On being laid off from Google
(Wrote the first part of this post on Friday (Jan. 20), and posted it to Facebook. Started the second part later on Friday; finished and posted it on Saturday (Jan. 21).)
(This is a long post—nearly 6,000 words. The short version: I’ve been laid off after 18 years at Google; I’m fine; I’m not looking for a new job yet.)
I’ve been laid off from Google, after 18 years there. I’ll be okay, but I’m a little rattled.
My access to all internal resources has been cut off, and I don’t have outside-of-work contact with most of my coworkers, so I don’t have any idea who was and wasn’t laid off. Those of you who see this: I hope you’re OK. I am bad at keeping in touch with people, but I’ll try to keep in touch.
My layoff was sudden and unexpected. People at work have been worried about possible layoffs for months, given that layoffs have been happening at several other big tech companies, but I didn’t believe it would happen at Google. The last substantial Google layoff was in 2009, and the execs subsequently said that their slow-down-hiring-and-reduce-jobs-in-reaction-to-larger-economic-issues approach had been a mistake. In early 2022, Google hired more people than it’s ever hired before; they then said they were going to slow hiring, but the kind of slowdown they were talking about looked like it was going to involve bringing hiring down to (say) 2021 levels.
Google has in the past shut down particular projects and laid off everyone working on those projects, but they almost always gave time and resources to allow the affected people to try to find other jobs within the company.
Technical writers are often seen as unnecessary at tech companies, but Google has been supportive enough of tech writers that I figured that was unlikely to be an issue. And technical editors are often seen as even more unnecessary, so I knew that in theory if Google did have layoffs, my colleagues and I might be high on the list of people to lay off (especially those of us who were doing editing in areas that weren’t directly producing income; some of my colleagues have been working on stuff that’s definitely more important to the company’s finances than what I’ve been editing). But even so, I was quite confident that it wouldn’t come to that—and although my particular job was not of paramount importance to the company, I thought I was working on enough semi-important projects that I wouldn’t be let go even if there were layoffs.
So I was wrong on a whole bunch of levels here. I particularly apologize to any colleagues who gained a turned-out-to-be-false sense of reassurance from things I’ve said. :(
A couple of silver linings for me personally:
- I had a whole lot on my to-do list for work. Guess I won’t have to do any of that!
- The language around severance pay is a little unclear (Sundar could’ve used an editor in that letter he wrote), but it looks to me like I’ll get quite a lot of it. Possibly nearly a year’s worth.
…On the minus side: Last time I got laid off from a job, in the ’90s, they told me that my severance pay was conditional on my signing (among other things) a non-disparagement agreement. I went ahead with that at the time; I decided that two months of pay was worth agreeing to never say anything negative about SGI. I don’t know whether Google will have the same requirement in order to get severance pay. I gather that some aspects and kinds of non-disparagement clauses are now illegal in California, but I gather that some kinds/aspects are still legal.
So it’s possible that (a) they’ll ask me to agree to never say anything bad about Google in any medium, and that (b) I’ll agree to that in exchange for quite a lot of money.
So if I suddenly stop saying negative things about Google, you’ll know why.
(I do think the company has done some very good things, and it was in many ways an excellent place to work. But they have also done some very bad things—especially wrt firing POC and others who have spoken out against the bad things they’ve done—and I have been semi-vocal both inside and outside the company about some of those things. I hope to not have to agree to stop speaking up about those things. If they do ask me to sign a non-disparagement clause to get the severance, I’ll have to think carefully about whether that’s worth it to me.)
I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the company and the situation sometime soon. For now, I have other time-sensitive things to do today, so I’ll sign off with two thoughts:
- A lesson that I learned last time I was laid off: You as an employee do not owe loyalty to the company that you work for. They don’t feel loyalty to you; you don’t need to feel loyalty to them.
- Much sympathy to colleagues who were also laid off.
(No advice, please.)
How I found out
- I saw a news article this morning saying that Google had laid off 12,000 people, and had notified them by email.
- I tried to check work email on my phone, but couldn’t. But I’ve had occasional access issues before, so that didn’t necessarily mean anything. But it did make me start to worry a little.
- I tried to check work email on my work computer, but couldn’t. I started to worry more.
- Eventually I saw that when I tried to access internal resources, it pointed me a more-info link. I followed that link, and it redirected me to a page saying I’d been laid off.
Eight hours later, I found out that they also sent email to my home email address (at around 4:00 this morning, a few hours before I saw the news article). I’m a little surprised they even knew my home email address; it wouldn’t have occurred to me to check there to find out whether I’d been laid off. But at least they did contact me directly.
(Here’s the second part of the post, originally posted a day later.)
A bunch more notes and thoughts, in no particular order, on the occasion of my having been laid off from Google.
The most important thing here is that I’m not yet looking for a new job. (When I am, I’ll let y’all know, but that probably won’t happen for at least a couple months.)
These are very loosely organized by topic, but only loosely. (This post has expanded further since my comment about it last night; it’s now about 4,600 words long.)
A thought about my reactions to change
I dislike change, and I especially dislike sudden/unexpected changes of plan that I don’t have input into. (For many years, my catchphrase on this topic has been “Change bad!” (meaning “change is bad”)) Which is part of why I spent 18 years at one company, in an industry where it’s common for people to change jobs every two or three years. But I have to acknowledge that some kinds of change are very good, and even changes that aren’t necessarily 100% good can still be not all bad. I’m kind of surprised that I’m not currently having an overwhelmed too-much-big-sudden-change reaction at the moment. Possibly it hasn’t entirely sunk in yet; possibly the past year of therapy has helped me learn to be more relaxed about change; possibly the thought of being able to let go of various work anxieties is currently outweighing the thought of having to (eventually) look for another job. :)
Some more thoughts about how Google communicated the layoff to me
- I’m on vacation this week. Normally I encourage people not to take work with them on vacation, but for various reasons I brought my work computer along. And it’s a good thing that I did, because if I hadn’t, I might not have known I was laid off for a couple more days. At some point I would have checked home email, and would have received the sketchy-looking layoff email that they sent to that address, and would have tried to sign in to my work email on my phone, and wouldn’t have been able to, but still wouldn’t have been able to get any sort of definite verification that the layoff email was real.
- I probably would then have called Google tech support. (Known as “Techstop.”) Which means, I suspect, that a lot of Techstop people are having to inform Googlers that they’ve been laid off. I sure hope that someone thought to train Techstop people in how to deal with such calls.
More thoughts about sudden loss of access to internal resources, and about the people who were laid off
- Another lesson I learned long ago: to keep my work computer/email/etc and my home computer/email/etc as separate as possible. I know that there are one or two work-related services that use my work email address (maybe my medical insurance (’cause I couldn’t figure out how to change my email address there last time I checked) and maybe my Google stock account), but almost all of them use my home email address. I wasn’t intentionally doing that in case of suddenly losing my job and access to work email; more just on general principles. But it has now turned out to have been a very good thing. I also declined to spend Google’s $1,000 buy-home-office-furniture allowance early in the pandemic; I thought about buying a nice desk chair, but I didn’t want to have to deal with returning such an item to Google if at some point I left the company. (The company said that it would own whatever things you bought, but it never said how they would go about reclaiming those items, nor what it would do with a bunch of home office furniture reclaimed from employees.) (Google has never been good at communicating about the ownership of items that employees expensed using Google money. I suspect most companies aren’t good at that.)
- One silver lining to suddenly losing access to everything: I don’t have to decide which things that are in my work account I can ethically keep. In particular, there’s a spreadsheet that I built up over many years that shows a graph of the number of regular employees over time; I intentionally compiled that only from publicly available sources (with a thought toward someday making it public), but I suspect Google would not have looked kindly on my copying it to a publicly visible place after I was laid off. I could reconstruct it (because, again, all the data was from public sources), but I think I have better things to do with my time. Suffice it to say that until now, it tracked pretty closely with an exponential curve. (And for that matter, I expect that it’ll go back to pretty much the same growth pattern when the economy improves.) (…As with most of the silver linings I’m mentioning, I’m not saying that Google’s approach was good; I’m just saying that I can view some aspects of it in a semi-positive light.)
- Speaking of number of employees: as of September 30, 2022, Google had 186,779 employees, not counting a vast number of temps, vendors, and contractors. And going by past increases in number of employees, I suspect that by the end of the year, they had over 190,000. So this layoff was roughly 6% of the regular-employee workforce—roughly 1 in 15-16.
- I’m sadder for other folks who got laid off than for myself. In particular, a fair number of tech workers are in the US on the kind of visa that requires you to have a job to stay in the country; every time a big tech company in the US lays off a bunch of people, there are likely to be quite a few people who have to scramble to try to find a job in order to stay in the country.
- I hadn’t realized that this round of layoffs was only in the US. Google has said that they’re also laying off workers in other countries, but it hasn’t yet said who. Which adds a whole other layer of stress for the many Googlers who aren’t in the US. :( (And in recent years, Google has required some roles to be hired in various non-US countries, presumably because labor is cheaper there than in the US.) Sympathies to all of you.
- I’m seeing a bunch of people using euphemisms along the lines of “people who were affected” or “people who were impacted.” I acknowledge that euphemisms can often be helpful, but to me, those phrases sound business-speak-ish, and feel like minimizing the negative effects of the layoff. (Also, lots of people who weren’t laid off were affected or impacted in various ways.) So I’m saying “people who were laid off.” Which is still maybe a little euphemistic? But seems more straightforward/direct to me, in a good way.
Some thoughts about my time at Google and what I did there
- Being a Google employee has been a part of my identity for a long time. Not a central part, but a part. It has brought me cachet and (occasionally) criticism, and it’s been nice to work for a company that everyone knows the name of. A fair number of the young people I know are under 18, which means that their whole lives, I’ve worked for Google. I think the change to that part of my identity is gonna be interesting, and mildly fraught, for a while. When people ask me where I work, I can no longer diffidently say “Oh, I’m a technical writer at Google” and enjoy their surprised reactions.
- One thing about having been there this long is that I’ve contributed in various ways to the growth of tech writing culture at Google. There are lots of people who have contributed much more to it; for example, I never helped run the annual internal tech writing mini-conference (“Burning Pen”), nor wrote for the internal tech-writing newsletter, nor formally mentored newer writers, etc. But I’ve been the de facto owner of the monthly internal developer-docs-writers meeting for the past few years. And I used to participate a lot in hiring—I did over 100 interviews of people applying for jobs during my time there, and in many cases the writers who I interviewed became employees and went on to interview other candidates, and so on. There’s an internal tool that shows a tree-like chart of who you interviewed and who they interviewed and etc, and in that sense, I contributed (mostly in small and indirect ways) to quite a lot of the tech writers at the company being there. There was a time (many years ago) when I knew a substantial percentage of all the writers there, because I had interviewed them. …Sadly, a few years ago the automated interviewer-choosing system started picking the same people to do interviews over and over—it was a known bug, but not one that could be fixed, for complicated reasons. So every few months I would drop a note to a recruiter and tell them that I wasn’t getting assigned any interviews any more, and they would assign me one, and then I would again go months more with no interviews assigned to me, despite the fact that a few other folks in my group were getting overloaded with sometimes a couple of interviews a week. So I haven’t done much interviewing in recent years. But I used to do a lot. (And I think I was pretty good at it—I got a couple of notes from hiring committees telling me that they liked my feedback.)
- I think that my biggest contribution to the company, and the one I’m proudest of, is my work on the Google developer documentation style guide. I created the original version of that guide back in 2005, and have been the owner of it or the lead of the group that owns it ever since. At this point, many many people have contributed hugely to it; there isn’t all that much in it now that I personally wrote. But I still think of it as being my project in some sense. If my colleagues who are still there continue their work on it, then it’s in very good hands; I really appreciate their care and attention and thoughtfulness and hard work that has gotten it to where it is. (And our weekly discussions of proposed changes to the style guide have made me a better editor, especially by drawing my attention to areas that I don’t know as much about, such as translation-related issues.)
- That style guide, like most Google developer documentation, has a license that lets others use and adapt it for free. I’ve been thinking for a while of creating a Constellation Press style guide; I may well end up adapting some of Google‘s dev docs style guide for that purpose. Perhaps I had better download all the pages of it soon, though, in case it goes away. (I have no reason to think that it will, but I don’t know.)
- There’s an internal tool that shows you what percentage of the company’s employees you’ve been there longer than. Last time I checked, which was months ago, I think I had been there longer than well over 99% of the employees. I think there were only about 200 employees (out of the abovementioned 190,000 or so) who had been there longer than I had. But a fair number of the people who’ve been there longer than I had were executives; I suspect that not many of them were individual contributors.
- It’s frustrating not to get a chance to say goodbye or to hand off various things I owned/ran/maintained. But I imagine that the folks who are still there will figure out how to deal with the important stuff I left behind, and will let go of the unimportant stuff. (I left a lot of open bugs assigned to me, some of them very old; apologies to the colleagues who’ll inherit those.)
- I’m glad that some of my colleagues are still there—glad for them that they’re not getting laid off, but also glad for the company because my colleagues do good work (and advocate internally for positive change) and, I expect, will keep on doing so. (For those of you who see this: y’all are awesome! Keep up the great work!)
- Yesterday was certainly not great—but in terms of my emotional reactions, it wasn’t anywhere near my worst day ever at Google. It wasn’t even in the top ten. Three of my worst days there (separate incidents, different people, different topics, different years) involved people in positions of relative power being really nasty to me over their perception that I had slighted them in some way or handled something wrong, and all of those conflicts resulted in weeks or months of distress for me. (To anyone reading this: don’t worry, I’m not talking about you. I’m not social-media-connected to any of the people in question.) Other worst days/months were related to various illnesses and deaths, inside and outside work. A couple others were during my first six months at Google, such as the day when my manager told me that if things like salary or title were important to me, then Google was the wrong company for me; and the day when I learned that the mandatory company ski trip was going to require us to share beds with colleagues. Oh, and there was the time that the grandmanager of a group I was working with required me to publish documentation about a product that wasn’t done yet; several months later, the product (still not done) got canceled, and someone had to turn my documentation into a white paper about a hypothetical product. And so on—18+ years leaves a lot of room for some pretty bad stuff. But even so, even on those worst days, I was never treated as badly as some other Googlers and former Googlers have been.
- One more silver lining: if this had happened in mid-2021, then it would have felt to me like retaliation for the awful situation that I was in at the time. But since then, everyone in my management chain changed (up to about five levels above me), due to numerous reorgs and departures, and I think I’ve done a reasonably good job during that time of rehabilitating my reputation with the managers who felt that I had been rude and inappropriate. So I don’t think my being laid off was due to anyone in particular being particularly upset with me, and I find that vaguely reassuring.
Some thoughts about Google and ethics and being interested in what I work on
- I suppose I should mention that I haven’t been working up to my own standards (in terms of amount and quality of work) for quite a while now. Part of that has had to do with anxiety; part has been various other factors; but part has had to do with working in Google Cloud, which I can’t say I ever found inspiring. I know that cloud computing helps various good things happen, but it’s not something that I’m all that interested in for its own sake. And over time, Google Cloud has aimed more for an enterprise audience (which is to say, focused on the needs of businesses), which I’m even less interested in. (One of the reasons that I loved writing documentation for Dreamweaver back in the day is that it was a product that I was excited about and loved using myself.)
- And during the same period, Google has engaged in an increasing number of high-profile ethical failures. The quiet huge severance payment to Andy Rubin; the multiple firings of people who spoke out about various things, followed by internal investigations in which (surprise!) the company found that what it had done hadn’t fit the company’s own narrow technical definition of “retaliation” and therefore wasn’t a problem; the repeated denials that the company had been systematically underpaying women for years (they eventually settled a lawsuit about that); the pursuit of military contracts; the firing of Dr. Timnit Gebru, followed by claims that technically they hadn’t exactly quite fired her as such; on and on. Each new failure of that sort made me wonder whether the company had crossed a line that would make me feel obligated to quit; each time, I eventually decided that the good still outweighed the bad. But that decision has gotten harder over time. So yet another silver lining here is that the company has made it unnecessary for me to make that decision.
- One of the reasons that I stayed with Google through my pretty demoralizing first year or two there was that I really liked working for a company that had Improving The World built into its culture and attitude. I didn’t always agree with Larry and Sergey’s ideas about what did and didn’t improve the world, but I agreed with them fairly often and I loved that the goal of making the world a better place was so thoroughly ingrained. That attitude and my great colleagues have always been the best things about Google, imo. And I think that in some ways, the company and most of the employees still do believe in making the world better; but that culture has been diluted over time, and tenets like “Don’t Get Sued” and “Make Lots Of Money” and “Quarterly Financial Results Are Important” and “A Product’s Success Must Be Measured At Google Scale, So Most Google Products Fail” have become at least as important as the old “Do Good” tenet. (I’m not gonna say that that change is mainly because of an influx of former Amazon and Oracle execs over the past few years, but I think that’s been a factor.) (…I started to go into a long digression about the history and use of the phrase “Don’t be evil” here, but I decided it’s not worth it.)
- I had been vaguely thinking in recent months about seeing if I could find work in a particular Google group that’s focused much more specifically on Doing Good. But they didn’t seem at first glance to need writers or editors, and I hadn’t gotten around to looking into them in more depth.
- Anyway, so when I get around to looking for my next job, I think I’m going to focus at first on companies that are Doing Good and that are working on stuff that I’m more excited about. (For example, Signal comes to mind, but they don’t appear to currently have any openings for tech writers or editors.) (Note: I have other criteria too, such as being able to work from home in Mountain View; don’t take this paragraph as a complete list of all the things I would look for in a job.)
A couple of notes about timing
- One reason that this is particularly ironic timing is that I have recently finally been getting a handle on my email and other messages. I’ve always had problems keeping up with such things, due largely to anxiety, but my therapist has, in the past month, been suggesting techniques that have been helping me. I haven’t been getting everything done that I would like to, but I have been reading and triaging every work email I receive, which I hadn’t previously done in a long time, if ever. So I was finally feeling like I might be able to settle into being more productive and more organized and less stressed. Oh, well. (But on the plus side, the skills and tools my therapist has been helping me with will presumably also be useful in other contexts.)
- Another timing issue is that I planned this year to have some fairly expensive medical stuff done, with the expectation that I would quickly max out my annual out-of-pocket payment, and insurance would pay for the rest. Instead, if I understand right, my insurance ends at the end of March, which means that it will probably be gone before I can get various things done. (The two main big expensive things that I’ve been planning are cataract surgery and getting hearing aids; both require appointments months in advance, and although I have appointments, things may not move fast enough to finish before my insurance runs out.) I may well still get them done even if I have to pay for them myself, but we’ll see. …Edited to add: several people have pointed out that COBRA may be useful for my specific situation; I’ll look into that. (No need to tell me anything about COBRA—I know about it and about the drawbacks and advantages. I just need to find out whether it will be the right thing to do in my specific situation.)
Thoughts about who got laid off
- Someone yesterday pointed out that companies often start by getting rid of workers who’ve been around longer, on the grounds that those workers are more expensive to keep around. In my case, that’s not quite the issue; Google doesn’t increase most benefits based on seniority, and I never got promoted, so I started and ended my time there as an “L5”—a “senior technical writer.” So my pay and other benefits (including stock grants and annual bonus) were pretty much in line with what other people at the same level in the same geographical area and job make, including someone who’s just been hired. However, there may have been two factors that made me at least slightly more expensive than some other tech writers and editors: (1) I live in Mountain View, and Google’s pay scales are based partly on how much other people who live in the same place get paid, so Googlers who live or work in Mountain View are probably among the most expensive workers the company has; and (2) I was getting five weeks of paid vacation a year, which used to be reserved for people who’d been there for at least five years but I think the company recently changed to giving it to more people. Anyway, point being, even though at Google seniority per se doesn’t necessarily result in more-expensive workers, it may well be that I was somewhat more expensive to the company than most other workers at my level. I know that that’s not the only reason I was laid off (there are lots of workers in Mountain View who weren’t laid off), but I can imagine that it could have been a factor.
- Then again, as a friend of a former colleague recently pointed out, Google has well over $100 billion in cash, and I assume that sooner or later they’ll be hiring again. So if they had chosen to do so, they could have weathered the economic downturn without layoffs. (12,000 employees laid off; say a million dollars a year per employee in total salary + benefits + administrative costs + etc (I think it’s less than that, but I don’t recall the numbers I’ve heard); that’s roughly $12 billion a year to keep those employees. Is the company really going to save all that much money by laying off those employees now and then hiring the same number of other people a year or two later? And even if so, is it worth the cost in remaining-employee morale and happiness, and in time to get new people trained (which often takes 6 to 12 months at Google), and so on? I’m sure that the execs looked at the real numbers (as opposed to my off-top-of-head guesses here) and decided it was the right call; but from my lack-of-information perspective, it sure doesn’t sound like a good plan.)
- CNBC says: “Some of the laid-off employees had been long-tenured or recently promoted, raising questions about the criteria used to decide whose jobs were cut.” And The Information says: “Laid-off employees included those who had previously received high performance reviews or held managerial positions with annual compensation packages of $500,000 to $1 million[…]. The 12,000 or so affected employees spanned nearly every organization, from Google Cloud and Chrome to Android and search-related groups.” Although the lack of transparency around criteria is distressing, I think for me there’s also a small element of reassurance that this wasn’t about my doing a bad job, and that there probably wasn’t anything I could have done differently to prevent it. But I recognize that for a lot of people, that’s not a reassuring thought. And even for me, I don’t approve of Google doing things this way; again just saying I can see some minor silver linings for me personally.
- Edited to add: I saw someone point out that Sundar and Larry and Sergey haven’t said anything about reducing their income in some way.
- Edited to add: Sundar’s letter joined the chorus of tech CEOs announcing layoffs by apologizing for having had the bad judgment to hire too many people during the worst of the pandemic. Those apologies are (a) empty (because the CEOs who make them aren’t facing any consequences), and (b) disingenuous (because the people who are getting laid off are not necessarily the people who the CEOs made the “mistake” of hiring). I’m absolutely not saying that Sundar should have laid off the most recently hired people first! (I, for example, can weather this layoff a lot more easily than someone who was just hired could.) But I am saying that if the problem is what he says it is, then the specific layoffs that Google is doing don’t make much sense. If the problem is that Sundar’s mistake in judgment led the company to hire a bunch of people, and now the company is making less money than expected, which is causing the stock price to go down—then laying off a random-seeming assortment of employees from projects all over the company seems to me to be a ridiculous way to try to solve the problem.
Thoughts about my next steps
- First off, I’m gonna take at least a month to just relax. Probably longer.
- I think that if I sign the agreement (which I still haven’t seen), they’ll give me about 15 months’ worth of salary in one lump sum. So I should be fine financially for a while.
- As of late 2021, at what turned out to be the peak-so-far of some big tech stocks, I noticed that I had somewhere in the vicinity of enough money to retire. Sadly, I had not yet followed through on my financial planner’s advice to diversify away from tech stocks. (Not all of my money is in tech stocks, but a fair bit of it is.) Tech stocks had been really really good to me, and turning them into other stuff was going to take time (and, I think, cost me a lot in taxes). So I figured I would do the diversification gradually—and then for the past year, a lot of tech stocks have been declining, to the point that I’m currently way short of enough money to retire. So I do want to retire at some point, but I probably have a few years left of working before I do that. I had expected to spend those years at Google, but nope.
- I have a bunch of personal projects in various stages, from my family-letters project, to writing various small web applications, to my unread-books project, to various Constellation Press projects. I’ll probably spend some time trying to move forward with some of those. (None of these are in any way moneymaking for me, but that’s fine.)
- I’m going to try to cut back a bit on my casual spending. Back fewer Kickstarter projects, buy fewer games and toys, etc. I was on the verge of buying a new laptop, because I have reason to think that that might make various aspects of my computer use significantly pleasanter/easier/faster; but I think now I’ll hold off.
- At some point, I’ll start looking for work again. But I’m not ready to do that yet unless an absolutely perfect opening comes along.
- I’ve been saying for years that I don’t use LinkedIn. I suppose now (or soon) would be a good time to start using it. This morning I discovered that several colleagues and my manager had sent me sympathetic and thoughtful and kind messages there, which I really appreciated. I’m still not going to use most of LinkedIn’s features (I finally went through their settings this morning and turned off almost all of the emails they send me), but it could well be a useful resource.