With the coronavirus, a volatile stock market, shrinking 401Ks, and the upcoming US election, it’s hard not to be a little on edge of late. I’m not saying we are headed for a recession, but it’s hard not to sense a change in the winds right now. The first two downturns of my professional career were the dotcom bust of 2001, which I navigated with a one year old child, and the Great Recession of 2008, in which I had two kids in elementary school. I used to come home at night in those years unable to keep myself from watching the doom and gloom of the evening news. It was like watching a car crash happen in slow motion. More than a few times I woke up in the middle of the night and could not get back to sleep out of worry for my company, my family or my career.
But unless you were born before 1987, it’s unlikely you have ever seen a downturn as a working professional. This lack of experience can make it hard to put today’s turbulent times into perspective. For those of you have not seen the other side of a boom - or for those of you who have simply forgotten - here are some tips for being a tech professional during a downturn:
1: Work for a Good Company
We have lived for over a decade now in an economic boom. The jobs seem limitless, opportunities are everywhere, and all you need to do to make more money is move to a new company. Unfortunately when a recession hits, this will change - and fast. I remember the Boston traffic before and after the 2001 recession. It was almost like a light switch was flipped: one day there was heavy traffic on the roads, and the next you could drive to work without slowdowns. As much as I appreciated relief from my daily commute, it was hard not to think about the reason for the change: a lot of people were no longer going to work.
When a recession happens, being at a good company that is positioned well in the market, surrounded by good people and interesting work, is critical. Bigger companies are often better at weathering an economic storm than smaller ones. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work at a startup during a downturn. I worked at the startup SilverBack in 2001, and successfully rode it to an acquisition in 2007. The low margin for error often fuels innovation in startups that can produce great companies. But at the same time, many startups fail during a downturn, leaving people scrambling to find work. So be intentional about where you work now, ensuring you are in a place that you will not just enjoy, but is well positioned to get through a recession.
2: Innovate For Your Company
When the economy shrinks, the companies that survive and thrive are the ones who figure out how to adapt to a changing landscape. It’s easy to know how to build, market, sell, and support products in a growing economy, but doing this in a downturn often takes creativity. At SilverBack we created our Business Builder package in the downturn, which wrapped services around our software to provide Managed Service Providers (MSPs) a turnkey solution to transforming their businesses. I also invented our agentless monitoring for Windows during this time, which proved to be one of our key competitive differentiators. It’s unlikely SilverBack would have survived long enough to be acquired by Dell if not for innovations like these. In addition to helping your company survive through innovation, you will also gain experiences that will reward you when the economy turns. It’s sort of like running with arm weights: once the weights are removed, running suddenly feels so much easier.
3: Invest in Your Skills
In the dotcom boom, I often delivered job offers to candidates the same day I met them. I rarely had time to fully vet a candidate’s skill set due to the competitive job market. But after the recession, I took my time finding exactly the right candidate, often turning down people who lacked some specific skill or experience. Downturns offer a great opportunity for you to invest in your soft and hard skills, to ensure you stand out in an increasingly competitive job market. I invested in skills such as cloud computing, AWS, Ruby, Rails, jQuery and more during the Great Recession. I also invested in my soft skills, improving my ability to influence and communicate. While some of these skills I acquired in my day job, I also took on personal projects to expend my knowledge.
4: Make an Impact
There is no better time and place to throw yourself into your job than during a recession. Doubling down on your work can sometimes be the difference between success or failure for a company. Being recognized as a top performer also has the side benefit of providing you job security, and can give a much needed cathartic release that can take your mind off the turbulence around you.
5: Don’t Panic
The good news about economic downturns is that they end. The bad news is: the end is often a lagging indicator. Try not to panic in a downturn. My wife and I re-mortgaged our house three times during the recession following 2001, each time driven by our absolute belief that rates had hit a historic low. Downturns are good times to keep calm and carry. Continue to expand your network, invest in your personal brand, do great work for your company, be conservative with your finances, and just don’t overreact. No matter how bad the news sound, good times are in your future.
We will know soon what will happen with the economy. Hopefully the turbulence of today will be behind us, and we can continue to enjoy the good times. But if not, it's the time to prepare youraelf for being successful during a recession.