April 2024  -  Article

Beyond the Golden Handshake: Career Agility Lessons from Tech’s Layoff

By Claire Harbour, Winnie Jiang and Antoine Tirard

The wave of layoffs that has broken over Silicon Valley in the past two years isn’t over. The tech-wide reckoning that began in 2022 and ran throughout into 2023 has continued into this year. According to CNBC, more than 100,000 workers at U.S.-based tech companies have been laid off in mass job cuts in 2023. And while 2024’s losses are not at that scale, they’re still significant, driven by big names like Pixar, Google, Microsoft, IBM, SAP, Cisco, Mozilla and TikTok.

Against this backdrop, we wanted to get beyond the statistics, which are striking in themselves, and find out what some of the individuals who found themselves out of a job more suddenly than expected are doing to go on with their career. While not looking at the tech professionals, Winnie has studied journalists who had to leave their beloved job in the face of the widespread job cuts and closures of newspapers. She found that while some of these journalists experienced despair and fear and sought to persist in journalism, others quickly recovered from these negative emotions and found courage and hope to reinvent their career in a new industry.

So are the tech professionals motivated by fear and self-protection? Or by a sense of opportunity for new discovery and opening doors? Are they looking to recreate something similar to the paths they have already trodden, or to use this crucible moment as one in which to question everything, reinvent themselves and look for more or different meaning and impact in what they do? 

We spoke with three professionals in the tech sector, none of them yet fully into their next iteration, but all with rather different thinking and process to get there. While we are aware that the three in question are operating from a relatively privileged position of financial and existential comfort, we do believe that their stories give many lessons in how to use purpose and agility in your career, and the fundamental need for that, at all points in your career, not just when it is in crisis.

Steffen – A post-Google odyssey in pursuit of meaning

Steffen grew up in a tiny agricultural village in East Germany, where the only playmates beyond his eight peers at school were the Soviet soldiers who were stationed nearby. They all played together in the forests and the fields, and were mostly blissfully unaware of the world beyond. But then, his savvy, self-made parents, began to take him to travel overseas, and explore broader horizons, building curiosity and resourcefulness in the young boy from an early age.

Against that background, Steffen was encouraged to go and study at university. His father was clear: “It doesn’t matter if you don’t know exactly what you want to do right now, and you will figure it out once you go and study; but, it would be a waste not to go”. So, the only child from his village to leave, he chose to go to a distant school, where there was a guaranteed job provided by partner companies such as SAP and Porsche, for all graduates. 

At every opportunity, Steffen worked as an intern in both German and international companies, including Lufthansa, Avis and PwC. He gained important insights, perhaps unusual for one so young, but obviously he was talented at reflecting on life, learning about what he did and did not love about work: “Lufthansa was mind-blowing! It not only appealed to my fascination for travel, but also showed me the marvels of international business. AVIS revealed my taste for growth, not stagnation; while PwC uncovered the crucial role of finance in business.” He also grasped another certainty: he was not cut out for the culture of traditional German giant corporations. 

A longer-term, ongoing role at AOL meant that he also gained exposure to the fast-opening world of tech and online business. He used Google every day in his work, unaware that this would be a huge incentive to the growing company, when they considered him for a role upon graduation in 2003. But that is exactly what happened, and thus began a twenty year career with Google. He was excited and could imagine the future value of what was being created.

Over the years, Steffen took on a diverse succession of roles, starting as an account manager in Hamburg, and gradually becoming a project and product specialist in emerging markets as well as in EMEA, eventually heading a global program for sustainable startups. He made the best of every role, with a soft spot for any time spent working with emerging markets, and also relishing the connections he made with founders and scalers of businesses. These connections led, as early as ten years ago, to a number of side gigs, some of them squeezed into the legendary 20% days afforded to Googlers, to allow them to pursue other work they believe to be of value.

As the company grew, the initial extra layers of process and efficiency felt comforting to Steffen, but subsequently, “once they started getting the consultants in”, the magic slowly began to wear off. But he found fascination for the builders of dreams and realities, not only advising startups and other tech ventures, but also creating an investment syndicate, focused entirely on ex-Googlers’ companies. As he built this extraordinary network, Steffen was excited and energized, but there was an additional factor at play. Having decided to prioritize family life, and not to be fully globally mobile, there was a “glass ceiling” on his career, which meant that the sidewards extension into this other universe made all the more sense. His trajectory also allowed him to see clearly what was motivating him more and less, and he “started to turn down stupid projects towards the end!”

And so, when, early in 2023, when Steffen’s Google journey came to an end, he felt so gratified by his journey that he took a moment to thank everyone who had been with him along the way. He deliberately chose to connect in this way, and created a post of gratitude on LinkedIn, which generated 1,200 Likes, as well as over 200 comments and many more messages both on the platform and by other routes. He was moved to tears, and then got on with taking a couple of months just to have meetings with all those involved. “I was not so focused on what’s next, as I was on just looking back and around”. Meanwhile, all his side gigs continued, as advisor, as investor, and leader of investors.

Steffen’s taste for sustainability is proving to be real, and he has invested time on devouring learning in the field. He also chose to spend summer with his family, all the more poignantly as his son had been ill the previous year. This had already caused a further reset to his priorities. The leisure provided by the severance deal means he can take his time. What does Steffen see as he looks both back and forward? “I should have left the golden prison earlier, but it was also an ideal environment from which to build my eco-system of other interests: comfortable and ‘nice’”. And he adds: “Clearly, I am not going to go back to any sort of five days per week, corporate role. I want to be able to tell my son that I did something to change the world, not just, in the end, to sell more advertising.” 

Steffen is over 100 meetings into his process. He is collecting input  and reflecting carefully on what resonates, before making his decision. At the time of interviewing him, he knew that his future work weeks would be checkered, and relished that prospect. By early 2024 he had found a setup that gives him a fantastic combination of all the different things he was looking for: 3 days a week working for a non-profit angel investment club where part of the job has a focus on sustainability, 1 day working on his own Syndicate and 1 day of advisory for sustainability startups and time for family. We will watch the space, and expect it to evolve over time anyway, but no doubt with great agility.

Ekaterina – A tale of multiple pivots and a playbook for exploring a new career in turbulent times

Ekaterina grew up in an unusual family in the former USSR: her father a nuclear physicist-turned criminologist, her mother a doctor, and raised by her grandparents in a large regional town. Against a background of having to scrabble for everything from a decent apartment to oranges, thankfully, education, culture and broadening one’s knowledge were considered important in the regime. Between her fascination with building electrical circuits, and music lessons at the local Conservatory, the bookworm grew up curious and expansive of mind.

After the collapse of the communist regime, Ekaterina went on high school exchange in the US, and felt much inspired, but then returned to the realities of choosing a career with little to no independent guidance. With her exceptional IQ and broad abilities, the teenager had already been involved with the top medical school in the country during teenage years. Despite having a natural preference for studying languages, she accepted the offer of going to medical school, planning to figure things out from there.

From her Moscow dorm room in 1999, Ekaterina heard the explosions of the Chechen war, and this provoked questions about her life and future. By her second year, she became an assistant in a research lab, and windows were opened on to the possibilities offered by the World Health Organization, and medical conferences. Feeling disgust at the corruption of the healthcare  system, she was all the more open to other ideas, and so, while attending a conference, she met a medical journalist, and her curiosity was piqued. Three months later, he offered her “his” job. Thus Ekaterina became a part time news editor during her third year of medicine and began to have her own version of a portfolio career. 

With her degree completed, to ensure that she would be financially safe, she then quickly took advantage of a state scholarship to go and study in the US. Armed with a master’s diploma in Journalism and Mass Communications, she returned to Russia and began a new angle, first a project for the health ministry, and subsequently in a top advertising agency, where she led teams on work for FMCG as well as healthcare clients. Her world was broadening fast.

As she was finishing up her MBA at INSEAD, Ekaterina learnt that Putin was returning to power, and that too many people like her were “disappearing” into prison or worse. The need to secure a role overseas became urgent. She held offers from all the top companies in Moscow. But her primary focus was to obtain work in Europe, and begin the path towards a more stable life and nationality.

When Google offered her a role in Paris, Ekaterina was delighted. Her ascent through various product partnership roles, calling on her communication skills, her languages and cultural dexterity, and her unusually refined analytical and critical thinking, was lightning speed. The initial period of explosive market growth was gradually replaced with a more mature maintenance phase, which led to her transfer to an internal facing role in her team as head of regulatory programs for one of the EMEA verticals. After more than a decade in the company, she started thinking about what the next steps could be while taking a part-time assignment in Sustainability in parallel with her core job.

At the same time, she reached out to one of the authors (Antoine), and asked him to coach her around a career transition. She wanted to be mindful and exploratory, before she took any actual decisions. She was also painfully aware that, until then her career had developed mostly reactively, and this time she wished to be in control. However the writing appeared quickly on the wall, and budget cuts and layoffs were providing a wake-up call. Despite initial plans to take proper time to reflect, she found that, against all odds, she was eligible for a generous voluntary severance package which meant that she had only four weeks to say goodbye to the people and the place that had been her world for the previous ten years. She thought “Now, I can leave, and make good use of the network I have been building all these years. And I have a huge set of transferable skills”.

Ekaterina’s unusually varied past career does indeed give her many paths to discover. But sometimes the challenge of too many options is as great as what might feel like not enough. She has, to some extent, been exploring or seeking all her life, with the varied degrees, work sectors and functions. So experimentation beyond exploration is what becomes crucial at this time. Luckily, her situation allows this, as a combination of savings and severance package removes the pressure to look  urgently for a job, making her one of the “lucky ones”. She had prepared her way admirably for a period of reflection. 

Exploring all the different avenues involved in her career, plus creating a pause for thought months earlier meant that she was deeply confident in what the future held for her. She took courses and training on how to be a non-executive director. She networked tirelessly across sectors, functions, roles, countries, cultures and ways of working. She consciously lived in the moment. Ekaterina received attractive enquiries and offers regularly, but stuck to her guns of slowing down and thinking for at least six months. Meanwhile, experimenting with volunteering her time on boards and associations and digging into all kinds of areas she feels attracted to, has led to several interesting offers, and a sense that never again will she rely on a single role or stream of income. She is enjoying composing her next opus. 

Ben – From astrophysics to AdTech, and the unforeseen challenges of job search

Ben grew up in a British family that was quietly driven by working and playing hard – and his childhood interests, from gazing at the night sky with his science-loving father, to playing the cello and the recorder, gave him structure, depth and discipline. It felt natural enough for him to pursue a career in astrophysics at Cambridge University, and, through completing an extra year there to start studying business, he was hooked on working in business.

Consulting felt like a logical place to start for Ben, and he admits that this may have been to some extent a function of following the herd, but, unlike those who unashamedly pursued the allure of the Big 4 or MBB, he began in a small but interesting firm, before joining Deloitte. There he scaled the levels fast, and thrived in balancing the need for an analytical mind with a commercial thrust. After an MBA, and a stint as an independent consultant, Ben began a ten-year period of increasingly senior operational and commercial roles in the AdTech industry.

With larger and smaller regional responsibilities, and cultures and organizations that more or less suited Ben’s tastes, the ride was interesting, if sometimes fraught. He was the victim of one particularly traumatic layoff, made all the more shocking by the fact that this happened only 9 weeks into a job, and after 9 months of interviews. Despite the mental scars, he continued to build a career, fitting various “pieces of the jigsaw” together, and was thrilled to be offered a role at Meta almost four years ago. Initially with the charge of a region, and next as EMEA and eventually global head of a particular vertical, Ben was really happy, and so busy that his general “glass half full” approach to life prevented him from seeing the signs of what was to come.

However, when he was laid off six months ago, it was, by contrast with the trauma of ten years previously, done with good and fair treatment. Ben “felt no hostility to the scenario”, commenting that he understands that he had chosen to “live and die by the capitalist sword”.

After a brief break to catch up on sleep, Ben went straight into a job search. He envisaged staying in Tech, and most likely aiming for a reproduction of what he had already been doing. He kept in mind from the outset a sense of the importance of “building his personal brand capital”, and looked for roles where he could develop beyond his current constraints, but still use the foundations he had. At the same time, he explored going into the field of AI and Machine Learning, as their stage was similar to that of AdTech, when he had entered the field ten years prior. And even a possibility of looking to SpaceTech, leveraging his academic, quantitative background further. One factor which was prevailing was a sense that in AdTech, Ben’s MBA and consulting background were not particularly well understood or valued per se, and he was keen to find other pastures where there might be more desire for these.

Within a couple of months, many “coffee chats” had taken place with the less direct options of Space and AI, and not really led to anything concrete. Ben’s speculation, confirmed to some extent by friends and connections, is that there are not enough roles available for people like him. Especially in an overall risk-averse environment, companies are less likely to stretch and hire someone like him with only a transversal link to their work. “So I had to prioritize, and, as I learnt at Meta, it’s not prioritization unless it’s painful”. Ben dialed back his search in the riskier fields, and redoubled his efforts in AdTech.

Here too, even in the “obvious” field where he brings expertise, the search has not been easy. An interesting phenomenon has emerged, by contrast to the field of Sales. Ben observes that, in sales, when you are working on a pipeline of prospects, “you obviously always want to be feeding your pipeline, and if you make a sale, you still continue to feed the pipeline. Whereas in job search, once you get the job offer, the other conversations don’t matter. So it’s a constant tradeoff between time spent applying and time spent deepening and bettering my chances of success in any interview process.” And this he finds very stressful. “Which of the two different activities actually leads to the greatest value in the end?”

A couple of months back, Ben was receiving all the right signals from a company and the recruiter facilitating the search, only to find that there had been miscommunication beyond his zone of control, and the role had been offered to someone else. In the meantime, he had slowed down all his other searching and conversations, choosing to focus on making a success of this process, only to be disappointed at the last moment.

In the month preceding our conversation, Ben had made over 50 applications, from which 20 never even responded, and of which the balance generated three serious conversations. Once again, he is “almost there” with his preferred option, and even, against all odds, when coming from a tech giant, would end up better compensated than at Meta. All three of the organizations with whom his in communication at this point would fit his needs and the fit from the organizational side is also obvious. He would be a “low risk hire”. He is quietly hopeful, but deeply aware of what happened a few weeks ago. Thus more time is being devoted to keeping the pipeline open, while thinking of ever more creative ways to build connection to the desired destinations. A campaign focused on ensuring his reputation as “a decent colleague, or just a great guy to work with” is currently under way, to balance the work already done establishing his technical credentials.

Being almost there is tough. Perhaps it highlights why there is such a constant need in any life and career for exploring and experimenting with the opportunities that abound in our environment. Ben points to the fact that he “was networking quite intensely” when he was laid off, but that networking was focused inwardly on building his eco-system within Meta. That was not enough, even though it led to enjoyment and progression internally. 

Unlocking career agility: the endless cycle of exploration, experimentation, and expansion

What all these stories show us is that the endless cycle of exploration and experimentation, punctuated by the engagement and expansion of entering the next role, is just that: endless. Or at least it should be, and when it isn’t, gaps and worries emerge. Steffen explored and experimented by actually doing “the most” around his own eco-system, long before the event of being laid off and has found his way pretty naturally, and without drama, into his next professional iteration. Ekaterina had explored broadly throughout her whole life, but only came to the intentionally specific career exploration towards the end of her long stint at Google. So she is still on the path of discovery, and savoring it. While Ben had his head down, firmly intent on the pleasure of what he was doing at Meta, with by far the least activity externally, and is, not surprisingly, the least comfortable at this stage, however much our fingers are crossed for him making it across the finishing line very soon. 

It is probably fair to comment that, by the same token, Steffen and Ekaterina will be more likely able to impart meaning to this next stage of their careers, as their time frame affords greater leisure in creating a lifestyle that suits their context, their values and their desires, whereas the more pragmatic choices faced by Ben are a reminder to him as well as, we hope, to all of us, that career agility is something to be worked on at all times, in a multitude of ways.

This may be the time to remind our readers of a simple model we created almost ten years ago now, but which remains timeless while not particularly originally named, the “4E’s Framework”. Here it is (see box), with a request to each and every reader: please, understand that the cycle is one of perpetual motion, if you allow it to be. Ignore that at your peril.

A Headhunter’s perspective

Burcu Bicakci is a Partner with Egon Zehnder, based in Singapore, and a core member of their Global Technology and Communications Practice Group. We asked Burcu to share her insights on the current tech talent market and the three stories in this article. 

What have been the key changes in the tech industry and their impact on the talent market? 

The tech industry is a dynamic and multifaceted field that is constantly evolving. Adtech was a powerful force, followed by the emergence of various internet business models that proved to be essential for survival during the COVID-19 pandemic. This resulted in a strong tailwind for digital-focused executives. As the need for digital business models grew, investments in data centers and digital infrastructure skyrocketed, and cloud transformation became a hot topic. The entire software industry quickly migrated from on-premise models to the cloud. However, the pandemic ending caused the tailwind to turn into a headwind, and the internet business models balloon burst. Fortunately, AI, particularly ChatGPT, arrived at the end of 2022, providing a new tailwind that continues to this day, making the talent need in AI space more than ever. 

How can tech executives best navigate all these different winds of change?

These changes in the tech industry’s winds and the demand for talent demonstrate the importance of career agility for executives who wish to remain immune to the industry’s wind changes and traumas. As a talent advisor with over a decade of experience and a former tech executive for nearly two decades, I have observed the drawbacks of a mono-block career, where executives remain in the same field or company for 20 years. Such executives miss out on learning about what is happening outside of their domain, which is crucial for developing versatility, vision, and perspective. During tech layoffs, executives who lacked career versatility suffered the most.

I have worked with executives who were laid off in the first wave two years ago and are still struggling to find new roles. Their psychology has shifted from a high, where they believed in their value and potential, to a puzzled state, where they realized that there is a storm out there, and articulating what they can do in a one-hour interview is not easy. They are now in a worrying state, as they see that the layoff wave is not ending, and the tech industry is taking on a new shape, with different skills emerging. They fear becoming obsolete. Keeping options open, thinking broadly, investing in oneself, continuing to network, and volunteering to contribute without expecting immediate returns are the keys to bouncing back. You are not alone in this struggle. When I lately asked executives at a dinner table if anyone had never been laid off, less than half raised their hands. The majority of executives go through the same hurdle, and you will emerge stronger from all what you are going through.

What advice do you have for them to successfully navigate these uncertainties and reinvent themselves? 

Some executives see an opportunity to reinvent themselves, even though it was difficult to do so. Getting out of a safe harbor and sailing into the unknown has been a new way of looking at life for some leaders, giving them the chance to do what they were previously too afraid to do. For instance, executives like Steffen and Ekatarina built new skills, explored the possibility of building portfolio careers, gave back to society, networked more, built their personal brands, reflected personally, spent more time with their families, and pursued their passions. This is the best way to refresh oneself. I even witnessed a 20-year veteran of big tech sales who decided to study film production, his passion for many years, which he had no time for previously.

The 4 Es of Successful Career Transitionstion

1. Explore

  • Reflect on who you are 
  • Think about why and what you want to change 
  • Consider your career options. 

2. Experiment

  • Try out new things
  • Build new connections 
  • Reframe and zero-in your search.

3. Engage

  • Find and launch yourself into your new role
  • Unlearn old skill sets and learn new ones.

4. Expand

  • Deliver and thrive in your new role
  • Consolidate and expand your capabilities
  • Continue to reflect on your career journey.

Tech layoffs in numbers 

According to Layoffs.fyi, 1,064 tech companies laid off 165,269 employees in 2022, 1,191 companies laid off 263,180 employees in 2023 and 240 companies laid off 58,819 employees in 2024 to date. Some of the largest numbers include:  

CompanyLocationLayoff numbersYear
GoogleSF Bay Area12,0002023
MetaSF Bay Area11,0002022
SalesforceSF Bay Area8,0002023

Sign up

Sign up to receive regular insightful news and advice on managing your career and receive a free gift. Inspiration delivered straight to your Inbox!

    By clicking, you agree to receive our newsletter