What developers should do during a downturn

Six steps you can take to position yourself for the next tech boom, and to keep paying the bills in the meantime. First, don’t despair.

shutterstock 1018105807 rainbow colored parachute against a blue sky and cirrus clouds
Sergey Ginak

Many young developers today do not remember the time of the shedding and cold rocks, let alone the dotcom bomb (or its associated fansite). Before each of these collapses, the fat times felt like they would never end. But fat times always give way to lean times and layoffs. Even if you are in a stable position, it is wise to prepare for the unexpected.

Companies started enticing employees with free drinks just before the 2000 dotcom bomb. Silicon Valley started serving employees free food before the 2008 recession. Granted, free food and drinks are enticements to stay in the office, but in lean times… there are layoffs. These perks go away, or you’re encouraged not to use them.

Every tech boom has an accompanying bust. Depending on where you are in your career, you’ll be affected differently. Here are some things developers should do during these lean times.

Don’t despair

First off, lean times rarely last long. If you are unlucky enough to become unemployed, there is usually some work if you’re motivated enough to find it. It may not be what you want, but it will pay the bills.

Freelance work can be easier to find than full-time work. However, remember that freelancing comes with administrative overhead, like billing and time tracking. Set a rate that covers the difference. Be wary of “contract to hire” if that comes with a lower rate. Frequently the “hire” never comes, and often the regular contracts turn into hires anyhow.

Get a tune-up

Particularly if you have worked only at one company for a long while, it may be time to “upskill” yourself. There are more ways than ever to do this. While there are a lot of expensive so-called boot camps, these are lean times, and frankly, some of them are predatory. Consider self-study using MOOCs like Coursera, Udemy, Saylor, and EdX. These have university-style courses that are free or low-cost.

If you are early in your career, you can now get a certification or even a bachelor’s degree in computer science entirely online. Both the University of London and BITS Pilani offer bachelor’s programs on Coursera. (A number of other schools offer master’s programs.) However, MOOCs are not the only game in town. Your local university is also getting in on the game and may offer completely online courses. Having done this recently, my advice is not to bother with a formal degree if you are already a seasoned professional, unless you are switching fields.

Universities have a lot of “money” courses they make you take in which you fulfill “requirements” but in which you learn nothing of any value whatsoever. The quality of some of the courses on Coursera exceeds the quality of the same courses at my local university, and the university’s software platform is inferior. However, the local university will generally be cheaper if you’re seeking a whole degree.

Volunteer for experience

By now, you may have figured out that the hiring process at most companies is arbitrary and has relatively nothing to do with proving you can do the job. It is just to reduce the number of candidates. Even the coding tests that some places employ are usually nonsense. Measuring your résumé against keywords that refer to APIs you can learn in 15 minutes is also meaningless. When you are early in your career, it is even more arbitrary.

Brush up your résumé and go ahead and include extraneous keywords. Consider having a professional touch it up and scan it with an ATS (applicant tracking system) keyword scanner. Granted your best tool for finding work is through your contacts, but it never hurts to have a résumé that passes the screening.

It is harder to get someone to hire you for money. However, people are less discerning if you work for free. There are many non-profits that cannot afford new software or technical help. Consider volunteering and doing a project for one. You can add this to your résumé and have code samples to show for it.

In the past, I would have suggested getting involved in open source. It may still be a good idea, but it is difficult to find the right project and the right “in.” Ideally, you want to work on something that your next employer will find helpful. However, if you are a fresh-out-of-school developer and you want to contribute to something like React, it may not work out. When volunteering, look for something a little more ancillary and be prepared to contribute tests and documentation. More seasoned developers might look at projects sponsored by a company they would like to work for.

Always be networking

When you are looking for work, it is ideal to be connected to a network of people like friends, family, and former colleagues who can get you an in. However, it is generally too late to network when you need a job. You just look like someone who comes around when you need something rather than a genuine connection.

Work your network both socially and professionally before you need something. Think about each person and what you might be able to do for them. This does require defining your network. It is not every LinkedIn or Facebook connection. Your professional network may not be the same as your social network, but both consist of people who will gladly take your call. Make sure those people know they can count on you before you come calling to count on them.

Don’t take the first offer

When looking for work in lean times, you may reflexively want to take the first job that comes along. And indeed, if your bills are coming due, you may be forced to do that. However, if you have a little time, consider whether you really want to work there even if they want you. Do they have a decent business strategy? Do you think you will be treated well enough? Will the hours be long? Are you likely to end up back in the same circumstances months later?

Remember it’s temporary

Layoff-inducing downturns have been short in technology. The famous downsizing of the 1990s was only a couple of years—at least for tech. The dotcom bomb of 2000 gave way to the web as we know it within about two years. The Great Recession of 2008-2009 was even shorter for technology. Each of these periods was followed by developer shortages and profligate hiring. Begin your search before the layoff by keeping up-to-date with desirable skills, a helpful network, and an up-to-date résumé.

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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