How to prepare for losing your programming job


Another week has passed, and another 3 million people in the US have filed for unemployment. While the current situation hasn’t impacted programming jobs quite as much, it’s just a matter of time before the economic damage hits most everywhere. There will be layoffs, and plenty of them, and occasionally whole companies shutting down.

So even if your job is secure now, you might still lose it in the future. How can you prepare? What can you do to reduce your future risks?

The first thing you need to do is come up with a plan, which is what this article is all about. In particular, you will want to:

  • Try to make sure you have the necessary financial resources.
  • Make your future job hunt easier, by building a network, making sure your skills are up-to-date, and making sure you have visible public proof of your skills.
  • Come up with a series of fallback plans if things don’t go well.

Let’s go over these one-by-one.

Money in the bank

If you lose your job, you lose your paycheck—but you still have to pay your bills. And after the dot-com bust, the last big tech recession, it took years for all the jobs to come back

If you have at least six months of living expenses in cash, that’s a good start. If not, it’s best to think about how to get there.

There are two sides to this:

  1. If possible, you need to cut your expenses, which will both allow you to save and reduce how much money you need for each unsalaried month. See this more detailed article.
  2. Ensuring your financial assets, if you have any, aren’t correlated with your job.
    1. If you own stock in your own company, you are making a double bet: if the company goes down, you will lose money and your job.
    2. If you work for a startup that needs to raise money soon, a crashing stock market will also greatly reduce the viability of your current job.
    3. More broadly, if you own stocks and to a lesser extent corporate bonds, how correlated are they with your ability to keep a job?
    4. Even more broadly, how much of your net worth is tied to the tech industry, or the economy as a whole?

In short, you want cash on hand, and plenty of it.

Making your future job hunt easier

Searching for a job will be much easier if you:

  • Know lots of people.
  • Have useful skills.
  • Can visibly demonstrate you have those skills.

Let’s cover those one by one.

Knowing lots of people

Applying for a job by sending in your resume is the hardest way to get hired. It’s much easier if you know someone who can vouch for you, can get you past the initial screen, or can fill you in on what the hiring manager really wants.

So the more people you know, the better off you are. Elsewhere I have a guest post about (social) networking, but that can take time and is harder during a pandemic. But there are still a few easy things you can do in the short term:

  • Join a public Slack or two for the technology area you specialize in. You can help answer people’s questions, see when people mention they’re hiring, and more broadly get a better sense of the zeitgeist, which is useful for building your skills (see below).
  • Keep the contact info for former co-workers. This can be done via LinkedIn, for example, and often there will be an ex-employee Slack. If there isn’t one, you can start it—especially if your company is having initial rounds of layoffs. This too can often be very educational, as former employees might be more forthcoming.
  • Find ways to help other people. Can you teach useful skills? Join a local mutual aid organization?

Build useful skills

If you’ve been working at the same job for a while, it’s easy for your technical skills to get a little stale. Unless you’re working at the right place, hang out with the right people, or do the right things, you might not be aware of the latest technology, or you might be using out-of-date practices.

So you’ll want to update your skills a little. As always, doing this extensively outside of your job may not be possible, so try to:

  1. Spend an hour a week, ideally during work hours, getting up-to-date on the latest technologies. The goal here is breadth, not depth: sign up for a newsletter for your technology stack (he’s a partial list), skim the topics at a relevant conference, maybe watch a talk or two. I cover learning for breadth here, but the basic idea is that knowing a tool exists and what it does can take very little time, and is quite valuable on its own: both on the job, but also in interviews (“I haven’t used it myself, but I believe tool X is how you would solve this”).
  2. Try to learn more technologies on the job, because that is the best place to do so.

Create visible proof of skills

Having skills is one thing, proving you have them is another. It is therefore quite useful during a job hunt to have some visible, public proof you have these skills. For example:

Open source: When I moved to the US in my 20s, my work on an open source project made it much easier for me to get job interviews, and eventually job offers. It wasn’t just that my resume said that I knew computer networking, I could point to a publicly available project used by real people and say “I worked on that”.

Even if you share code that isn’t widely used, it can still be useful as proof of skill.

Conference talks: Speaking publicly about a particular skill, technology, or project is a great way to get public proof of skills. With conferences moving online, speaking at conferences is now much easier. You don’t have to travel or pay for you travel, and you don’t have to get approval from your manager to lose work. If there’s a topic where you know enough to help someone else, look for conferences on the topic and submit a proposal.

Blogging: Have something to share, or learning something new? Write it down and share it publicly. Writing well is an immensely useful skill in general, so this will also count as improving your skills. You can write for your own blog, or you can propose a blog post on your company’s tech blog, if they have one.

Fallback plans

In an ideal world you would lose your job, start a job search, find a new job within a month, and everything will be fine. Sadly we don’t always live in an ideal world.

So if you live in a country like the US that a shitty social net it’s worth coming up with a series of fallback plans, if only for your own peace of mind.

For example, how can you make your money last longer?

  1. As soon as you lose your job, apply for unemployment.
  2. Cut additional costs.
  3. If time stretches on and you still don’t have a job, figure out ways to reduce housing costs. Are you young and have the ability to move back in with your parents? Have more room than you need and the option of adding roommates? All in a pandemic-safe way, of course.
  4. Any ways you can make money some other way, if it’s really taking too long?

If you can’t find a job immediately, you will have probably have more time to upgrade your skills.

  1. Which skills are worth working on?
  2. What’s the best way to improve them?

You’ll also want to meet more people who can help you find a job.

  1. Can you go to online meetups?
  2. Find more places to interact with people online?

Write this all down, and when you’re worried you’ll at least have the comfort of knowing there will be some things you can do if and when your job goes away.

We’re all in this together

As with most big problems, there is only so much you can do as an individual: to meaningfully improve the situations we need to work together, whether in mutual aid groups or via political organization. On the other hand, you need to ensure that you as an individual are doing OK; you can’t help others if you’re collapsing under your own troubles.

And since this can all be overwhelming, start with a few simple actions:

  1. Cut an expense or two.
  2. Get in touch with some old co-workers.
  3. Sign up for a newsletter.
  4. Start writing down your fallback plans.

And then, once you have things under control emotionally, when you have a plan and you know what you’re doing next, start thinking about how you can help others, and work with other people to improve things for everyone.