'It takes a hell of a mental toll' – techies who lost work due to COVID share their stories
Some refined their CVs relentlessly. Others studied. Many wept, more than once. But most see an upside to their changed circumstances
COVID Logfile III Rick Bryant* cried when he was offered a new job.
In late 2019, Rick was flying – often literally. The Australian's senior position at a global vendor saw him travel the world to exercise his expertise in so-hot-right-now hybrid cloud technology. Hotels and airlines rolled out the red carpet to pay deference to his elevated status.
COVID-19 grounded him in early 2020, but Rick was working on projects that were due to complete deep into 2021.
Then out of the blue, in September 2020, came a COVID-induced re-org that pruned from the top. Rick was sent home on gardening leave, knowing a chunky redundancy payment awaited.
"If I got a new job quickly it would have been like winning the lottery," he said.
Then came seven soul-crushing months without work.
Pat Christensen's* COVID layoff came earlier in 2020, and at an earlier point in his career. As the year commenced, Christensen worked in New York State as a developer at a software vendor that was stretching towards security products. As the COVID-19 pandemic gathered pace in February and March, Christensen was promoted into a new role designed to help make that stretch – and was thrilled at the chance to move his career towards security.
In May, the axe fell.
"I was pretty gutted," Christensen said. "It was a job I liked, and I worked really hard to get. I loved the team, I felt like I was making a difference.
"Once I learned the scale of the cutbacks I morphed to acceptance pretty quickly."
Christensen felt fortunate that his logon credentials lasted almost a day after his dismissal, because he could farewell colleagues on Slack.
"I should have noticed that my role was non-essential and the team I worked on was a moonshot," he said.
Pat was in his mid-twenties, in the early stages of a pandemic, his winter energy bills were in the mail, and his initial assessment of the job market in May 2021 boiled down to a single word: "Desolate".
I sobbed. I could not figure out what was going on
Jodie Miners didn't lose her job, but on March 25th, 2020 the Australian consultant's two largest clients called and told her to stop work on their long-term Salesforce projects.
Stop today, she was told. And we'll call you when we're back on track.
Those calls removed the majority of her income in moments.
David Wallace had a different problem: a job offer he wasn't sure he could or should accept.
Wallace is an enterprise architect at a SaaS vendor, but one day a week he consulted to a New Zealand government department.
When lockdowns started, the government decided tech contractors were a luxury it could no longer afford – so offered him a full-time gig instead.
This left Wallace with an odd choice: turn his side gig into a full-time job or quit the government work and effectively take a 20 per cent pay cut.
Charles Baker's* COVID job story started in January 2020, when the senior tech sales pro – whose career has seen him lead the regional sales and alliances teams for major enterprise vendors in the Asia-Pacific – decided he needed a change so he could spend more time at home with his young son.
"I told the business I was doing too much flying around and I wanted to either work from home or not come to the office," said Baker.
Baker and his employer parted ways. Neither party could possibly realise what an exquisite irony that would become in mere weeks.
Netflix? I watched it all
"I quite welcomed the redundancy," he told The Register. But not so much that he didn't need to find a new job sooner rather than later.
"The market was still OK when I started looking," he said, recalling the search for a new role February 2020. "COVID was a rumour. Something was happening … nobody knew what it would be."
Baker scored his next gig before the pandemic got serious, but not in time to take his usual trip to HQ to get up to speed and meet his new colleagues.
So he was working for a new employer, without having met any co-workers face to face or being inducted into the company – because literally everyone else in the business was offshore.
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And then the global economy lurched in a nasty direction.
"Nobody was spending money, and nobody wanted to talk," he said. Just 30 per cent of his calls were returned. And when he talked to potential partners, much of the talk was about how many layoffs they thought they would need to make – which made Baker's approach to consider a new vendor feel inappropriate.
Happily, his new employer was pragmatic, and so was Baker. "I did a lot of cold calling, plenty of that hard groundwork that is necessary when you are starting off a new business."
Down in New Zealand, David Wallace decided that in the middle of a pandemic, it wasn't a bad thing to only have one job – even if it wasn't full time.
"I didn't feel a need to have two thought processes to worry about," he said.
New Zealand ran a COVID elimination strategy and it worked – from June 2020 until August 2021 the nation was largely COVID-free and only a few brief lockdowns were imposed, and even then only in major cities.
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As New Zealand re-opened he found life a little tougher, because he had more opportunities to spend money but just 80 per cent of his usual income. He also worried that having only one gig meant his professional development might stall.
"I change my hats quite a lot; I give past me a pat on the back for that. I would feel nervous if I only had a single career track."
But as mid-2020 rolled around, he only had one – and little idea what might come next.
We're from the government, we're here to help
Jodie Miners's shock at losing her two biggest clients didn't last long. She still had a little work, and habits forged in past economic downturns meant she also had financial buffers.
"I'd been through really horrible downturns in the past. I know the importance of having a few months' salary in the bank," she told The Register.
A few weeks into lockdown, she also qualified for both Federal and State government support payments paid to business operators.
"That changed my mindset, because it said to me that the government was paying me to stay home.
"It sounds really shitty to say that, but it made me feel that I didn't need to scramble to feel like a valid contributor to society."
Miners therefore started studying, because the slowdown meant she had time to devote to some extra Salesforce training.
"It was tough, I was feeling quite down. On top of lockdown and loss of work, the grief of losing my Dad a few months earlier hit hard," she said.
But her finances were sound, and retraining gave her purpose and led her to develop a Salesforce component. While life wasn't ideal, Miners was busy with projects she felt would deliver future rewards.
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Back in New York State, Pat Christensen was also learning fast – especially about the bots that read job applications.
Christensen dived into LinkedIn, analysed job ads, collected stats on views of his profile and responses, and used that data to further hone his CV.
"I am such a geek that I graphed this," he said. "Any tech I had used hands-on that I saw in job results, I tracked that, so it became a bullet point or a sentence in my resume."
This approach saw him tailor his CV for different jobs. "I learned that being more specific helped," he said.
This approach won Christensen some interviews, but the experience "soured pretty quickly" because he wasn't being selective about the jobs he applied for. Instead he applied for anything he saw as a chance to work.
As his CV evolved, along with his sense of what it was worth applying for, his efforts were rewarded with a contract role at an emerging security vendor. "They asked me what I wanted for salary, and when I gave them a number they replied: 'We'd like to pay you 50 per cent more than that'. I think I cried."
"It takes a hell of a mental toll"
Rick Bryant also scored some contract work, but only a day here and there.
He applied for many roles and was told he'd secured one, but the on-boarding date kept being pushed back. Eventually the employer stopped replying to emails.
Other employers expressed interest, but at salaries that represented substantial backward steps.
One job came up at an organisation for which Bryant had designed and implemented the infrastructure he'd be required to work on.
He didn't even get an interview.
"To be honest it takes a hell of a mental toll on you," Bryant told The Register. "I kept asking myself why I couldn't get an interview. I had kicked so many goals and felt so good about what I achieved. I could not get my head around why it wouldn't happen."
What used to be small successes now felt more momentous
Australia's government didn't help, as Bryant's redundancy payout meant he wasn't eligible for assistance. "You pay all those taxes, and when you put your hand out they say 'No'," he said.
"There were tears," Bryant said – especially as 2020 tumbled towards Christmas.
"I sobbed. I could not figure out what was going on."
And even the distractions of the modern world weren't much help.
The Register asked Bryant how he spent his days – perhaps watching Netflix?
"Netflix? I watched it all," Bryant said.
The new normal
Pat Christensen's contract with a security vendor ended, but the nature of the work he'd done made him more marketable. By the time the temporary gig came to an end, he had two offers.
One was in a company very similar to his previous full-time gig at a vendor. The other was with a global tech giant.
After interviews that he found more than a little intimidating, he accepted the latter. And cried when his formal offer arrived.
Once in his new job, Christensen felt he entered a "cosy bubble" in which he was employed, prosperous, and as safe from COVID-19 as could be.
"I don't say this lightly, but getting laid off was the best thing that happened to me," he said. "My salary more than doubled. I was doing OK before, but I found some places I think I connected with and experiences I am lucky to have.
"I think that's an immense privilege that not many have had. I think maybe five or ten per cent of people came out of it in a better place in their career. I have a deep and resounding frustration that I am one of not many who experienced that."
His frustration compounded as the coronavirus rampaged across America through 2020 – which Christensen rated an inevitability once public safety became a political issue.
"I dealt with that by trying to do the best I could in the areas I could," he said, including sharing his experiences of CV reviews and offering to conduct practice job interviews. "I wanted other people in the cosy bubble."
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David Wallace also ended up in a comfortable spot – because the vendor for which he worked four days a week launched a SaaS version of its products just as the global lockdowns got serious. That product resonated, and the vendor was soon busy enough to offer him full-time employment.
"If I had taken the government gig full time, what would have happened? I would have had annual leave, but government wages have been frozen. And I think public sector workers will be impacted by austerity and debt repayments."
While he's happy in his full-time role, Wallace's 2020 experiences have also validated his belief that a portfolio career is his preferred option.
"Last year has gave me some affirmation," he said. "It has hammered home the importance of having options and being open to opportunity."
He now regards constant calls from recruiters as "all potential opportunities" and is thinking about his next move.
"I said to myself maybe this could be good to do for a year.” Beyond that, who knows?
I change my hats quite a lot; I give past me a pat on the back for that
As mid-year rolled around, Charles Baker had found his groove as a fully remote worker.
When Zoom fatigue meant his efforts fell on disinterested ears, and the obviously bad reaction coming in over a web meeting couldn't disguise it, he found the experience galvanising.
"Those meetings that did not go well made me a bit more determined and driven," he said. They also made wins feel more important.
"What used to be small successes – like signing a new partner – now felt more momentous." Moving a partner from engagement to actual sales in weeks, not the pre-pandemic timeline of up to a year, even hinted at the pandemic creating new possibilities.
Over time, Baker's efforts bore fruit. He was able to hire across Asia. And while the Australian city in which he lives has endured multiple lengthy lockdowns, he finishes earlier and gets to spend more time with his kids – so his plan worked.
Jodie Miners also emerged from 2020 thinking it had produced unexpected positives.
Melbourne, Australia, where she lives, endured a 111-day hard lockdown from July to October. She dived into her studies, learned to code, and then turned her hand to security studies to help grow her business into that field.
And as her clients have started up their projects again now, she rates 2020 as "beneficial to my business, overall. I’ve learned new things and it has given me the resilience to get through 2021 so far."
I don't say this lightly, but getting laid off was the best thing that happened to me
Rick Bryant's 2020 ended without work, and January 2021’s jobs market was slow. Things didn't pick up in February. Or March. But then interview requests started to become more frequent, and in May he was offered a new role with an organisation he admired, that needed his skills, and is deeply committed to the platforms and technologies he knows best.
When The Register last spoke to him, in June, he'd submitted background check documentation and was awaiting formal signoff.
"I felt numb when I got the offer," he said. It still doesn't feel real.
"I'm quietly excited and quietly shitting myself at the same time." ®
*Names have been changed at interviewees' request.