Surviving and Thriving Through Layoffs: Office Hours with Jason Shen
This week we're talking to Merit mentor and investor Jason Shen about layoffs, resilience, and job searches. The tech industry is currently in a time of uncertainty and change. Jason shares his thoughts on processing and bouncing back from layoffs.
Jason Shen is an executive coach, product manager, and three-time startup founder based in Brooklyn. He helps people navigate disruptive change so they can bring new things into the world with greater clarity, vitality, and purpose. He publishes a weekly newsletter called Cultivating Resilience and maintains a private coaching practice of founders and creative leaders.
Do you have questions for Jason about navigating a layoff or job search? Book some time with him on Merit.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Rachel Spurrier: We’ve seen a lot of tech companies lay people off in the last few months. What do you make of it? Do you have any advice for folks who have been laid off on how to respond and move forward?
Jason Shen: Layoffs are a normal part of the job experience and the economic cycle of ups and downs. A lot of younger people have never seen a serious economic downturn. We sort of had a mini one in 2020—there were some layoffs then—but things turned around quickly, which led to this situation where there was so much growth that then tech companies cut back. Prior to this, it was 2000-2001, where we had the last major technology loss. There was also the 2008-2009 financial crisis, which impacted people more broadly, but technology wasn't necessarily as affected. I graduated around this time and thus started my career keenly aware that things can turn from rosy to dismal in short order.
For a lot of people, layoffs are just not in their awareness. I was reading an article in the New York Times that frames this so powerfully: in 2000-2001, when the dot-com bubble burst, one million people lost their jobs in Silicon Valley. Then, starting around 2011, the industry has added 100,000 new jobs per year over the last 10 years. So it took 10 years to just get back to the one million jobs that were lost.
Now, something like 100,000 people have been laid off, which is obviously a lot of people. That's an enormous number. Yet it is a fraction of what happened at this point 20-25 years ago. It's good to put that into perspective: this is not a cataclysmic event. It is certainly shocking to a lot of people who thought that the good times never ended and your job would be secure forever.
In terms of how to respond, I have this resilience framework that has four skills that map to a bit of a journey. Those skills are respond, restore, rebuild, and reflect. You’re doing all four of them at different times.
Responding, part one, is just making sure you get all your benefits. You know what your severance is; you signed everything; you filed for unemployment if that's available to you. Depending on your financial situation, you need to look at: do I have enough savings? Do I need to change my cost of living? How can you preserve the amount of time you will have before you have to make some really dramatic decisions for your life?
Housing is one big way to do that, especially if you're young: getting a roommate, subleasing, moving back home with parents if that's a possibility. If that's available to you, consider it, especially if you don't have a lot of savings, because a lot of young people don’t—I know I certainly didn't when I was entering the workforce.
Restore is the next step, which is really about the emotional healing and connection to community. You've just lost a big community—your coworkers, whether or not you were super close to them, provided a certain amount of feeling that you're not alone, that you're not just sitting in your apartment or wherever by yourself all day long. Even if we don't like our jobs, we discount that, until we find ourselves without a job, we have one or two coworkers we like. Just knowing they were there and were available to you was real. So even if you hated your job, understand that you won’t feel great for a bit.
It's easier said than done, but understand that these decisions about layoffs were made at very high levels without a full understanding of who you are and what you contribute. I like to say, “Nobody rejects you,” because how could they fully know you? I've been married to my wife for four years and we've been together for seven, and I still am learning new things about her all the time. So how could anybody who's met you a handful of times or worked with you on and off for a year or two know you? These directors have no idea who you are. That's sad but also freeing in the sense that the judgment should be put into perspective of how minimal that judgment is about who you are or what you bring to the table as a person, as an employee.
Rebuild is where we start to take forward progress or action. Some people reactively start throwing out their resume and application. If you're in a dire situation and you're on a visa and need to turn things around super fast, you may not have time to heal; you may have to get any kind of employment. For some people, responding may be that whirlwind of applications.
If you are able to take that time, rebuilding is thinking about, “How did my resume change? I need to update it; what's on there?” That connects to reflect: what did I learn from this experience? What were my achievements? I’ve heard people who regularly save their work. If you have any sense that layoffs are coming, save your work so you can refer back to it in the future. It's not illegal if you don't share it with anybody else. The likelihood that you will get in trouble for saving your own personal work and never sharing it directly is extremely low, especially in a mass layoff scenario.
As long as you’re not writing viral tweet threads about things that are proprietary, you’re not going to reach the visibility of the legal and HR teams that are dealing with thousands of inquiries a day. So be smart, but recognize that access to your work is going to be important.
Rebuild also looks like putting down new habits and routines. You had a whole habit and routine about going to work. Whether or not it was a good routine, now you have no routine, so it’s important to schedule activities. Try to wake up at the same time every day. Try to get in two healthy meals in every day. Just because you’re not working doesn’t mean you can run off the rails of your life. Sticking with a routine is going to help you with applications and scheduling interviews.
Also think about whether or not this is the time to pivot in your career. If you always wanted to break into a different role, sector, or industry, this is a great time to try to do that. It's not going to be easy because there are a lot of experienced people on the market. So I'll caveat that it's a good time for you personally, because you have the break; momentum usually carries people in the same direction. But it is going to be be hard externally because of the environment. I was talking to a friend of mine who was let go from Meta, and she was a product marketing manager, and she had an interest in product. I thought she would've been a great product manager, but she recognized this is challenging because she is going up against people who have been career PMs from Meta and Google.
But that doesn't mean it's not possible. It's still worth putting a career pivot on the table and trying for those roles alongside some of your more directly applicable ones.
Reflect is digesting the lessons from the time you spent in the role. It's about the broader lessons of however you feel about being let go. Do you feel unprepared? Do you feel shocked? What about your understanding or expectations of the world led you to be shocked? Whenever you're super surprised about something, when you totally didn't see something coming, it means that your mental model of the world was off in a big way. That happens to everybody.
The world is never wrong—whatever happens is how reality was meant to play out. It's our job to try to understand how the world works so that we can adapt to it. Whenever you're surprised, it's a chance to learn something and to consider how you want to change what you do.
People understand right now that there are layoffs going around everywhere. It is not a source of shame. A layoff is going to gnaw at you if you don't talk to people about it. If you aren't honest about what happened, it’s going to make it harder for you to think as well as you could, to be as creative as you could be, and to build relationships the way you would like to. It doesn't mean you have to talk about everything. But just acknowledge, “Hey, this is what I was working on, and then this happened. Now I'm here, and this is what I want do”—it is empowering to get to a point where you’re able to speak honestly and freely about the truth.
RS: I particularly like your points about resilience, which leads me to my next question. At Merit, we see a lot of questions around, “I have been applying, and I've gotten rejected, 5 times, 50 times, 100 times. What should I do?” Do you have advice for how to cultivate resilience in the face of repeated rejections?
JS: I'll start with my personal experience. The challenge for me on this question is that I’ve historically created smaller lists and landed one of those opportunities. Even as an entrepreneur, when I went and fundraised, I probably should've talked to more firms. I raised the money for my various expenditures, and it turned out okay. But I think there's power in volume. You cultivate more opportunities in the volume. If you can come in with the mindset that you may have to do 100 or 200 applications to reach four final rounds of interviews and two offers, you may end up in a better position than where you started.
Go in with the mindset that a lot of applications are going to be necessary. Don't get daunted. I was having this conversation with my wife recently where it's like, “Don't go climb Mount Everest and then wonder why the air feels so hard to breathe and that it's cold.” You need to go through this application process, but start recognizing that this is hard and that it shouldn't feel easy. Level set with yourself that this number of applications is going to be high—a much higher number than you would expect is necessary to reach your goal.
See how many rejections you can get, because rejections tell you that you've gone through a process. I think if people are anxious about rejection, they don't apply. The end result is you're not applying. You almost want to track rejections as a way of saying, “That was me taking a shot.” The more shots you take, the more likely it is that you're going to get to your goal. And if you're not taking shots, then you're not getting any closer to your goal.
RS: You gave a TED Talk on hiring, and in that talk, you recommend that candidates highlight unique skills and abilities outside the standard resume and cover letter. What are some practical approaches for job seekers to do this? How do you break out of the resume and cover letter duo?
JS: I gave that TED Talk for hiring managers primarily. To my disappointment and sadness, it's positioned as a strategy for candidates. If you listen to the talk, which I gave in line with a startup that I was building around helping employers do broader evaluations beyond resume analysis, it was about seeing people for what they are capable of doing rather than what they have historically done.
If you know who the hiring manager is and can contact them directly or you've gotten through or a certain round of the process at a bigger firm and now have that contact, think about the role that you're interviewing for, and think about how you can create a project that demonstrates your skills in regards to their specific company. So it's your skills and their company and situation.
At some of the bigger firms, this strategy is just not going to be effective, because people can't take into consideration some of the outside factors that you're sending beyond their interview process. I wouldn't recommend this if you're trying to get a job at one of the big tech companies. But if you are looking in a smaller company, a startup, or even a medium-sized company, this approach can still work.
If you're a designer and they’re an e-commerce site, you might say, “I reimagined your checkout page to look like this, and here’s why.” If you’re a product manager or UX researcher, you can say, “I interviewed five people who use your product, and here are some insights that came out of it.” Those things show commitment and dedication. If you think about hiring from the perspective of an employer, they're worried, “You don't really care about me; you're just trying to use my company to get some other job. If I give the offer to you, will you accept it? If I offer the role to you and you don’t take it, we look bad.”
Showing that you really value the company and that you're putting extra time into it will raise you in the company's eyes. It will show that you're creative, take initiative, and you're not going to just sit there and wait for somebody to tell you what to do. Those are qualities that are very hard to evaluate in the interview process, because it is so formal and it is so “I ask question, and you get a response.”
I wrote this list of 10 things that human beings have that AI does not have at this time. One of the things is: AI has to wait for you to say something. It's responsive, but it doesn't take initiative. It doesn't contact you in the middle of the night and say, “Hey, I had this idea for this article we could write” or “Imagine that we could generate this. What do you think about that?” You could program it to do that, but then that's not it doing it on its own: it needs input from you first. Human beings are capable of initiative. Human beings are capable of saying, “Let me do something more than just waiting for you to get back to me.”
With Etsy, I made a website. I read their public filings, looked at their website, and proposed three personas and four product ideas that I hadn't seen them talk about publicly. It turned out they had been working on three of the four already internally, which I think was a good sign that they thought, “You are thinking in a way that's aligned with how we do things.”
RS: What should a first-time job seeker be aware of when thinking about trying to get a job in 2023? What's different for them than their peers who are two to five years older? Is there anything that you would say specifically about this moment in time?
JS: I do think that there is a return to a desire for experience and relevant background. When I entered the job force in 2009, we had just gone into a downturn, as I mentioned earlier. I was lucky to go to a school like Stanford where there were on-site recruiters for these investment banks and these consulting firms. It used to be like, “Oh, they'll take anybody from any major. They'll teach you all the things on the job; it's totally fine.” So that was my “back up plan.” I thought, “I want do something really cool, and if I can't do that, then at least I can get a job at a consulting firm.”
Then the crisis happened, and all of a sudden, fewer firms were hiring fewer people. It seemed like they weren't as interested in training people on the job. It felt like it was more econ majors who were getting the opportunities—but not a biology major like me. I think that's probably happening here too.
There are so many people with experience flooding the market right now, and the last couple years have been, “Break into tech; it's awesome. I'll show you how I did it.” Right now, there’s a bit of return to focusing on experience, which is frustrating, but the reality is that because there are so many experienced people who are already on the market, it's going to change the way people hire. This may mean that you need to be prepared to do things to gain experience that aren’t necessarily a job: starting a meet up group, working with a nonprofit to provide pro bono services to add to your portfolio or resume. You’re going to need to get creative about how you demonstrate that you have real-world experience. One way to do that is through what I call the 10x job application, which I’ve written and spoken about. It’s intended to help you get creative and build something that prospective employers can’t ignore.
If you have more questions for Jason, you can schedule a mentorship session with him on Merit!