In Which Our Hero Gets Laid Off

I’ve been in the software business for 23 years now. I’ve been at 7 different companies and held 11 different jobs. I’ve worked in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Charlotte, and Fort Lauderdale. I’ve been at small companies that failed, large companies that went through tough times, and medium sized companies that got bought at just the right time. I’ve been through severe pay cuts. I’ve had huge bonuses that let me put a down payment on a house. I stayed at one medium-sized startup in 2000 until I was literally one of the last people to close up the place and hand the keys over to the new owners.

But I’ve never been laid off.

Until today.

Today my number finally came up.

It all started this past Wednesday, January 28th. Rumors had been swirling around the company for weeks that layoffs were imminent. I work (worked) at an large software company, and our business has certainly been hurting for the last few quarters. On Wednesday, it was the day for our quarterly earnings call. As a Senior level employee, I always listen to the calls, all the way though the analyst’s questions. The call was to start at 4:45 in the afternoon. At 4:09, a company-wide email popped into my inbox from our CEO. I knew right away that was not a good sign.

Sure enough, our CEO informed us that in half an hour, our company would announce that it was laying off 10% of its global workforce, and that no department and no location would be spared. I was concerned, of course. After all, I had just been reorganized into a new department with a new boss – but I rationalized that since they had gone to all that trouble, I should be safe. Also, my skill set (advanced Flash, web development and design, and product demonstration videos) saves the company a lot of money that would otherwise be spent on contractors, so I figured I should be doubly safe.

Thursday morning, January 29th, the layoffs began. There were a few people I knew, many others that I did not. One or two folks that were laid off I was not at all surprised at. And one or two people that were laid off I was extremely surprised at. At about 3pm, the layoffs stopped for the day. I breathed a sigh of relief – no one that I directly worked with had been affected.

The “rumor mill” said the layoffs would resume the next morning, but that most people had already been let go. One rumor said they were going alphabetically, and had gotten to the “M’s” that day. Another rumor said they were going department by department, and my department had been passed by. Ah, the good old rumor mill. Every workplace has one.

All during the day, everyone tip-toed around, whispering, looking over their shoulders to see if they were about to be tapped, called, or motioned into a conference room. No work got done. The tension was palpable, the pressure was heavy. We all bid goodbye for the evening, and called each other during the night to talk about who had been laid off, and who survived.

And then this morning. I had a video and photo shoot scheduled for the morning, for which I always bring in my own equipment (you know, to save the company money). However, my co-worker who was to set up the demo system had run into problems, so we decided to re-schedule for the afternoon. I made a joke that maybe I shouldn’t leave all my camera equipment there “in case either of us gets laid off”. “Oh, be serious,” said my colleague. “They’d never fire you. You do too much and save them too much money”. Ah, the voice of fate.

So I left to return to my building (our company – that is, my former company – is spread across five buildings near the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport). Just as I was entering the building, I got a text message that one of my co-workers had just gotten the ax. I got up to my floor just in time to see him leaving, escorted out by a burly-looking Human Resources gentleman.

Well, holy shit. That sure caused ripples. The phones lit up – my colleague had been with the company for nearly ten years, and had been in many different teams and worked on many different products. The feeling became… well, if he can go, then anyone can go.

News of at least one senior vice president being pink slipped came down the pipe. A few more people I know on the same floor were quietly escorted out. And then the floor got quiet again.

After a half-hour, those of us left sighed with relief yet again. Confident that the worst was over, eight of us – including a senior department leader – all went out to lunch together. We stretched lunch out until 1:30, since no one really wanted to go back to the now-much-emptier office.

Back at the office, we didn’t hear about any more folks being laid off. We watched the clock, and continued to visit in each other’s office and cubes. At 2:40, Frank IM’d me – “Is it over yet? Are you safe?” I replied that it sure looked that way.

At 3:02 pm, I turned around and said loudly, “OK, it’s after 3pm! Looks like it’s all over with!”

And my phone rang. I looked at it. The caller ID on the phone identified the caller as coming from The Corner Office Where They Were Doing The Layoffs. I looked at it, and said, just as loudly, “Oh, shit”. My colleague in the cube across from me looked shocked, “No, no…” he said quietly. I picked up the phone, said, “Hello, this is Jonathan,” in my best business voice. And of course it was my boss on the line. “Jonathan, can you meet me in the corner office?” he said.

And that was that. The exit process was quick. I sat as calmly and tried to look as professional as I was able to muster, nodding and giving a tight smile when it seemed appropriate. The company gave me a reasonable amount of severance pay, and made a big deal out of offering the help of an employment placement agency.

Finally I was “escorted” by another very burly looking Human Resources gentleman to my cube, where I picked up my laptop (my own laptop, because, you know, I always liked to save the company money by using my own equipment). I didn’t bother with the rest of my things there – books, tchotchkes, various computer peripherals and supplies – those could just be mailed to me later. I knew that the faster I got out of there, the easier it would be on the psyches of everyone still working there.

The only catch came when I said that I had to get my cameras from the other building – I was not going to leave $3,000 worth of still and video camera stuff in another building, waiting for it to be inventoried and eventually returned to me. After filling out a few forms, and letting the security guard itemize every item in the camera bag, I was allowed to take it with me.

And then I drove home.

Bad news spreads fast, especially among the digerati. By the time I got to my car, I had already sent out a few text messages and had updated my Facebook status to “just got laid off”. By the time I started my car, my phone was already ringing with the first of half-a-dozen condolence calls.

I saw the news today, oh boy. Brian Williams informed me that this week, more jobs were lost that in any single week in 35 years. “102,000 jobs in just one week!” he intoned solemnly. “No shit, Sherlock!” I yelled at the TV.

I don’t drink, and I gave up smoking four years ago, so I don’t have any vices to speak of. I thought about making a batch of cookies or perhaps some ice cream (I always make my own junk food nowadays), but I just didn’t have the energy. I had a phone conversation with my parents. My dad said “Oh, you’ll probably get a promotion out of this”, and my mom said it would all turn out for the best. I love my parents… even after 46 years, they always know the right thing to say.

Frank – who was laid off from a job a few years ago, and has been through the drill before – vacillated between 1) assuring me that I would have another job in record time, and 2) wondering what the idiots at my (former) company were thinking when they let me go. I simply didn’t have the energy, so I let him talk. By 8pm, after several hours of frenzied work over the internet, Frank had already compiled a list of over a dozen open positions with 50 miles that suit my qualifications. I gently told him that… well… I just don’t feel like looking at them right now.

And so I sit here in my comfy bed, typing this blog post on my (paid for with a credit card) MacBook Air. What I’ve been through isn’t unique, isn’t special, isn’t unheard of. The news every week this year has been reeling off the numbers of jobs lost and the companies who are losing the jobs. I know, intellectually, that I (probably) was not targeted. I was just a number that needed to be trimmed. I was one of the 102,000 people that lost their jobs this week. I am a new Victim Of This Recession.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll wake up, and it’ll be another pretty day in Florida. I’ll have a nice cup of coffee, read (calmly) through my bright, cheery folder of severance information, and figure out where I stand. I’ll make sure all my information on LinkedIn and Plaxo and Facebook and MySpace and everywhere else I can think of is up-to-date.

And then, come Monday, I’ll start the long, tedious process of looking for a new job.

Just as we were going to bed, Frank said, “You know… this isn’t how I imagined we’d be spending our forties. I figured we’d be working towards our retirement, like our parents were at this age. I figured we’d be in our prime – not looking for new jobs or worrying that we can’t even keep our house.”

I had planned on writing a movie or book review here tonight. Instead, there’s this post, which I doubt anyone will want to read but which I needed very badly to write. So to those few people out there who’ve stuck with me and have read this far, please: Hug your children, kiss your spouse, play with your pets, phone your loved ones, eat a hearty meal, drink a refreshing beverage, read a good book, watch a nice movie, enjoy the winter air, look up at the stars, take a deep breath…

And wish me luck. Thanks.

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