I was willing to do anything to be a part of Seattle's tech scene.
I had been working in restaurants for years. In restaurants, you have to deal with customers all day long, you have to do chores around the restaurant when you're not dealing with customers, you don't get paid vacations, you don't get any equity in the company, and you don't get many perks. Oh yeah, and restaurants unexpectedly go out of business all the time.
I had friends who worked in tech, and they seemed to have it made. They got all-expense-paid happy hours. They got unlimited paid time off (yes, you read that right—some companies offer unlimited vacation time to compete for talent). They got equity in the company in the form of stock options. They sat around talking about "unicorns" (start-ups valued at $1 billion). They talked about when they might "vest" their shares. I'd heard it all and, frankly, I was jealous. All I was vesting were discounted sushi rolls after my shifts.
I needed to taste it for myself. So I made it happen, through hard work and luck. I served my last table. Folded my last napkin. Half-assed my last batch of side work. I had wanted out for six years, and after years of countless networking coffee dates, I made it out.
I landed a job in tech.
It was hot. It was sexy. GeekWire was geeking. Were we a unicorn? Well, we'd had two rounds of funding and were certainly on our way.
We got free lunches on Fridays. We got an arcade machine, a ping-pong table, and beer kegs. We got standup desks and the choice of a Mac or a PC. Lucky Charms? Sometimes. I had made it, and it was exactly how I thought it would be.
At weekly meetings, we would get insights into the company's health, learn about upcoming products, and welcome new hires by having them tell us their favorite movie. We talked about the company's potential to go public. This was a regular topic, as all of us had taken slightly lower salaries than the market average in exchange for shares of the company in hopes that we'd be fantastically compensated when our CEO one day rang that bell on Wall Street. I was living the tech worker's dream.
I worked in marketing. We had our own little bubble—but office space got cramped, and eventually there was only a six-foot-tall folding wall separating my back from the office cafeteria and the ping-pong table. There are no soundproof headphones strong enough to drown out a hundred just-out-of-college sales bros talking just over your shoulder. And there are certainly no headphones you can buy to prevent errant ping-pong balls from bouncing against your head.
But it was crazy! And exhilarating! And a start-up! This is what I'd been wanting.
Then the company moved into a larger space. The craziness subsided a bit (at least we weren't working on top of each other), and new business plans were hatched that were surely going to disrupt our industry. We couldn't be stopped. Our goals were clear. Our motivations sound.
And then a bunch of us got laid off. A friend and coworker who had knowledge of the layoff had told me what was coming the day before, so it was eerie going into work that day, knowing that the employment reaper was waiting. I exchanged exploratory chats via the company IM to see if others knew, but I got only vague answers back. Looking in people's eyes, I sensed some knew while others were naive innocents about to have a really bad Wednesday.
When the awful hour struck and the "impromptu" meeting invitation came, those of us who had been cursed made our way to the appropriate conference room. Along the way, employees who were privy to the news beforehand said things like "No, oh no, not you. Why you?"
Our team's expulsion was explained by a cofounder. He was calm and came off as earnest. After our team's meeting, everyone else who got the same news was corralled into the floor's main space for an overview of what things looked like moving forward. As I surveyed the other discarded employees, I saw pregnant coworkers, their hands cupping their stomachs. I saw other coworkers who'd recently started families. There were very smart people who deserved work, their arms folded, their minds racing.
We would get a month's severance pay and three months of health care. We were told to pack our stuff, hand over our computers, and leave quietly.
We did. And then we went drinking.
The survivors joined us at the bar after the news had been shared with them. Some of us were mad. Some were indifferent. All of us were sad we wouldn't get to keep working together. We'd done good work. We'd built a community, both within our walls and for our product. But that didn't matter. Leadership wanted to pivot. Our disrupt wasn't disruptive enough. The company could still be a unicorn, maybe, but at that moment, they'd decided to chop off part of their horn.
Even though I'd been working in tech for only 10 months, I figured another job was going to be easy to find. There are a lot of tech companies in Seattle, and I'd already met a lot of people. A friend of mine in the industry got laid off and waltzed into a new job a week later.
Within a month, I had participated in several exploratory interviews in Seattle and other tech-centric cities. Intriguing as it was, I wasn't going to move to Denver to market weather-watching sprinklers (although I think it's a great idea).
Because my salary had been on the lower end, my unemployment checks did their best to cover my expenses, but I was still losing money week to week. My savings got so low, I did something I thought I would never have to do after college graduation: I warned my parents I might have to ask them for money. The guilt and embarrassment of the request, compounded by rejection after rejection following recent interviews, caused me to break down on the phone with them, sobbing heartily while walking through Magnolia's quaint version of a downtown.
I had never had to make a call like this when I worked in restaurants. Now that I'd pivoted to tech, I had to make the phone call I was raised never to have to make.
While trying to keep my credit-card debt to a minimum, I kept interviewing. I was desperate to differentiate myself from the other candidates. I dropped off cakes to office admins with my résumé and contact information frosted on top. I brought mini-doughnuts to interviews. I passed the test to get certified in Google Analytics on the third try, getting the exact minimum right to pass. Anything to stand out.
I set a date in my mind. If I didn't have a new tech job by then, I would go back to restaurant work. I had never gotten fired from restaurant work, and I longed for the meritocracy that surrounds it. When you work at a restaurant, from fine-dining to a burger joint, everyone can see whether you're good at what you do, whether you've done your job or not. That isn't as clear in an office environment where you have hundreds, even thousands, of colleagues.
One day, I got called by a recruiter from one of the companies I'd applied to on a whim. He liked my experience. He liked me! He was going to move me onto the next round. He set up a call with the hiring manager.
I'd gotten in the habit of walking laps around my neighborhood during phone interviews. It was a grander version of me pacing in my room—answering questions and describing past projects—minus the claustrophobia. Our conversation was lovely, and the hiring manager wanted to bring me in to chat with the rest of the team.
I skipped inside to tell my very supportive girlfriend the good news, and then we hopped in the car to run errands. While in the car, I got an e-mail from the recruiter saying he appreciated me taking the time to interview, but in fact they were going to go with a different candidate. I took a few moments to digest the message. I had been looking for a job for six months by this point. I puzzled over what he had said while trying to come up with an appropriate response. I replied that his news was unfortunate considering the hiring manager and I had really hit it off, but that I understood and I'd like to be contacted for any similar positions.
Turns out, he had sent that e-mail to the wrong person. The other guy had the same first name as me. I would in fact be going to headquarters for an interview. Sorry, other person!
I didn't fuck around. I wore a tie.
The recruiter shook my hand and placed me in a large conference room with glass windows all around. My first interview was with two people. That was the last conversation I would have face-to-face. For the next three hours, I talked to different people in San Francisco by phone. Any current employees walking by to grab a coffee refill saw a stranger in a tie sitting by himself in the large conference room yelling into the speaker phone.
The recruiter gathered me after the last call, gave me a warm goodbye, and said he'd be in touch.
I was supposed to get a follow-up call on Thursday, but true to his poor performance, the recruiter didn't call, nor did he inform me of any potential delay. So when I woke up on Friday to read an e-mail at 7:55 a.m. in my girlfriend's breakfast nook requesting that I call him by 8, I wasn't as prepared as I'd like to have been. Hurriedly, I threw my shoes and a shirt on, ran down the four flights of stairs to the alley, made the call, and commenced pacing among the dumpsters. Luckily, it was a beautiful mid-April morning.
The recruiter conferenced in the hiring manager, and together they went over the offer. Yes! They were offering me a job. I had a number in my head that I hoped would be close to whatever they were going to offer me. When they went above that number and asked if it was acceptable, I nearly broke my neck nodding in approval. I tried not to yell into the phone as I said, "Yes, yes, that should work."
I sprinted up the stairs, barged back into the apartment, and hugged my girlfriend. As I told her the news, her excitement matched mine, and we eventually fell onto her bed. As I lay there, staring up at her stucco ceiling, six months of stress, worry, financial insecurity, and self-doubt slowly melted away.
I became whole again.
THE BLUE-CHIP COMPANY
My new job was at an industry-leading tech firm with gobs of market share and the best paid-time-off package around. My team was smart and diverse, and we had the distinction of being "a fun little start-up" (as my new boss put it) within the walls of a profit monster.
Process and established chain of command ruled the day. I used Slack, Trello, and Box, and I whiteboarded the shit out of everything. (Writing with colorful markers on a whiteboard makes you look important.) It was all the benefits of working for a cool tech company with none of the worries of there not being enough money! Want to go to San Francisco this week and work from the office there? Yes! Did you see the leftover pizza, Thai food, and Blizzards in the kitchen? No!
Every other month, we were all summoned into a large hotel convention room where there was a stage with couches and chairs. Leaders from the company took turns running onstage, fist-pumping to Coldplay. They told awful jokes, robot-spoke through Q&As, and envisioned our products changing the world.
Though I had my doubts, I didn't share them with anyone. A week after my start date, the organization spent tons of money on a consultant to take us through a Myers-Briggs workshop. The idea was that it could make us work better together. Beforehand, our guru interviewed everyone on the team, and she confessed to me that she could tell I was "scarred" from my previous tech experience. She assured me that I was here now, that this was a great company to work for, and that I was safe. She wasn't wrong.
Until she was. Less than a year later, with a recent bonus in hand, I popped into a meeting with my manager. It was a Monday. I was excited to review a stack of projects I'd completed. After plopping them down on her desk, she nervously said, "Okay, just need to make a call here," and instantly on the phone was our team's HR manager from San Francisco.
This was... one of those calls.
Before my hire date, the company had been bought by a large multinational. Things had been cool and our culture had remained intact, but it was now time for them to start fully acting as our overlords. This had been rumored weeks before over doughnuts, as our company's president officially moved on to their next endeavor.
It was now time for me to move on to mine. My position had been eliminated.
The meeting was swift and appropriate. I considered my severance more than fair, I thanked and hugged my boss, and I walked out to the bus stop with what felt like a sucker punch to my face.
By now I was living with my girlfriend. After I told her the news, she sent me a text that read, "We need to talk."
No one ever wants to receive a text that reads, "We need to talk."
I was already updating my LinkedIn page before I got home. Honestly, I felt some relief at not having to go to that job anymore, because the writing was on the wall. Days later, I would find out my counterpart in the San Francisco office got the same news, along with others across the company, including our team's VP. If anything, I felt a bit of survivor's guilt at having gotten out of the situation with a severance check. But when my girlfriend and I talked, the word she used to describe my state of mind was "delusional."
I tried to convey that I couldn't help but be a bit happy to have gotten an easy out from a job I didn't love with a good chunk of severance. On the other hand, I'd been burned once again by an industry that I'd strived so hard to enter, I'd been cut loose, and I was floating back to earth with a bronze parachute.
Was this just fate—or was it me?
My job-hunting muscles were still flexed from my last go-round. I embarked on a networking offensive, single-handedly propping up Seattle's coffee and craft-beer scenes with daily meetups with past coworkers and friends. Even though I'd been at the previous role for only 11 months, the contacts I had met there expanded my professional network twofold. I was getting introductions at companies I previously thought impenetrable. My spirits were high. Promising leads kept floating my way.
Sure enough, one of the more drunken of these meetups turned into an interview loop. In case you're not in the industry, a "loop" is where various people on a team schedule time to meet with you throughout the day. My trusty canned interview answers sounded better with up-to-date examples from the most recent job. They liked my experience. They liked my outlook.
Eventually, I was on my way to working at one of the biggest tech companies in the world.
THE GIGANTIC COMPANY
Even though I was a mere contractor, within a week I was making decisions for a $100K-plus budget. On-boarding was not this company's specialty, but to be fair, no one really nails it. I spent a lot of time digging through the never-ending company directory, trying to locate the people I needed for the projects I was working on.
Contractors didn't get an office or a desk to work from on campus, and booking a meeting room through the code-heavy directory was more difficult than robbing the nearest bank. Just to get to a phone or video conversation with someone would often take three unanswered e-mails and one or two meeting invites. The best piece of advice I got was "Stop e-mailing. Just put time on their calendar."
Then I'd get a reply e-mail to the meeting invite where the person would admit they'd seen my first three e-mails but wanted to hear more, and then finally we'd have a discussion. It was a far cry from my previous two jobs, where standing up from your desk to go talk to someone at their desk was always an option.
This company was spread across not just multiple buildings but cities, and it was covered in a thick layer of malaise emitting from lifers who couldn't be bothered to help. They especially couldn't be bothered if you were a contractor.
I would describe my first few weeks to friends like I'd been dropped on Pangea and told to go find a specific tree with no map.
A groove eventually emerged. My manager backed up my decisions. As the weeks passed, I found success and warm conversations, bolstering my outlook on both my job and my future at the company.
My new metaphor to friends became: I've found my dune in the desert, I dug a hole, and I am riding out every sandstorm that comes through.
Two months after my start date, a team member jumped ship to work for another part of the company. This came as no surprise to anyone else—apparently the only way to move up at this place was to take a new job internally.
Two weeks later, my manager, the person who hired me and was responsible for the team's existence, left for another new role as well. This put me on high alert.
We were assured by higher-ups that we were valued and our positions were safe. I was suspicious, but I kept going about my business. Two weeks after that, I was told my contract had been canceled along with others on the team. I'd been working there for three months. There was no severance.
WHAT DID I DO, AND WHICH GOD DID I DO IT TO?
I'd always heard growing up that if you make yourself indispensable, you'll never get fired. Sure, okay, Earnest Nightingale. One of the more apparent lessons I've learned during all this is that when working in tech, anyone is dispensable, from the C-suite to the sales floor. (Actually, IT is untouchable, and rightfully so.)
I had wanted in on tech, where disruption is all the rage, because it seemed like the path toward job security, better money, paid time off, and happiness. But disruption itself had become my new normal, and it was no way to live. The uncertainty and the mixed messages were exhausting—so much more exhausting than restaurants, and largely lacking in the warm human interactions and camaraderie that exists in the service industry.
I went home and updated my LinkedIn profile, at an utter loss. I told my girlfriend, who couldn't believe it. We agreed not to tell my parents. It might kill them.
When you're out of a job, there's a huge sense of insecurity about appearing weak. No one wants to announce that they don't have a plan, that they don't have a next thing lined up. I dithered about proclaiming on LinkedIn that I was seeking new opportunities. I spent an inordinate amount of time considering not doing it. But then I told myself the truth: I had nothing to lose.
A week after that, and exclusively through LinkedIn messenger, I found myself in an interview orchestrated by an old coworker. She'd moved on from a tech job and was now working as part of a hotel company's marketing team. She'd seen my message. Her manager had recently wondered aloud about hiring someone with the kind of skills and background I had. She mentioned me as a possibility.
For once, there was no recruiter or HR person sending e-mails back and forth (to the wrong people). There were no rounds of phone interviews before getting invited to meet a human being. There were no interview loops in conference rooms.
When it came time to meet in person, I showed up when she told me to, I wore a tie, and I got the job after a 20-minute conversation. It was truly surreal considering what it took to get the previous three jobs.
How long will this new job last? Who knows? After getting laid off so many times, it's hard not to think that any day I could be handed my walking papers.
I'm proud of the work I did (and am doing—after all, I'm still working in marketing) and lucky to have met all the people I fought the good fight with. But I'm happy not to be working in tech anymore.
I never considered myself much of a "networker," but if you're reading this looking for tips, one lesson I've learned is that the occasional compliment in an elevator, the occasional lunch invitation to a colleague, is more than just being a good person. It can go a long way. It's a common courtesy that extends out into your future. You never know when that person is going to be in a position to help you later. Do good work and be reliable, and people will remember and vouch for you.
Would I work in tech again? I'm not sure. It is not the lavish life it appears to be from the outside, at least not in my experience.
If the right thing came along, I would consider it. But working with real people without a doubt beats working with people you know only through a screen. And working with people who don't say "bandwidth," "let's take this offline," "we should jam on this a little more," and "what's the CRM say about the ROI on the latest TIP campaign from the EZA team?" has more rewards than you know.