What now? A software developer’s guide to surviving the recession

This is a scary time for everyone, but also a moment that could define your career if you prepare for change

Not to be the doomsayer, but unemployment filings are way up and those are just the official numbers, which are weeks old when they’re new. Estimates put actual unemployment around 13 percent, the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. In short, we’re in a recession.

This time the recession wasn’t caused by deregulation of the financial sector allowing consumer deposits to be invested in high-risk, shady investments like the crashes in 2008 and 1987. Instead, it was caused by a virus. To be clear a recession is a significant contraction of economic activity. Well, you’re sitting at home. You’re not going out. You’re not buying as much. Same with everyone else—that is a recession. We’re in one. We don’t have to wait for the data.

If you’re young, then you might not have ever really lived through a recession as an adult. If you’re under 40, you might think the 2008 recession was “the big one”—and it was—just not so big for tech. If you’ve got a few more grays, then you remember the 2000 recession and maybe the early 1990s. Those were bad for tech.

What is a recession like?

The 2008 slump was bad if you were starting your career or running a business, but if you had a job you just stuck with it. If you were looking for a job and you had experience, the search took longer and you might have had to take something that was less than ideal.

The 2000 recession was worse. I was young and I had just enough experience to avoid the worst of it. However, I interviewed for EVERYTHING. In the end, I took a series of contracts (mainly short term) and worked on my open source project while trying to land some consulting work.

The 2000 recession—a.k.a. the dot-bomb—was “the bad one” in my adult life. It was caused by both a financial crisis in Asia and a large investment pull-back when people realized that no one was really going to buy their groceries via a website and have them delivered when everyone could just go to the grocery store (hold on, I’m updating my Instacart order). We even had a sardonic website with an expletive to watch the carnage—it was like Fast Company but with a different F word. It was so salacious (read: good) that it is excluded from the Internet Archive.

In the 2000 recession, we still had “user groups” rather than meetups. I was president of the Java Users Group. We used to do a “have a job” and “need a job” where people would raise their hands. I discontinued the “need a job” practice after one day when nearly the whole room raised their hand. There were almost a hundred people there. It wasn’t just a bad time to graduate from school—there were no jobs. So whenever I read Glassdoor reviews where they spend time complaining about the free food, I usually shake my head.

No one knows if this recession will be as bad as 2000 or if it will be worse. If you’re in one of the most directly hit industries, you can guess there will be no new IT spending this year and probably next. If you’re a vendor, you can expect the effects to ripple more slowly.

What do you do?

For me, the 2000 recession was the moment I got involved more directly in open source. The rest of my career was tied directly to that moment. My very next employer hired me because they were already using my code elsewhere in the company. It was a terrible job that I quickly automated my way out of before transferring to another job in the company that was worse and that I was totally ill-suited for. Eventually, I landed at an open source startup.

And that’s really what it is for a developer—up your game. Find new skills. You can see market movements. How do you position yourself into the next one? How do you demonstrate you’re not just another code monkey?

However, this narrative makes it sound simple. I had no idea what would ultimately happen. Creating an open source project wasn’t the only thing that I did. Some of those things were totally useless. I spent time and money learning UML. And I can tell you that only sequence diagrams are useful. I was considering getting certified on Rational Rose. Gah!

I also started doing more writing and practicing more public speaking. Those ended up being just as useful as having open source experience and they were part of every job I’ve held since.

In short:

  • If your job is solid—stay there. Prepare for that to change though.
  • If your job isn’t solid—you’re almost definitely going to lose it.
  • Keep your résumé up-to-date. Take any recruiter calls even if you’re not looking in case that changes suddenly.
  • Look at industry trends and extend your skills. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Where can you get new skills?

  • Coding boot camps. However, these are mainly for beginners. Some are good, some are bad, some are predatory, and some are badly run and predatory.
  • Coursera. This is still my favorite website. You can take college courses online in everything from history to marketing to machine learning. You can even get a BS/CS or MBA online. EdX and Udemy among others are also good ones to check out.
  • Open source projects. First, don’t start one unless you are filling an unfilled need. We don’t need yet another JavaScript UI framework. Please stop making more JavaScript UI frameworks. Volunteer for an existing one. Don’t just pick React or Kubernetes because they’re famous. Famous projects generally have more starting volunteers than they can mentor. Remember that docs and tutorials are always the easiest places to contribute your way in.
  • Your local university. Most universities offered online classes before. Now everyone is remote—at least for now. The better equipped for online are more expensive. The in-state tuition for local colleges that offer online courses is much less expensive, but their process for admission and placement will be… cumbersome.
  • Non-profits. If you work for free a lot of people will hire you! There are always non-profits that need technical help. That might be a website or it might be something else. Volunteering is a great way to get references and new skills that you can résumé immediately.

This is a scary time for everyone. You’re afraid of getting sick and afraid of losing your job. If you’re American that means losing your healthcare and probably being stuck with a fat bill. However, it is also one of those moments that may define your career if you work on your skills and prepare for change. Good luck friends!

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