask the interviewer again whenever you get that answer, ask them, “If you talk to people who left the company, ask them why they left.”
CW That's a good one. I like asking that one too.
WF Those aren't mine but I forget who I can attribute those to, but thank you, those are amazing questions as well.
BP All right, very cool.
CW I think the only thing that I'd add for why a company might be giving you time or might not be giving you time, keep in mind that company size, once again, does matter on that front. Larger companies could probably give you all the time in the world because they have the resources and ability to do so, but if you're talking to a very small startup that's less than 10 people, they probably need to know a lot sooner because it affects them much more immediately as a small team. And so keep that in mind while you're applying that that's something that you're going to have to consider if you get an offer from either end of the spectrum size-wise where you have to figure out, “Is this something where I can make a decision sooner rather than later because it's small? Or is this something where I can have a bit more flexibility?” And that's just kind of the nature of the beast.
BP Right. Yeah, that brings to mind, Wesley, you mentioned earlier how frustrating it can be if you don't know whether you've been ghosted or whether a response is coming back. If you're hiring, on the flip side, it's great to have a pipeline, but better to have those conversations with people, letting them know you're not hiring right away. And I actually recently learned in some places it’s illegal to post a job that's just a pipeline job, not where the offer can be made immediately. So definitely something you have to be cautious with.
WF You also need to see or ask or understand if the recruiter is internal or external because that matters as well. Because if it's an external company, some of that pressure may be artificial based on them wanting to make sure that they can lock in the deal, or get their bonus in time, or they're on some sort of other external constraints that's based on their structure and how they're incentivized rather than the company itself. So the recruiter may not also be the representative of the company, and that's something that you should understand going in.
BP Very cool.
BP All right, everybody. We are going to wrap it up here. As we do in every show, I want to shout out someone who came on Stack Overflow and helped spread a little bit of knowledge. Today, we'll give a shout out to nawara for an inquisitive badge. Thanks nawara for coming on and asking a well-received question on 30 separate days, maintaining a positive question record. All that curiosity has helped a lot of folks gain some knowledge on Stack Overflow. I am Ben Popper. I'm the Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me on Twitter @BenPopper. If you have questions or suggestions about the podcast, shoot us an email, it's just firstname.lastname@example.org. And most importantly, if you like what you heard, why don't you leave us a rating and a review, because it really helps.
CW I'm Cassidy Williams. I'm CTO at Contenda. You can find me @Cassidoo on most things.
WF And I've been Wesley Faulkner. You can find me on Mastodon. I'm at hachyderm.io/@wesley83. I'm also on Polywork, I mentioned that before. You can just go to wesleyfaulkner.com to find all of my socials.
BP Very cool. All right, everyone. Thanks for listening, and we'll talk to you soon.
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