On a brisk Wednesday in December, Pakin Wirojwatanakul made his usual commute to the downtown San Francisco office of fintech startup Plaid. But when he arrived, the front desk security guard told him to go home. Puzzled, he left the office and reversed his commute. Then he received a cryptic text from a friend: “Are you safe?” Back at home, a thoroughly confused Wirojwatanakul opened his email and finally grasped what was going on: He was being laid off, along with 260 other Plaid employees, or about 20% of the company.
By January 2023, nearly 250,000 tech workers had lost their jobs in a similar fashion over the past year. Many received the news via brusque, formal emails sent to their personal addresses. Others were beckoned via calendar invites to 15-minute meetings with the human resources department. A strategist at Slack, who was on vacation during the company’s layoffs, found out she had lost her job when a colleague texted condolences and said it had been nice working together. A Google engineer discovered he’d been laid off only when he searched his spam folder; ironically, Gmail had flagged the email from Google HR as suspicious.
Over the last year, I have frequently wondered what would become of those quarter-million fired tech workers. Their stories seemed to evaporate after their last day of work, sealed with a perfunctory post on LinkedIn. Where, I wondered, would they all end up? Would they get reabsorbed into other tech companies that, improbably, have continued to hire? Would they abandon the industry, feeling burned after their corporate breakups? Or would they make creative use of their severance payments—four months of base pay on average, or in rare cases as much as a full year’s salary—and set out to build something new of their own?
In recent weeks, I spoke with more than 30 tech workers who lost their jobs in the havoc of the past year. They ranged from entry-level employees navigating their first downturn to Silicon Valley veterans who had survived more than one boom-and-bust cycle. For the most part, these workers fell into one of two camps: those who viewed the job loss as a personal trauma and those who saw the layoffs as liberation. Taken collectively, their next steps offer a glimpse at a reconfiguration of the tech industry—call it the Great Re-Sorting. Talent is trickling out of large tech companies and into early-stage ventures or other industries altogether, and the modest diversity gains seen over the last decade are in danger of reversal.
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