Julia*, an employee in human resources at Meta, which owns Facebook, in Dublin, was recently asked to help train contractors to take over part of her job so she could be freed up to focus on higher level tasks.
She remembers her colleagues joking that they could be training up their own replacements. It was a bit of black humour; nobody was talking about lay-offs at the European headquarters of one of Silicon Valley’s biggest employers – at least not yet.
By Wednesday the joke no longer seemed funny. After days of rumours and speculation, Julia and her 87,000 colleagues worldwide awoke to an email from Meta chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg, which said that 13 per cent of them would be let go. About 350 employees in the Irish business – which employs 3,000 directly and 6,000 contractors – are likely to be impacted, though that figure may change.
Later in the morning something else landed in Julia’s inbox: an invitation to a meeting at 3pm. “I am expecting, actually, I am going to be affected,” she said over the phone, as she made her way to the office. “I’m a bit anxious to know what’s going to happen.”
She tried to focus on the generous severance packages on offer and the fact that, having previously worked at Google and LinkedIn, her skill set is in demand. “They’ve said we’re going to get four months’ salary,” plus other benefits. “So if that is the case, I feel okay. I feel confident that I will find a different job.” Whether it would be at the same salary level was another question.
Over the course of that day, LinkedIn began to fill with posts from laid off Meta workers which varied from shocked to resolutely upbeat. “Unfortunately I received the dreaded email ...” “While this news hurts my heart intensely, I am forever grateful for my time at Meta ...”
As Julia waited for an email, she considered the possibility that even if she escaped this round of lay-offs, there may be a next time. “I’m definitely going to be working on my plan B.”
The warning signs were there before Elon Musk arrived into Twitter and announced that he was letting half the workforce go – only to have to ask some of them to return later. On November 3rd Stripe, the online payments company established by Limerick brothers Patrick and John Collison, told staff in an email that it was cutting 14 per cent of its workforce, and that those impacted “will receive a notification email within 15 minutes”. Industry sources suggest many of the roles will be in recruitment.
Employees at Meta were asked last week to cut short business travel, leading to a flurry of speculation of imminent cuts. The announcements that finally came featured unfamiliar words like “over-hiring” and “over-recruitment”.
The narrative went that tech companies – emboldened by people’s online spending habits during the pandemic – expanded their workforces too rapidly. Salaries rose to unsustainable levels.
Trayc Keevans, global FDI director at Morgan McKinley, suggests another factor that hasn’t received as much attention: a change in June 2021 to Apple’s privacy settings that introduced restrictions on user tracking. Like the fabled flap of a butterfly’s wing that precipitates an earthquake, Meta would later say that this change cost it $10 billion in 2022. “The early murmurings of this were happening at the end of last year ... companies that were built on an ad revenue model like Meta today and Twitter started to tumble. We knew something was going to come out of that.”
That said, she adds, “this feels different from previous downturns. It does feel we’ve been in a very hot market for a long time.”
‘You’re not even getting a call from a recruiter’
Damien was one of those who took an early hit when that “hot market” began to cool last summer. In his early 30s, he was working as a contractor in the regulatory area in Meta, and was confident of his chances of being offered a different role after his secondment. But then the hiring freeze was announced. “I had written Meta off at that stage. But there were still plenty of jobs between TikTok, Google, Twitter.” In the beginning, he would send as many as 40 or 50 applications a week.
Now it has dwindled to about 10 and he’s getting fewer responses. Four months on, “I’m getting less interviews than I did before I joined tech. You’re going for roles where you know you have the experience and you’re just getting those kinds of stock email responses saying you’ve been rejected. You’re not even getting a call from a recruiter.”
As a result he has decided to expand his search beyond tech. His advice to others who might find themselves in this position is to consider upskilling. It is tough to stay positive. “I’m a bit bored and I feel a bit useless to be honest. I feel very bad for the people who either are gone already or are awaiting bad news. A lot of them will be former colleagues. This is a bad week.”
How quickly employees are able to bounce back from this round of job cuts will depend on a number of factors, says Keevans, including which subsector of tech they’re employed in; the functions they serve; their own position and their visa or contract status. The jobs market for engineers “have been very hot and will continue to be hot”. Those in certain support roles are more vulnerable. Over the last year recruitment was one of the areas that had increased most in salary; but as the hiring frenzy cools, “there has been a lot of shedding”. Some of those in HR roles “may need to consider other sectors”. Certain multilingual sales roles might also be vulnerable, as sales targets are pulled back, jobs will retrench. “We’ve seen a slowdown in hiring in product roles as well.”
But overall, “it’s not doomsday. The tap hasn’t been completely turned off.” Some areas of tech like gaming, cloud computing, edge computing and virtual reality roles are still expanding.
For those who got bad news this week or are worried about the future, she advises taking a serious look at which of their skills are transferable. “For the last couple of years the balance of power was very much in favour of the employee. I would say there’s a slight movement towards now the employers being in the driving seat.”
‘It was a three-minute call’
Eleanor was another early victim of the tech jobs slowdown, laid off without warning in June from her job as a technical writer at a start-up, a role she had been in for 14 months. “I guessed I was in the firing line after I saw colleagues’ names disappear one by one from Slack [an office instant messaging system]. Then it was my turn. It was a three-minute call. They said, ‘I’m really sorry, you’re being made redundant today’, and I would be paid a month’s notice in lieu. And my laptop shut down automatically.”
Eleanor couldn’t say goodbye to colleagues or retrieve samples of her work. “You’ve no chance to ask any questions. It felt like the virtual equivalent of people being marched out by security. It was a complete shock. I was sitting there at my desk for an hour, staring at my laptop.”
She found a new role relatively easily. When she read about the lay-offs this week, “your heart goes out to them, because you know how it feels.”
Those at Stripe and Meta are being offered a consultation period; she was not. “There’s meant to be a consultation period, but we didn’t have one. I don’t even know how many people were let go.” Even now, two months into her new role, “there’s a sense of unease. Are the jobs going to dry up?”
Embarking immediately on the search for a new job, as Eleanor and Damien did, is a common reaction says Ciara Spillane, who spent nine years working at Google and now coaches tech industry workers. But if possible, she advises people to take time to take stock, formulate a plan, and process what happened. “Especially if it came as a shock. Spend an hour or two applying for jobs, but give yourself time for a walk or get out to see people.”
Spillane has been dismayed by the manner in which some of these lay-offs have been announced, including the emerging trend of letting people know whether they still have a job via email. Waiting for that email to land, she says, “must be psychologically tough.”
She remembers being shocked by the change in tone in something Mark Zuckerberg said last July. “Realistically, there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn’t be here,” he said, in an audio recording reported by Reuters. “By raising expectations and having more aggressive goals, and just kind of turning up the heat a little bit, is that I think some of you might decide that this place isn’t for you, and that self-selection is okay with me.”
It struck her as an abrupt departure from the tech industry’s narrative about wellbeing at work. Even when you know it’s not your fault, being laid off can leave people “questioning their abilities, it can really affect your confidence. I have clients who may have been made redundant, five years ago, 10 years ago. And they still think about that all the time,” says Spillane.
Julia got in touch afterwards with news. The email she got said it was not anticipated that she would be impacted. Some of her colleagues were not so lucky; they were told they may be let go. She’s far from in a celebratory mood, not least because she knows her own position could change over the next few months. “It will be okay. I’m not stressing out that much,” she said. But it had been an “insane” day.
Other views from the tech world
The Irish Times spoke to about a dozen tech industry employees this week, those working in Ireland’s biggest firms, and some in smaller indigenous companies, about what the current round of lay-offs means to them. Here is a sample of what they said.
Gerry, head of department
Gerry was laid off from his job last summer as head of a department at a tech firm – one of a number of senior people let go at the same time. “It was during a standard one-to-one with my manager. I thought we were going to be discussing a particular project. And then he just said that he wanted to discuss something different, and that we’re going to be laid off, that my position was eliminated from the business.”
He made an immediate decision “not to wallow”. He was able to negotiate an extra week so he could close on a mortgage application he was in the process of, and had signed a contract for a new job before the end of his notice period. It was a bruising experience but he found a better role, and is watching developments with a sense of caution. “What we’re seeing now is probably the recession that we should have had during Covid. It’s not like it’s 20 years ago. We’ll weather the storm, and people will start hiring at a manageable clip.”
James, software engineer
“The main worry I have is that they might use this opportunity where there are fewer jobs openings to force people back to the office,” says James, a software engineer with Amazon, who relocated to the midlands during the pandemic. As an engineer he’s less worried than he might be if he was qualified in another field. He has had six approaches from recruiters since the start of November – “that’s one per working day”. Still, there’s a sense of shock. The cuts are “still the thing everybody is talking about. Stripe was the real shock. It’s just this golden company, it’s Irish, it’s the most valuable company in world.”
“Our industry has had incredible growth all throughout the pandemic years and perhaps now global economies are only starting to settle back down post-artificial economics,” says Mark, who has worked in finance at Google for five years. “You’d almost be a bit angry with the these multinationals for not seeing this coming, and continuing to fund growth with increases to headcounts which all seem a bit irresponsible now.”
Eric, software engineer and non-EU employee
As a non-EU employee you are very vulnerable to any change in our job situation, says Eric, who recently worked for a big tech firm as a software engineer and felt his job was under threat after a new manager gave him a negative performance review. “I knew they wanted to fire me. Our visa only allows us to work for the company we are hired for, for two years. I needed to wait for the two years, and then switch the visa.”
Meta and Stripe plan to offer assistance to those on immigrant work visas. Nonetheless, says Eric – who did eventually find another role, those employees are particularly vulnerable. “If they haven’t completed their two years, and then another four or five months to switch their visa, they can’t work, so they will have to go back.”
Fiachra, ‘customer success’ manager
“We’re all on edge,” says Fiachra, a ‘customer success’ manager in a large tech firm. “I have always felt my job was very secure till this month; mentally it’s a huge adjustment ... I had planned to change my car next year and now I’m seriously considering not doing this.”
Michael, senior manager
Michael has worked across a range of senior tech industry jobs for 30 years. In that time, “I’ve been laid off just once, I’ve laid people off and I’ve seen colleagues go.”
It’s easy to get caught up “when everything is hyped up and there’s no limitations on budgets or benefits.” But when the mood changes, “the companies, they change from ‘our people are the most valuable resource’ to, if you’re lucky, ‘we’re entering into a redundancy process for the next 30 days’. Anyone who really believes they are the company’s most valuable resource, that’s a nonsense ... I’ve seen other companies taking pay cuts to try to protect the workforce, and that’s not being done.”
His advice to those losing their jobs is “accept it, make the most out of it, push for anything you possibly can. When I was made redundant, I asked them to put me on the bike to work scheme so I can buy myself a nice bike. Anything you can salvage from it, salvage from it. And then move on.”
*Employees’ names and some identifying details have been changed