People in tech are increasingly concerned about their jobs. This sentiment shift is somewhat new. We’ve experienced a decade or so of talking about skills shortages, arguably kicked off by Marc Andreesen’s publication of Software is Eating the World in 2011. Tech salaries spiked accordingly. Keynotes kept talking about a “golden era for software developers.”
It was the definition of a sellers’ market for tech talent, culminating in a very hot job market in 2021 and early 2022. Now the conversation is changing. Technology skills are still in demand, but economic conditions have resulted in layoffs across the industry. (Gergely Orosz has been tracking layoffs in his newsletter Pragmatic Engineer for those who want to follow the specifics more closely.)
Many folks newer to the industry today have never seen a significant downturn. This shift is scary for people. These industry concerns have come to the forefront in the aftermath of the Twitter acquisition and new owner Elon Musk’s alleged plans to reduce the workforce by 25%.*
Discussions around the staffing levels of tech companies have been occurring more than normal. For example, this take is from former GitHub CEO Nat Friedman.
Many tech companies are 2-10x overstaffed and everyone who's paying attention already knows this
— Nat Friedman (@natfriedman) October 26, 2022
What’s interesting is how these positions stand in juxtaposition to some refrains we frequently hear from clients and others in the industry, namely problems around a lack of maintainers for crucial projects and how to address an industry-wide skills gap.
How do we reconcile claims of vast overstaffing with claims of vast resource scarcity?
Here’s where I think Jaana Dogan’s take is spot on:
Unpopular opinion: If you think the industry is overstaffed, you are not carrying the pager enough. The industry is disproportionately staffed.
— Jaana Dogan ヤナ ドガン (@rakyll) October 27, 2022
Both things can be true: it’s not a clear over- or under-staffing problem. It’s a problem of proportionality.
There can definitely be organizational bloat. Friedman’s tweet referencing that “when the money is flowing freely it’s easier to hire more people than deal with low performers” rings true. I think this problem can especially be exacerbated by the challenges of the engineer-to-manager career path; managing people is a very different skill set than being an individual contributor, and not all engineers are set up with the skills they need to succeed as managers and have those tough conversations.
At the same time, there are also areas in tech that remain chronically understaffed and under-resourced: OSS project maintainers, people working on-call support, and people writing documentation to name a few.
There is an inefficient distribution of people in the industry. Arguably part of the problem is that there is an inefficient distribution of how we are compensating people doing maintainership, support, and documentation. Money doesn’t solve all problems (especially in open source), but if you’re looking at a holistic allocation of resources then allocation of capital definitely needs to be considered in conjunction with allocation of people.
If you are in a leadership position, think about your resource allocation and what that says about your priorities. Pay the maintainers. Pay your on-call staff. Pay your tech writers.
And (I can’t believe I’m writing this, but the jokes about Twitter layoffs in particular keep coming at a surprising rate) be kind to people facing layoffs. Losing your job is awful in the best of circumstances; going through it in such a public and charged situation must be emotionally grueling. Be kind.
Image credit: Don Harder on Flickr
*This 25% figure is as of October 31; it’s worth noting that the rumors around the size of the workforce reduction have swung wildly in the last week.
Disclosure: GitHub is a RedMonk client, as is Tidelift (‘pay the maintainers’)