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Felipe Vogel
Felipe Vogel

Posted on • Updated on • Originally published at

Being laid off in 2023-2024 as an early-career developer

The saga of my second job search as a second-career software developer, amid waves of layoffs and a tough job market. Included: tips on getting interviews via job networking.

Table of Contents

Recently I wrote an upbeat how-to on job networking. Now comes the part where I pull back the curtain and tell how the job search really went.

Don't worry, it's not all depressing. I've waited for weeks to publish this post just so that I have some good news to share at the end.

Note: This post's title specifies "early-career developer" only because I'm speaking from my own experience, not because only early-career developers are having a hard time. It's a tough job market for everyone in tech, even job seekers with decades of experience.

Backstory: from teacher to developer

For context, I used to be a schoolteacher. In 2019, after a sudden move back to the U.S. (Kentucky) from an overseas teaching position, I found myself earning a pitifully low salary of $32k/year and inundated with medical bills from my wife's chronic illness.

I didn't even enjoy my new job. The frequent late nights spent planning and grading, the emotional drain of managing classrooms full of teenagers all day, the nagging feeling that in spite of all the effort I wasn't actually helping these kids… it was too much.

It was time for a career change.

So I quit teaching at the end of the school year, got a customer support job (remote) in the COVID-fueled e-commerce industry, and taught myself coding in the evenings and on weekends. After a year and a half, in February 2022, I got a junior developer job (also remote), and the following year I was promoted to mid-level.

Meanwhile, my salary went up and up. In this same post on my site I've included a chart showing my gross pay since the beginning of 2020, when I was still a teacher.

Did you notice the gap near the end? That's the story of this post.

No one is safe from being laid off, and I'm not an exception

In early 2023, my company had a 19% RIF (reduction in force, i.e. layoffs). Of my cohort of four junior developers that had joined the previous year, I was the only one who wasn't laid off.

I was shaken, but also bolstered in my belief that I'm special. I felt I was a great developer, and that would keep me safe from being laid off.

Fast forward to November, and… I was laid off. The immensity of this second round (44% RIF) was some consolation in that I didn't feel singled out. But at the same time, I felt uneasy seeing how all of my former junior colleagues were still looking for a new role after so many months. Plus, I'd actually started applying for jobs two months earlier because I saw the layoffs coming, and I'd gotten no responses from dozens of applications.

Still, I clung to the belief that I'm special and I'd have an easy time finding another job now that I could make my job search public and fully focus on it. After all, my previous job search in 2021 had been pretty easy, and that was when I had zero professional experience as a developer. How hard could it be this time?

I was in for a big disappointment.

The 6-month job search

It was rough. Here are some low points:

  • 🦗 The crickets chirping. For the first three months, I applied to dozens of jobs and got zero responses. That's a whole month after my job search went public. Then I started job networking, following a process that I posted about previously.
  • 😐 Insane levels of competition. I experienced a new level of job market saturation when I was rejected near the end of an interview process because a candidate with 16 years of experience was chosen instead… for a mid-level role at a company that also had open senior positions.
  • 🤦 Nonsensical skill requirements. One final interview was a surprise live coding exercise covering React. But here's the thing: this was for a back-end role! That caught me off guard, and I didn't do well in the exercise.
  • 😵‍💫 So many hours spent on take-home assignments. We all know that the "2-3 hours" in a take-home assignment description means about five times that much. Once, I spent 20 hours on an exercise, between the take-home portion and live coding prep. (If you're wondering "Huh? Live coding prep?" it's because, unusually, they sent me the live coding exercise ahead of the interview. But it was also an unusually complex live coding exercise.)
    • Not to digress too much, but why are take-home assignments so long? Why doesn't a bit of (no-prep!) live coding suffice? For example, I remember an interview process in my 2021 job search that didn't have any take-home assignment, only a live coding interview. It was a simple exercise building a CLI hangman game. The requirements were minimal and I didn't even have to finish it—the interviewer just wanted to see my thinking process, and it was very conversational. After about 15 minutes he stopped me, reiterated a few things I'd done that he liked, and said he'd be in touch. And that was it. I really appreciated that the interviewer knew what he was looking for and knew how to spot it quickly.
  • 💀 Lowering my bar down, down… nope, lower. In January, about five months after I'd first started searching, I accepted a job that paid significantly less than my previous salary. Not only that, but the interview process had given me all kinds of red flags, including very mixed Glassdoor reviews and the hiring manager saying that promotions and raises were on hold indefinitely. I took the job anyway because I had no idea how many more months it would take for me to get an offer from a different company, and I wanted to prevent the worst-case scenario of my savings running out. Meanwhile, I kept looking on the down-low—I had to immediately go silent on LinkedIn because my new employer made it clear to me that they didn't want me posting there anymore 🙄 Fortunately, I soon found a better job. (More on that below.)

My job networking by the numbers

Backing up a little bit, job networking is what turned the tide and helped me start getting interviews. I described my process in a previous post, and now I can share more on the results.

I applied for 18 roles that I networked for, i.e. where I didn't submit a cold application. These were mostly in December and January, months 4 and 5 in the 6-month search. The networking that I did can be divided into the three broad types below (which you can see represented visually further down, if you want to skip the verbiage).

Note that I applied only for remote positions, because there aren't a lot of in-person developer jobs in my area (central Kentucky), and in-person salaries here tend to be lower anyway. For anyone living in a tech hub, it's a good idea to do in-person networking too, such as attending local meetups.

  • Existing connections: I already had a connection in the company, first- or second-degree.
    • Of 10 attempts, I got 6 recruiter screenings, and in 3 of those I got more interviews.
  • LinkedIn messaging: I tried forming a new connection by messaging a stranger via InMail on LinkedIn.
    • Of 7 attempts, only one led to a recruiter screening and then further interviews. But I only twice got no response; people were generally willing to talk to a random stranger like me, and twice I got a referral. In case you didn't know, most companies offer a referral bonus to employees after they refer a candidate who ends up being hired. So even if it feels awkward to message a complete stranger, it's worth a try because they're incentivized to refer you.
  • Third-party recruiter: I applied for one job through Brian at Mirror Placement, and it led to a recruiter screening and a further interview. Besides that one role, Brian said he didn't have anything for an early-career developer like me. But I enjoyed working with Brian, so I'll definitely talk to him again in the future when I have more years of experience.

In total, of these 18 attempts, 8 got me a recruiter screening, and in 5 of those I went on to further interviews. Two of these led to job offers: the one I accepted early out of caution, and the one for my current role. Here's all of the above visualized in a diagram built with SankeyMATIC:

My 2023-2024 job search visualized in a Sankey diagram

I should also mention that cold applications yielded a grand total of one recruiter screening, after which I was ghosted by the recruiter. I cold-applied to over a hundred jobs, so that's a pretty terrible success rate. Granted, most of those applications were low-effort and done only to satisfy my state's unemployment requirements, but there was a sizable minority into which I put genuine effort, including painstaking answers to "Why are you applying?"-type questions, and even a few cover letters.

Just for fun, here is the above diagram with cold applications added in:

My 2023-2024 job search visualized in a Sankey diagram, this time including a huge segment representing cold applications

By the way, this contrasts starkly with my last job search in 2021. It's funny to look back at my blog post about it, where I wrote:

Over two months, I applied to seven companies, most of them startups. I got a first-step interview or recruiter screening at six of those companies, and in five of them I moved forward to next steps.

The crazy part is that those were all cold applications 😳

Unless I was an incredible candidate back then in a way that I now fail to recall (or recreate), clearly the job market has changed a lot since two years ago.

The good news

Enough with the doom and gloom. I'm happy to announce that I got a job at Kin Insurance as a full-stack Rails developer.

Now I can finally stop job hunting, and focus on progressing my career in more productive ways.

What's next in my career?

  • Getting into the community. Recently I was accepted as a Ruby Central Scholar, meaning I'll give a lightning talk at RailsConf 🎉 I'm also co-organizing a local Ruby meetup, Bluegrass Ruby.
  • Less overtime, more family time. At my last job, I often worked long days in order to get a lot done and impress my peers. You can see that reflected in my glowing LinkedIn recommendations from former colleagues—which, sadly, I'm not sure even made a difference in my job search. In any case, I'll be sticking more to a 40-hour work week because the past few months have made me re-examine my priorities, especially in light of the fact that I have a 9-month-old kid.
  • More "me time" too. I've also missed resting and investing in my own things, whether spiritual practices or reading Latin and Greek. Honestly, I'm going to have a harder time with this than anything else on this list, but I know it's important for my mental health.
  • More consistent learning. The job search also gave me a chance to get back to my Ruby/web development learning roadmap. I realized that at my last job, I wasn't consistently spending time improving my skills, outside of whatever I might (if I was lucky) be learning in work projects. It's just hard to fight against the pressure of the day-to-day work. Here are some approaches that I'll try this time around:

Top comments (22)

josefine profile image
Josefine Schfr

Thank you for sharing your story. It's heartbreaking how much as changed so quickly, and how difficult is these days to find a new position. I'm so glad it turned out well for you in the end and that you were also able to reflect on what you'd like to do differently going forward :)

_ndeyefatoudiop profile image
Ndeye Fatou Diop

Congrats for finally finding a job : that is great.
I totally agree with your suggestion to reach out to people on LinkedIn. Unfortunately people don’t realise that software engineers have referral bonuses so there is an incentive to recommend someone (provided they have chances to get the job!)

fpsvogel profile image
Felipe Vogel

That's a great point, and something I should've highlighted in the article!

fpsvogel profile image
Felipe Vogel

For posterity, I've updated the text under the point "LinkedIn messaging" to mention the incentive of a referral bonus. Thanks again for the input!

eayurt profile image
Ender Ahmet Yurt • Edited

Thanks for sharing your story! It's really brave of you. Your honesty about tough times is super encouraging. I think you're helping a lot of folks who might be going through something similar. Your positive attitude about learning from challenges is really cool.

dsalomao profile image
Daniel E. Salomão • Edited

I'm really glad to hear your story mate and that your efforts payed off at the end. I'm experiencing something similar, I have 9 years of professional experience as a Software Developer, never had problems searching for jobs and most of my transitions I already had an offer before resigning. Last year I was laid off 3 days after Christmas and have been looking for jobs since. Have been experiencing most of what you said, ghosting, crazy tests, fierce competition. Hope I get out of this one soon.

stefanmoore profile image
Stefan Moore

Congrats on the bounce back

consciousness_dev profile image
Ario Setiawan

I got almost 4 months unemployed now, thanks for your sharing

aminmansuri profile image

Last year wasn't great. But I'm seeing indications that the market is warming up. Our company is getting more requests than in a long time.

jmfayard profile image
Jean-Michel 🕵🏻‍♂️ Fayard • Edited

Congrats for the new job.
I wish the low points wouldn't have existed because they not, in fact, necessary.

They sounds things I have written about

For the first three months, I applied to dozens of jobs and got zero responses.

😐 Insane levels of competition

That makes sense given that candidates focus their efforts on the least effective way of applying for a job, namely submitting a CV.

Nonsensical skill requirements.

That's because companies don't know how to hire

So many hours spent on take-home assignments.

Take home assignments are bad and we shouldn't accept doing them unless very good reasons.

💀 Lowering my bar down, down… nope, lower.

That doesn't work.
"I am open to everything" only makes the competition more brutal, lowers your self esteem and your motivation.

It's like on Google, the more precise your job search, the more likely you are to have good results.

In summary, hiring is not working well and we shall improve it somewhat.

fpsvogel profile image
Felipe Vogel

Thanks for the feedback! I'm not saying I took the best approach to job searching, only that I did what I felt I needed to do in my circumstances, such as my low amount of savings and my few years of experience. I agree that it's important to influence the hiring culture for good where we can, but my goals of paying the bills and then getting a good job were more urgent considering my circumstances. In a future job search when I'm not at such a disadvantage I'll be more cautious, for sure.

jmfayard profile image
Jean-Michel 🕵🏻‍♂️ Fayard

I was not saying you did something wrong, not at all!
We are told that the way to get a job is to submit a CV and wait that the hiring triage does his job.
In fact anyone who works in recruitment knows that this is a very ineffective way to look for a job.
You discovered it by yourself and started networking and found a job.
I just wish this knowledge was more widespread because the whole situation is absurd.

Thread Thread
fpsvogel profile image
Felipe Vogel

100%, it's absurd and came as quite a shock to me when I realized that the advertised method of applying for a job doesn't work, and the right way to apply (referrals) is nowhere stated by the employer. I don't know why they make it into an elaborate game.

Thread Thread
jmfayard profile image
Jean-Michel 🕵🏻‍♂️ Fayard

I don't know why they make it into an elaborate game.

Because they are bad at hiring !

That's my whole point with my Hiring is Broken serie

Thread Thread
fpsvogel profile image
Felipe Vogel

I see you started writing about it in 2020, back before the problems were so glaringly obvious that even I noticed them. I'll be sure to check out your series!

I wonder also if employers don't want to advertise referrals because then they would once again have too many applicants, and filtering down applicants to a manageable number (not necessarily to the best applicants) is kind of the point of referrals.

Thread Thread
jmfayard profile image
Jean-Michel 🕵🏻‍♂️ Fayard

There's is no big strategy, I wish so.

The sad truth is that it's mostly that hiring managers see hiring as a chore, want to delegate it "just guess what I want and send need the CVs i take care of the rest@

Hiring managers don't know that they don't know how to do it, therefore they logically conclude that there is nothing valuable to learn about the art and science of interviewing

raddevus profile image

Great write-up. Thanks for sharing.

aaronblondeau profile image

This was a very interesting analysis of your job search. Thanks for posting it!

nelsonfigueroa profile image
Nelson Figueroa

Oh hey I originally saw this on Reddit and it's nice to see it posted here too. This was a great read.

fernandezbaptiste profile image

I really enjoyed reading your story. Thank you for the transparency! Bravo for all your hard work and switching to SWE - this is not easy. 👏
Regarding your LinkedIn recommendations, do you ask for them, or do your peers naturally give them to you? I'm wondering this as I'd like to get a few under my belt 😄

fpsvogel profile image
Felipe Vogel

I'm glad you enjoyed it!

I asked for recommendations. In my case, the "layoff goodwill" helped in that people were more eager to give recommendations, but I imagine that in the future when I voluntarily leave a job, I'll ask for recommendations from everyone that I think can speak to my good qualities.

fernandezbaptiste profile image

Interesting and thank you for sharing that with me! I guess I always feel a little shy to ask for something like this. My biggest fear is that the person in question does not feel like I did "enough" to deserve it. Idk, I guess a little more courage is needed from me on that end 👉👈.

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