Veteran Tech Leader Helps Ease Anxiety About the Current Job Market

Many of my clients have been affected by recent lay offs in the tech industry and there's a new layer of job anxiety all around. To help understand this transitional time, I asked a former tech leader turned career coach, Donte Parks, a few questions that have come up in my practice.

After 20+ years in tech and hiring and recruiting across multiple industries and disciplines in and out of tech, Donte has come to the other side of the table, helping people land the jobs they want and have the careers they deserve via individual coaching and group workshops. You can get a good sense of his perspective by taking a look at the Getting the Nod newsletter.

Q: Big tech in Greater Seattle has been somewhat of a gold rush, but now there is a collective panic about finding work. As someone who has been in the field for 20 years and seen the ebb and flow, do you think there’s real reason to panic, or is this a blip in time?

A: I've gone through two recessions, in 2000 and 2008, and the current situation has been much different. In those earlier downturns people were laid off, offers were rescinded, and the entire economy was in a slump. Jobs just weren't there and the data, the commentary, and the overall zeitgeist supported how turbulent the economic climate was.

Now though, you have hundreds of thousands of layoffs in tech but the official unemployment levels are still remarkably low. How low? In February the US unemployment rate was at its lowest since 1969! Just yesterday economists announced being defied with the number of job openings as well. That's for the broad economy not just tech but unless you go into the weeds to understand the data it just doesn't really add up that these two wildly different stories exist simultaneously. Things are awful and also fine?

Back to your actual question. No, people shouldn't panic and every moment in time is a blip in time. Is looking for a job going to be easy and stress-free? Nope. Is that any different than any other time though? I don't want people to stick their head in the sand and pretend the outside world doesn't exist, but I do want people to focus on the right problem. The problem you have isn't the economy and the confusing dissonance it creates. No, your problem is that you have bills to pay and need a job. So point your energy there. Once you're settled in your new role *then* you can give yourself the luxury of ruminating on "these wacky times." Until then, focus.

Q: There is also collective anxiety about AI. What role, if any, does AI have in what’s currently happening?

A: AI as a field has always been fascinating, because for every explosion of attention there are many more years where everything happening is in the background, in academia and technical journals. It's exciting and terrifying to see all of these new capabilities out of the labs and in everyone's hands. I think of AI anxiety in a couple of ways, as a tool and as a shift.

As a tool, there are a lot of things that will now be possible because of what AI can do. New medical treatments, wild engineering designs, and entirely new correlations of natural phenomena are going to become possible specifically because of AI. And society will incorporate it, hopefully in good ways.

On the other hand, there's a whole Pandora's Box that's going to have to be reckoned with in the years ahead. We're going to have to figure out fact-checking, plagiarism, and the ethics of creative works derived from someone else's efforts. That's going to be really interesting to see how it shakes out. Hopefully we can avoid a Skynet/Terminator situation.

For now though, I think people should think of the opportunities AI creates. If you create anything, AI can possibly help streamline your workflow, edit/revise your work, devise new revenue streams, or unlock your imagination. Learning how to use AI can give you agency in how AI affects you and an opportunity to define how AI grows and adapts rather than just being afraid of this thing you might not understand.

Q: If someone is looking to transition into tech at this particular point in time, have they missed the opportunity or is there still room for people to enter the field?

A: I think anyone should have access to any field they want, including tech, and that has no time limit. Tech is still a great place to create a career and despite all the doom and gloom about layoffs and such there are so many jobs still available. Obviously a tech titan laying off thousands of people is worthy of attention, but there's some startup, studio, or non-tech company looking to hire that isn't getting the spotlight as well. That hasn't changed and the work is no less interesting or fulfilling.

The one thing I'd say to someone looking to get into tech is to really spend the time to investigate what you enjoy and are adept at doing. There are so many programs teaching people to be developers but tech extends so far beyond that one role. Try to find the roles that are actually right for you. If you're making a game for example, you need design, graphics, sound effects, music, illustrations, packaging, marketing, and plenty of other things outside of writing code. Other segments of tech are just as involved. There's a place for you in tech even if it takes a bit more imagination to find it.

Q: For people who have been laid off this year, what are the top 3 things they can do to make themselves more attractive to prospective employers?

A: When you apply to a role you're presenting yourself as the solution to someone's problem. You're the right candidate with the right skills, disposition, and trajectory to fill that role. You make sense in a way that other applicants don't. You're also trying to find the right place for you, so you're trying to gather that information as well. Here are my broad 3 steps to doing that:

Understand yourself

There are things you liked, disliked and things you learned at every job you've had. That's what got you to where you are now. Do you have a sense of what that path really was for yourself? Not in a bullet points way, but just in terms of what it all meant. You liked this job because you had a great manager, you didn't like another because of the workload, you grew because of the opportunities at yet another. How did you become you as a professional? Yes, this is what gets put into a resume and LinkedIn but I think people need e more holistic understanding of their work history. This can be hard to do alone so working with a coach or friend can be helpful. Have someone interview you like they were writing a biography. Sounds weird, but you need to know yourself to present yourself.

Know what you want

So those likes and dislikes from earlier? Add all that up and get an idea of what you're really looking for next. Not in a vague way, in a real way. Everyone wants to join a good team, not everyone can specify they want a team with strong mentorship or high tolerance for trying new things. If that's what you want or where you will thrive, don't you want to know that a place can't provide that? Tell them the right answers to make you excited and let them speak to those points. That's exactly what you're trying to do based on the job description.

Explain, Don't sell

I hate selling myself. It makes a part of my brain shut down and leaves me uncomfortable, like I'm trying to trick someone. So I don't sell. I explain. If you ask me what 2+2 is, I'll have no hesitation in saying it's 4. That's just the answer. It somehow does an end run around any imposter syndrome that might be at play. It's weird but true.

The reason for understanding yourself and what you want is to be in the same place. You're just giving the answer to a question.

What needed improvement about your last job? "I liked my last job, had great managers and a supportive team, and I hope to find that again, ideally at a company that places high value on financial and employee stability."

Tell me a time when you showed leadership. "In my last role I was in charge of payroll. I noticed this process wasn't generating the kinds of reports management needed so I took it upon myself to retool the entire process. I couldn't do it alone and had to enlist a team across different departments and levels, but the added transparency saved us thousands of dollars immediately and eventually made millions with the new insights we could generate."

Yes, I just made those example answers up, but notice how matter of fact those answers are. There isn't ego or bluster in there it's just the facts. They can be the ones being wowed, you're just the one telling them what you've done and what you want. The facts are enough.

Q: Alternatively, what are some red flags job seekers can be aware of in their job search with prospective employers?

A: Have you ever passed a restaurant that served way too many kinds of food? Indian, Chinese, burgers, and Italian, all under the same roof? They may prepare all of those cuisines but there's room for a lot of skepticism that they do any of them well.

Similarly, a company can't be all things to all people. They can't invest in all things, do every kind of project, or build every kind of product for every kind of customer. No, choices have to be made, and those choices tell you what they really find important. There are the values a company might post on their careers page, but what are the real drivers for their decision-making? That's what you're trying to figure out as you go through the hiring process. Get the information you need to find the right place for you, not the one making empty promises.

Ask the hard questions that matter to you, and ask different people through the process. The open nature of the questions can say a lot. Some particularly revealing ones:

- What does the hiring process entail? If a company can't respect your time before you're hired, what makes you think they will once you're on the payroll? Diligence is great but if a company drags things out with interview after interview, lots of take-home projects, or drag things out, take note.

- What's the company's commitment to DEI? You might think this only applies if you're part of some marginalized community, but a holistic approach to DEI can suggest a holistic approach to the broader employee experience. If they're telling you about ping pong tables but can't speak about pay disparities, be wary.

- What's something that could be improved at the company? Yes, you'll likely get sanitized answers here, but the variety of answers may be telling. Are there stability concerns, opportunities for mentorship or career growth, are people worked to the bone? People may say things in a nice way but that they say something at all is the point.

- What qualities do you see point to success in this role or at the company? This is a great one for getting some truth. This isn't a negative question, but by telling you what "good" is, they're telling you what's important. You can then see how that contrasts with your own values.

Need help with your next job search? Donte can help you revitalize your approach! He can be found over at Getting the Nod