What I Learned During Unemployment as a Developer

Written By Ryan Johns

In the tech industry, successful startups dominate the news cycle. The Ubers and Snapchats of the world bask in the spotlight, and the engineers that got in early made it big.

Thousands of other startups are seeking similar glory and will promise the world to Software Engineers wanting to advance their position who will take a risk and help them rise to the top. They might offer enticing future stock options or maybe they’ll overlook your lack of experience as long as you’re willing to put in long hours and give it everything you’ve got until the initial public offering.

When that exciting offer is sitting in front of you, it can be easy to forget that nine out of 10 startups fail. I know that was far from my mind when I finally got my big break.

I never expected that a measly six months into my first job as a developer, I and most of my team would be laid off.

I Got Laid Off

A phone call from my manager quickly turned sour.

“You may have noticed that our active subscription count has significantly dropped over the last few months,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have to cut you from the team.”

His words stung and totally caught me off guard. Just as I was beginning to feel comfortable with the work and our product, I was back out on the street. Just like that.

The following weeks were harrowing. I ate discouragement and stress for breakfast every day. Being an engineer with little experience, I felt unprepared, but determined to find something that would continue the momentum of my new career.

Within a month, I landed two job offers that exceeded my expectations. I learned the importance of saving money, how to properly prepare for an interview, and how to use my network effectively. I wouldn’t wish layoffs on anybody, but the process can actually be a great opportunity for personal development.

Save an Emergency Fund

If you find yourself taking a risk and joining a burgeoning startup, I recommend immediately starting to pay into an emergency fund. Having money in the bank to cover bills for a month or two can make a world of difference if you find yourself back in the job search.

It is something I certainly wished I had done.

Less financial pressure means you can be more selective with which offers to accept, because you have a larger window of time in which to make a decision. Having less stress (of the financial type) in your life will also inevitably lead to a better interview performance and a better position from which to negotiate your developer salary.

Reach Out To Your Professional Network

The power of my existing professional network became instantly clear to me after I posted on Twitter and LinkedIn. Over a dozen of my colleagues responded indicating that I was looking for test automation and web developer opportunities.

The advantage to networking in the job hunt is getting referrals and hearing about open positions that you may have missed when scouring job boards. LinkedIn is the most powerful tool for this, in my opinion, and is something that should be cultivated even if you aren’t currently looking for a job.

Several interviews came about because of one post I made on social media. Often when applying for positions online, I would check LinkedIn to see if I had any connections that currently worked at that company. If I did, then I would put them down as a referral on the application and then reach out to them to let them know I was interested in working at their company.

Practice Whiteboard Coding Challenges Daily

The biggest mistake I made in my job hunt was right at the beginning. I immediately began reading up on Angular 4 and ReactJS, because they were the most prevalent frameworks asked for in my local job postings. I figured that knowing my way around either of them would get me far in an interview.

Instead of spending my time learning and updating my knowledge on frameworks, I wish I had begun practicing my whiteboard coding challenges immediately. I didn’t realize how much my lack of experience doing those would come back to bite me.

My first interview was a rude awakening. I was asked to perform a simple coding algorithm problem on the whiteboard in front of three engineers. Standing in front of them with the marker in my hand, I completely froze. It was embarrassing, and needless to say, I did not get an offer for that position.

I went home and changed my approach right away. I bought a whiteboard and marker set. I made an account on LeetCode and HackerRank. Then I got to work.

It became my full-time job to perform coding challenges from these websites on my whiteboard and explain my thought process for each step to an imaginary audience.

Over time, I felt much more comfortable working through coding challenges standing in front of a whiteboard. Not only could I think more clearly while coding in front of an audience, I also did much better explaining out loud my reasoning behind each line of code as I wrote it out.

Stick With What You Know

Part of the reason I initially spent so much time researching Angular 4 and ReactJS was because I wanted a web developer job, even though most of my experience is in test automation. It quickly became clear to me that I needed to stick with what I know if I wanted to find a job sooner rather than later.

This is important for new engineers who are job hunting. Maybe if I had several more years of experience under my belt, I would have felt more comfortable applying to Software Engineering positions that ask for skills outside my experience. But to keep a competitive edge, I realized I needed to stick to applying for automation engineer positions.

This panned out well, because during interviews I was able to sell my previous experience writing test automation code for two separate companies. Instead of pitching myself for a job I didn’t have much experience in, I could use specific metrics to sell myself. I brought up the fact that I had developed excellent manual testing skills at one company, and at the other I had built a testing framework from scratch.

Stay Calm and Stay Focused

It’s easy to get discouraged. It can be hard to look at a job board for the 15th day in a row. Stay focused on your goal: to find a job and bring home the bacon. You can do this.

I’m not necessarily trying to argue that it is a bad idea to join up with a startup. Do your homework and know what you’re getting yourself into. Many developers prefer a startup culture and there’s nothing wrong with that.

There are a lot of other great resources online for resume tips as well as interview advice. Make sure you are firing on all cylinders. My month of unemployment was stressful as hell, but I learned a lot. At the end of that journey, I had two offers to choose from.

If you find yourself laid off, especially as a new engineer, don’t despair. You have a challenge ahead of you, but if you play it smart and stay focused, you might even come out of it better than before.