The Stack Overflow Podcast

What do the tech layoffs really tell us?

Episode Summary

The home team convenes to talk about how tech layoffs are reshaping the industry, where to look for software engineering jobs beyond tech, the brain-computer interface that speeds up communication for people with paralysis, and Ben’s million-dollar game idea (free for the stealing).

Episode Notes

Naturally, tech layoffs are top-of-mind for many of us. Despite comparisons to the dot-com bubble, what we’re seeing right now is different. Here’s what the tech and media layoffs really tell us about the economy.

In praise of analog technology: why Millennials and Gen Z are springing for paper maps.

Make Time, a way of “rethinking the defaults of constant busyness and distraction so you can focus on what matters every day,” was developed in response to always-on Silicon Valley culture.

Wifi routers can now be used to detect the physical positions of humans and map their bodies in 3D. Terrifyingly dystopian or interestingly practical? Why not both?

In recent accessibility news, a brain-computer interface (BCI) that converts speech-related neural activity into text allows a person with paralysis due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to communicate at 62 words per minute, nearly 3.5 times faster than before. From the abstract: “These results show a feasible path forward for using intracortical speech BCIs to restore rapid communication to people with paralysis who can no longer speak.” 

Shoutout to Lifeboat badge winner Holger for their answer to Sort an array containing numbers using a 'for' loop.

Episode Transcription

[intro music plays]

Ben Popper Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk all things software and technology. I am Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow, joined as I often am by my wonderful crew of collaborators, Cassidy Williams and Ceora Ford. Hey, y'all. 

Ceora Ford Hi! 

Cassidy Williams Hello!

BP So first thing we’ve got to discuss before we get into some fun news links– the layoffs continue in the tech industry. It's tough times out there. Our hearts go out to anyone affected, obviously. Cassidy, you and I were chatting right before we started the show and you made an interesting point. I'd like you to dive a little bit into the details, but basically, instead of pivoting to look for another role at a traditional ‘tech company,’ there are places that are hiring a lot that might have great tech software engineering teams that are not big tech companies.

CW Yeah, that's something that I've been seeing a lot lately where FinTech companies and health tech companies, companies that aren't the FANGs, the ones that go viral for the latest and greatest things, those companies are hiring so many software engineers right now where the folks that I know who have gotten laid off have been able to get roles pretty quickly in companies like that. And so for anybody out there applying, start thinking about not just the Googles, the Microsofts, the Metas and stuff like that, but think about the Cerners, the Epics, the Bloombergs. The companies where they're really large companies that do other things, and tech is kind of part of that, and apply there because they're hiring a bunch.

CF Yeah, I think it's the big software companies that are taking big hits now. But someone was saying that retail companies like Nike have software engineers that they need. There are still other companies like that that are still hiring. It's just like you said, the FANG companies that are having these layoffs right now, which sucks, it does, but the job market isn't completely dry. 

CW Right. I was talking to someone where Chicago sports teams are hiring a bunch of tech people. It's just like, “Well, if you want to be a software engineer for the Blackhawks, yeah, they're hiring.” And it's not what you would typically think of, but tech is everywhere and you don't have to be in a very, very, tech-oriented company to have a tech job. 

BP And in that sense maybe it's something that could be really fun for you if your passion is sports and you could go build their mobile app or their ticketing app or their website, or your passion is some kind of e-commerce or brand or sneakers, you’re a sneakerhead. Go work for Nike. So maybe you’ve got to think outside the box a little bit. Another thing that I wanted to share that I had read was just sort of comparing this to the dotcom boom and bust. Back then, I think they said something like 25 to 30% of all tech jobs disappeared in a very short period of time. So right now we're not anywhere close to that. Most of this is more like 5-6%, and oddly, I know this is hard to keep in mind and it doesn't matter to the people who are laid off. To them, this is still a tough thing. These companies hired so much during the pandemic, especially 2021, that they still have net more employees now than they did at the beginning of 2021. These big numbers we hear for layoffs, you don't hear about the hiring all at once. You hear about the layoffs all at once, but they're just sort of cutting back a portion of the people that they hired during the pandemic. 

CW It's one of those things where we just saw so much over-hiring at the end of 2021 and early 2022. It's a shame that it's affecting people's livelihoods, and also just because all of these jobs grew and stuff and then they made cuts and there's people who have been at some of these larger tech organizations for 10, 12, 15 years, which is wild to even consider. That kind of stuff is so hard, but it's also just so weird how it's still net positive but it's not great and there's a lot of politics around it and stuff. It's lots of human problems, I think, too. 

CF Yeah. This article by The Atlantic made a couple of good points that I don't know if I completely understand, if I'm being honest. But it was trying to explain why they're happening. We know that they are happening, but what's the big deal? And over-hiring is part of it. But it was saying that there's been a decrease in advertising and a lot of these companies get a lot of their revenue from advertising as well. So that's part of the reason why they're making less money, I guess. And then it also said that –and this is the part where I don't know if I understood this correctly– it was saying that during the pandemic there was a huge boost in people using various software, and so for that reason there was an expectation that expansion would continue. But now that we're in the post-pandemic world or late stage pandemic world, people have seen that the increase in usage of these softwares has decreased. And so for that reason there's been a change in the stock market, I guess the worth of these companies. 

BP Yeah, it makes total sense. During the pandemic it was like, “Oh, our business is doubling in size every day because everybody's switching to remote meetings,” and people were like, “Well that's amazing. Your stock price is going to go up and up and up.” And then I think naturally you would say, “Well, when the pandemic ends that'll ease up,” but nobody knows when the pandemic is going to end or when people are going to go back to offices, and so when that explosive growth that was sort of centered around the change in our lives started to peter out, that's when people turned on the companies, their stock price went down, they started getting more conservative and so they do layoffs in response to some of that. 

CF Yeah, and that's basically what I think the article was trying to say, which honestly makes sense. If you think about it, I was talking to one of my friends about this actually recently, now that most countries, most cities don't have as many restrictions or any restrictions at all as far as in-person events and things like that, I think because for a while, seeing your family, air travel, concerts, all those things were totally taken away and now they're back, of course people are going to take advantage of them again and be less online, which I think generally is a good thing, but it also means that because I believe a lot of these software companies didn't anticipate the slowdown happening, even though if you think about it it makes sense that it would happen, but they didn't anticipate it so that's why you have the over-hiring and then when things change with their stock and everything like that and the investors and whatever, they kind of overcompensated a little bit without factoring in the fact that I'm not going to be on Spotify and Twitter and whatever else a hundred hours a day because I can go outside and be with my friends and family now. 

CW Yeah. I actually saw a stat yesterday where it was something like comparing now to 2020 when everybody was just getting into lockdown and stuff, the number of new podcasts that are coming out has dropped by like 80%. It's kind of funny to think about because we really revamped this podcast in the pandemic and stuff, and I think it's a very similar thing where people are just not doing as much stuff at home anymore. And I also think that is kind of transitioning into this article that we're going to be talking about where I think because we've been so digital heavy over the past few years because we've just been inside, and that's what we do, people are starting to want to do non-digital things and starting to want to work with paper. 

BP Okay. I see where you're going with this transition.

CW Yeah, segue time. 

BP Segue time. 

[music plays]

BP All right, everybody. This episode is sponsored by Porkbun, a refreshingly different domain name registrar. You can get a free .app or .dev domain name for your next online project by visiting and using the coupon code stackpodcast at checkout. So go on, support the show. Use the coupon code and get yourself a free domain. 

[music plays]

BP There was a fun article from The Wall Street Journal, and it said the use of paper maps among millennials and Gen Z is going up. And for folks who are going on a trip, a road trip, an adventure, the paper map is a good way to ensure you are disconnected from the internet, not getting a work notification, living in the moment, and maybe forced to do the old school thing of asking for directions a little bit. It just gets you more engaged with the real world as well as having a cool aesthetic, I guess.

CF Yeah. Honestly, it's so interesting because a lot of the aesthetic of the 2000’s is kind of coming back as well, not even just with fashion, but even with technology and stuff. People using the maps, or I've seen people using wired headphones again and even taking those crispy digital camera pictures, or disposable camera pictures or whatever. All that is back and it's just so interesting to see. In the same conversation I had with my friend that I mentioned earlier, we also talked about how there's this anti-influencer movement happening, whether people realize it or not. But people are not as interested in the social media-heavy celebrities like the Kardashians or just influencer stuff period. And I was saying that I think people are just like, “You know what? Because of the pandemic, all of that in-person stuff was taken away.” Now everybody's like, “Man, it's so much better to have a real relationship opposed to a parasocial relationship.” So they're investing more time in those things and the post-pandemic world is just so different and it's interesting to see. We talked about the layoffs, so I hate that that's a symptom of the change, but it is still an interesting thing. And this paper map thing is one of those little parts of the puzzle. 

BP Yeah. No, I think you're right. I've seen some of those other ones. People are bringing back flip phones. That's part of a little bit of a Luddite movement of, “I do need to stay connected, but I don't want constant notifications and distractions.” And then, this is just more aesthetics than it is disconnecting, but maybe not, because I'm going to go out for a night to a party. I'm going to bring this Sony digital camera, and that way I can get some great snaps, but I won't also be hooked on my phone. So you can get that element of it using the old school technology. 

CF Yeah, yeah.

CW I saw there was a child on TikTok saying that she was so excited about her vintage camera she got at Goodwill and it was from 2006 and it hurt my heart to call it vintage. 

BP It hurts to realize how old we are. 

CW But it also reminds me of, just this past week Sony announced that they're bringing back the Walkman, and it looks very cool. It has an amp and deck in it. It's high quality sound. You can still connect Spotify and stuff to it if you want, but it's meant for high quality music in a device. And as I was looking at it I was like, “I kind of want that.” Because sometimes I do want to listen to music on my phone or something, but I don't want to be distracted by the pings of notifications.

BP Definitely. 100%.

CW Sure, I can put on Do Not Disturb, but…

CF I've also seen a resurgence of people buying DVDs and CDs. Again, the streaming services cutting half of the shows and them just being lost in the ether and we're never going to see them again, I think that made people realize that we really don't own these movies and TV shows that we love so they're going back to having DVD collections and CD collections. It's just so interesting because it's such a contrast to the way things were two years ago.

CW Even a year ago.

CF Yeah. And I just find that it's fascinating to see it happen. This is my first time being sentient enough, not sentient, but conscious enough to know what's going on in these cultural shifts. So I'm enjoying watching it happen because other times I was too young and stupid to really care. 

BP Yeah. Cassidy, I have had that experience several times of, “I want to go on a run. I just want to tune out and listen to some music,” but for whatever reason I guess I forgot to turn on Do Not Disturb and then it stinks. Siri is reading my text messages out loud to me and I'm getting all these pings from Slack, and with the Walkman I would just be in focus mode, grinding along or whatever. So I like that. 

CW I remember on the podcast Alexander Obenauer was a guest a while back and he was talking about the future of operating systems and stuff and he's doing a lot of research around that. And one of his posts that he made since that episode was talking about just notifications in general and how do we rethink notifications so it can be something where you say, “I want notifications now, but otherwise don't show them to me,” and stuff. Because right now all of our devices and stuff are designed to get our attention and keep it as much as possible. That's how services work. That's just how the world is working right now. And I'll be really curious to see if with this resurgence, if it does end up kind of flipping on its head. 

BP Right. This goes back to another person you bring up a lot, Cal Newport, and there was a big sort of Q&A recently in The New York Times saying that a solution to some of the distraction is to set the time for work and set the time for notifications. Like, “Every hour I will check notifications for 15 minutes and then get back to you and go through all of that.” I guess the expectation at some workplaces –this is not true for me which is nice, unless it's an emergency and then people let me know– is that you'll always be around to respond to a slack in 5 or 10 minutes, and that sets this dangerous precedent of, “I'll always be interruptible.” 

CW Right. There's a book I read recently called Make Time that talked about it and we can drop a link to it in the show notes. But in this book it was talking about all of these different productivity books, like The Deep Works by Cal Newport and Atomic Habits and things like that. There's all of those where it's just like, “You just have to focus. You just have to make this happen.” And there's that, but it's also challenging because all of these services are designed for you to not do that. And what was interesting and Make Time was talking about was focusing on how to prioritize your time so that you can have, like you said, times to check notifications, times to respond quickly, times where you're not going to, and figuring out how to make time for yourself to prioritize what's important to you.

BP Speaking of how technology is all around us, there was a research paper that came out recently from the very smart folks at Carnegie Mellon University. They reported that just using WiFi routers, they can detect and perceive the posts and positions of humans and map their bodies clearly in 3D. Now at first I thought this is purely dystopian and terrifying because it's like, you hack into the router and you see where somebody is in the house and, “What good use could this have?” was my initial reaction. This just sounds like bad news. But I guess they were arguing in the sort of research that there could be some positive uses to this. So for example in healthcare, if somebody was in a bad position and you were trying to monitor their health remotely, or somebody was in isolation and you wanted to understand about them, you could use this without a ton of invasive gear like cameras and LIDAR and all those other things. I don't know. To me it seems like something with more potential for evil than good, but also very interesting that they can do it. 

CF Yeah, this is one of those times where I wish that we had more regulations around tech, because it would be so cool if there was a law that was like, “Don't use this to spy on people, but you can use it to make sure that people who are sickly are safe.” That would be so great, but we don't have that, so these things, these discoveries could have really good uses, but at the same time, is it worth it having companies knowing that I lay in bed 12 hours a day on Saturday? Do you know what I mean? 

BP Hey, don't out yourself like that. You don't have to out yourself. 

CW You know what it reminded me of? Did you see Batman: The Dark Night with Christian Bale? I think it's in the second movie when the Joker is involved and he's using the bad sonar and it's using internet signals to figure out where the hostages are. It felt very much like that movie where it's showing the shapes of bodies and the signals and stuff. 

BP Yes, I know what you're talking about. It's the scene where everybody's wearing the clown masks. Maybe we'll put the YouTube link in there. But yeah, there are these signals bouncing all around us all the time, and if you know how to read them, they can tell you a lot. Speaking of which, I had to bring this up. This is a personal sort of obsession of mine. There was a research paper that came out and it's in a preprint right now, so I guess it hasn't been fully released, but it's from a bunch of academics who are in the world of neuroprosthesis and they have developed a brain computer interface. And basically what this does is it allows people who are completely paralyzed to think about handwriting something and the thoughts about the movement that would create the writing can be interpreted and then it can write that on a computer and they can now enable people with paralysis to communicate at 62 words per minute. I always just think this is the coolest stuff. It's like Neuralink, but not that company, just some research institute. 

CF You know what I wonder? And this is something I thought of when I was like 10 years old that I figured would never be possible because when you're 10 you think of stupid stuff that isn’t possible. But I used to hate when I would try to describe a dream to somebody and I just couldn't get the essence of the bizarreness of my dream across. Can you imagine if we had something that would be able to actually depict what we dream and actually play it for other people? That would be so nuts.

BP Or just record it at night so you could play it back for yourself, because I always forget. I have a great dream and then three days later I can sort of barely recall it. 

CW I feel like all my dreams are stress dreams, and this sounds terrible. But for all y'all out there who have good dreams, that sounds amazing. 

BP Well, they say the more you work on your dreams and remember them and write about them, the easier it is to control them in the future. So that's your pathway to lucid dreaming. 

CF That's pretty interesting. I didn't know that. But anyway, that's my contribution to that. I want to see if someone can create some device. 

BP Well go out and patent it. I'm sure.

CF Yeah. I want to be able to watch my dreams like a movie.

BP All right, one more that, I apologize, I didn't put it into the show notes, but I want somebody to build this game with me. So if you're listening and this appeals to you, let's talk after the show. Send me an email. The game is called Word Dolly from the fine folks at Hugging Face who made Stable Diffusion, and it's basically a mashup of Wordle and Pictionary kind of. I'll put the link in the chat for you two, but basically you guess the prompt that made the AI generate this image or whatever. And so I played this with my kids and it was really fun. You'd be like, “Revolutionary times, cooking, silly person,” and then it generates a brand new image and then they have to look at that and guess the three prompts that went into it. I kind of like it because each visual is unique. You're never going to run out of things to guess like when you buy a box full of cards, a Words with Friends or whatever. So if anybody's interested in working on this, they've got a cool version kind of cooked up here, but it's very basic. I think there's a lot more room to run with this. 

CW Yeah, that's a fun concept. I could see it being very challenging. You might have to figure out how to limit the dictionary of prompts. But besides that, that does sound cool.

BP I think the way you do it, and not to give it all away so somebody steals the idea, but you get a group of people like celebrities, and we each give in three or four prompts and then we mash them up and you don't know which prompts are in there, but you know the pool of 20 or 30 prompts, and then when you see the images you’ve got to guess from that. All right, that's my million dollar idea. Go ahead and steal it because I can't build it myself.

[music plays]

BP All right, everybody. It is that time of the show. We're going to shout out somebody who came onto Stack Overflow and helped save a little knowledge from the dustbin of history and earned themselves a lifeboat badge. Awarded just one hour ago to Holger, “Sort an array containing numbers using a ‘for’ loop.” Thanks, Holger, for coming on and answering that. We appreciate it. And this is a brand new answer, helped almost 40,000 people. Very cool. All right, everybody. It has been my pleasure to chat and to keep up with you. I am Ben Popper. I'm the Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me on Twitter @BenPopper. Email us with questions or suggestions, I recently got an email from a fan who has asked to be a contributor and I wasn't really sure what to do, but they're a data science machine learning expert, and so they said they will be sending me an email every week with some links that they think are interesting and maybe we'll shout out the links. So if you listen to the show and you want to contribute, we're going to give it a shot and see how it goes. We’ll have our first guest contributor, or fan contributor, so that's kind of cool. 

CW The next step is fan art. I'm ready. 

BP Next step is fan art. If you want to draw new cartoon avatars of any of us, or do AI generated images of us, please let us know. But if you like the show, leave us a rating and a review. It really helps. 

CF And my name is Ceora Ford. I am a Developer Advocate at Auth0 by Okta. You can find me on Twitter. My username there is @Ceeoreo_.

CW And I'm Cassidy Williams. I'm CTO over at Contenda. You can find me @Cassidoo on most things.

BP All right, everybody. Thanks for listening, and we will talk to you soon.

[outro music plays]