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Saturday 27 April 2024

Software Engineering Hiring and Firing



The jump in interest rates to the highest level in over 20 years that hit in summer 2023 for the US, UK and many other countries is still impacting the Software industry. Rates may be due to drop soon, but currently it has choked off investment, upped borrowing costs and lead to many software companies making engineers redundant to please the markets. 

For the UK the estimate is around 8% of software industry jobs made redundant. Although strangely, the overall trend in vacancies for software engineers continues to march upwards, the initial surge after the pandemic dipped last summer but has now recovered.
But if you work in the industry you are bound to have colleagues and friends who have been made redundant, if you are lucky enough to have not been impacted personally.

Given recent history, I thought it may be worth reflecting on my personal experience of the whole hiring and firing process, in the tech industry. It is a UK centric view, but the companies I have worked for in the last 8 years are US software companies.

I have been fired, hired and conducted technical interviews to hire others. Giving me a few different perspectives. 

This post is NOT about getting your first Software job

I first got a coding job in the public sector and it was as a self taught web developer in the 1990s, before web development was a thing you could get a degree in. So I initially got a  job in IT support, volunteered to act up (ie no pay increase) and built some websites that were needed, then became a full time web developer through a portfolio of work, ie sites. 

Today junior developers may have to prove themselves suitable by artificial measures. I skipped these, so I do not have any professional certifications, or any to recommend. I also don't know how to ace coding algorithm or personality profile assessments.

Once you are 5-10 years in to a software career - none of those approaches are used for hiring decisions. 

Only large companies are likely to subject you to them, and that is really out of fairness on the juniors who have to go through them, and to screen out dodgy applicants. Screening just needs to be passed, it will not have any input into whether you get the job. Hence Acing the coding interview as promoted by sites such as LeetCode is not even a thing, only passing coding exercise systems in order to start, or switch to, a career as a developer. I would recommend starting an open source project instead, to demonstrate you can actually code.

The majority of small to medium software companies and of job vacancies require experience and in effect have no vacancies for the most junior software grades with less than 3 years under their belt. So they tend not to use any of these filtering methods. They just want to see proof that you are already a developer, and usually base that on face to face interviews and examples of your code you provide them. So much like how I was originally hired back in the 1990s.

I have only been subject to a LeetCode style test once, which was for a generic job application, ie hiring for numbers of SREs of various seniority, for a FANNG.


 F I R E D 

When you get that unexpected one to one Zoom call with you manager appear in your calendar these days, it is unlikely to be great news 😓

In the majority of cases the firing process, or to be more polite, redundancy, is all about balancing the finances of the whole company or institution. As such it is very unlikely to be about you.

Of course people are also fired as individuals for various reasons, one of which is actually not being any good at their job, failing to get along with their manager, being a bad culture fit, jobs turning out not to be what was advertised, or expressing political views. Since unlike where I once worked, in the UK Education sector, where 50% of staff are union members, US software companies will have less than 1% membership, so don't tend to respond well to dissent.

Mostly this happens via failing probation, at around 15%  then maybe another 5% annually for disciplinary / performance improvement failure.

If you want to try getting individually fired then go the overemployed route. Get two or three jobs at once and test how long it takes before the company notices you giving 110% is now only 40% and fire you. The rule of thumb is the larger the company, the longer it takes!

But this post's focus isn't about individual firing, its about organizational hiring and firing.

Firing Reasons

  1. A company may be doing badly in a slow long term way, so it has to chop as part of a restructure and downsize to attempt to fix that.
  2. Alternatively the company could be doing really well. So it gets the attention of a big investment company and is bought up and merged with its rival. To fix overlap and justify the merger - both companies lose 20% of staff.
  3. Maybe it needs to pivot towards a new area (currently likely to be AI) and so chop 20% of its staff so it can hire 15% experienced, and pricey, AI developers.
  4. Or it may just have had a one off external impacting event that hit it financially. So to balance the earnings for that year and keep its share price good, it chops a bunch of staff. It will rehire next year, when it suits the balance sheet. This is the example in which I was made redundant along with 5% of staff, it was a big company, so that was a few thousand people globally.
  5. Finally it may be an industry wide phenomenon as it is with the current redundancies in the software industry. A world clamp down on easy cheap loans means investment company driven industries such as tech. are no longer awash with spare cash. Cut backs look good right now, and keep the share price high.
    Hence redundancies that are nothing to do with the industry itself or its future prospects.

That is mirrored in who is fired. Companies do not keep a log book of gold stars and black marks against each employee. They do not use organizational triggered rounds of redundancies to select individuals to fire. They certainly have not got the capability to accurately determine all the best employees and only fire the worst ones. You will be fired based on what part of the organization you are in, how much it is valued in the current strategy and how much you cost vs others who could do your job. If you are currently between teams / or in a new team or role which has yet to establish itself, when the music stops - like musical chairs, bad luck you are out.

The only personal element may be if a whole team is seen as under performing or difficult to manage it might be axed. No matter that it contains a star performer. Decisions may also be geographic. Lets axe the Greek office, save by withdrawing engineering from a country, which is again how I was made redundant, the rest of my team was in Greece.
Alternatively it may be, fire under 20 staff from each country, to avoid more burdensome regulation for bulk layoffs.

The organization could create an insecure / downturn atmosphere to encourage staff to leave. Because its a lot cheaper for people to leave than the company paying out redundancy settlements.

Redundancy keeps the average employees 😐

As a result in response to significant redundancies an organisation will tend to lose more of the best employees - since they are the most able to move, the most likely to get a big pay rise if they move and the least likely to want to stick around if they see negative organisational change.  The software industry has very high staff turnover at almost 20%. Out weighing any nominal idea of removing less efficient staff. 

If a company handles things well it may only lose a representative productivity range of staff from best to worst. But a bulk redundancy process is likely to lead to the biggest loss in the top talent, get rid of slightly more of the bottom dwellers and so result in maximising the mediocre!

In summary the answer to 'Why me?' in group redundancies is "because you were there" ... and you didn't have a personal friendship with the CEO 😉. Of course that is why new CEOs are often brought in to restructure - the first step of which is to take an axe to the current C-suite. 

Some of the best software engineers I have worked with have been made redundant at some point in their career. Group redundancies are not about you or how well you do your job. But taking it personally and challenging the messenger, with why me?, as demonstrated by recent viral videos, is an understandable emotional response to rejection, and the misguided belief that work aims to be some form of meritocracy, in the same way college might.

LIFO and FIFO

LIFO rather than FIFO is the norm in Firing. New hires are less likely to have established themselves as essential to the company, and have less personal connections within it. More importantly many countries redundancy legislation doesn't kick in until over 2 years of employment and the longer you have been employed the more the company will have to pay to terminate you.

Which means a new hire who has uprooted for their new tech job, will be the most likely to find themselves losing that job when bulk redundancies hit.
But FIFO has its place, next would be older engineers. Some companies don't even hire hands on engineers much over the age of 40, anyway. But staff near retirement have at most only a few years left to contribute and may cost more for the same grade. So encouraging early retirement can be part of the bulk redundancy process.

Prejudicial Firing

Whilst redundancy is all about costs and not about your personal performance. That is not to say companies who pass the redundancy choices down to junior managers may not end up with firing disproportionate numbers of workers who are not from the same background as their manager, ie white USA males, ideally younger than the manager. But prejudice is not personal either. That is pretty much what defines it as prejudice, a pre-judgement of people based on physical characteristics rather than their ability at the job. Also people are least likely to fire staff that they have the most in common with, resulting in prejudicial firing. 
Unfortunately it seems many companies with a good diversity policy for hiring, may not have adequate ones for firing. Again resulting in losing more of the higher performing staff.

I have heard of a case where someone got a new manager, who on joining was told to cut from his team, so he fired everyone outside the USA. The worker was so keen to stay at their current employer they went over the head of their manager to senior management and asked for their redundancy to be repealed. Since they had been at the company many years and personally knew senior management, this worked.
Alternatively a more purely cost based restructure may hire all developers from cheaper countries and fire most of them in the US. As happened with Google's Python team recently.

Fight for your job?

The company may set up a pool process for bulk redundancies if numbers are high enough per country, where you can fight for a place on the lifeboat of remaining positions. 

In both cases I would recommend that you don't waste time on a company that doesn't value you. If you do stay you risk, dealing with the bulk redundancy aftermath. Which will be present unless the redundancies were for a pivot (3) or one off event (4).
An increased workload, pay freezes, no bonus, needing to over work to justify being kept on, plus a negative work atmosphere.

In a case where I stayed after the department I was in was axed, I had to reapply for a new job which was moved to a different division. The work was less worthwhile and at the time, the employment of in-house software developers as a whole, was questioned as being unnecessary for the organisation. I outstayed my welcome for 18 months of legacy commercial software support, before getting the message and quitting.

Lesson learnt, if you must ask to to stay in your company, via senior management, a pool or reapplication. Make sure you look around and apply for other jobs outside of it at the same time.

You also miss out on a minimum of a couple of months tax free pay as a settlement.

On the other hand, if the redundancy round is for a more minor pivot, and you are happy in the role, it may be well worth staying around to see how things pan out.

Of course you may get no choice in the matter, in which case, get straight into GET HIRED mode, and start the job search. If you can manage it fast enough, you will benefit financially from the whole process. Although if the reason is (5) a sector wide reduction, then it will be take longer and be harder to obtain the usual 20% pay increase that a new position can offer.


 H I R E D 

Why change jobs (aside from being fired!)

  • It is a lot easier to get a pay rise or promotion by changing companies, than being promoted internally. To fast track your career to a principal or architect top IC role. Or just get a pay rise.
  • Changing jobs gives you much wider experience, of different technology, approaches and cultures. Making you a better engineer.
  • If you have been in your current job over 10 years without significant internal promotions or changes of role then it is detrimental to your CV, indicating you are stuck in a rut and unable to handle change, eg. new technology.
  • You want to shift sectors.
    I changed from public sector web developer, to commercial cloud engineer with one move.
  • You want to get into new technology that is not used in your current role.
    I changed from a Python, Ruby config management automation engineer to a Kubernetes Golang engineer with another.
  • You want to change your role in tech, or leave it entirely. For example get out of sales as a solution architect and back into a more technical role as an SRE.
On that basis many software engineers change jobs every 2 or 3 years for part of their careers. Its expected, the average engineer in a FAANG stays less than 3 years.

Of course you probably need to be in a job for at least 2 years to fully master it.
If your CV has loads of similar positions where you barely make it past the probation period, its marking you out as a failure at those roles == Fail hiring at the first step, the HR CV check.

Upskilling

The other problem is that changing jobs to change roles, even if its just to use a new language or framework can be blocked by roles requiring experience in that area on the CV to get interviewed for the job in the first place. For software engineering that is less of an issue. Since tech changes faster than any other sector.
You just need to prove you have a range of experience and software languages and are willing to learn, early in a technology boom. To catch the cloud engineer bus, I got a job in it in 2016. The US cloud sector was $8 billion back then. It is $600 billion now. Similarly to get on board with Golang and Kubernetes in 2019. In the first few years of a tech boom most companies will initially have to cross train engineers without direct experience. The corollary of that is that in the current downturn attempting to pivot to an established technology, which k8s has become, is going to be much harder.

Market rates

Clearly ML ops and AI data science are current booming areas. The demand so far outstrips current supply that for switching to a more junior Python AI role in them may pay as well as a senior Django web developer for example.

So around £60k for a junior role, but in 3-4 years it should jump to at least £100k for a senior AI engineer. Of course for US salaries add 30%, plus usually free medical, life insurance etc. The lower tax rates cancels out the higher cost of living in the US ... so its UK salary +30% in real terms*. Researching the going rate for the particular role, technical skills and sector you are applying for is a necessary part of the hiring process. In order that you don't let recruitment bargain you down too low.

*
Note that geographic software pay differences are why you often come across engineers of other nationalities emigrating to, and working in the higher paying countries, USA, Canada and Australia. I have worked with many people from the UK and Europe who live in the USA, and Indians who live there or Europe, for example.
Of course as a cheap foreign worker myself, I too stick with US companies partly because they pay rather more than UK ones, even if a lot lower than what I would get if I moved there 😉

Now is the time when such a switch will be easier to accomplish without having to work nights doing courses, certifications and personal projects. The usual means of demonstrating your ability without any work experience.

The caveat here is that moving jobs in a down turn, as we are arguably experiencing currently, can depress the market salary rates and if you are already at the top of those when made redundant, can mean you have to take a pay cut for a year or two rather than face the cost of long term unemployment.

The hiring process for an experienced software engineer role
Interview to Offer should take a month.

If not then the recruitment is likely for a group of roles in an expansion process and from screening and CV, you are not one of the top candidates. You may waiting on the backlog of potential interviewees for a couple of extra months before it properly kicks off.
Or you are told the post is no longer available, sorry!
Even if you would eventually get a post it may stretch your redundancy settlement. Therefore I would not bother pursuing any application process that is looking to be stretching on past 6 weeks.
Start date will be 5 weeks from contract (partly to cater for notice, referee and compliance checks etc)

That makes it 2 months minimum from applying for a role to starting.


The process will consist of a technical assessment task and at least 3 interviews, screening, manager and technical.
With another for introduction to team mates / office etc. which is unlikely to have any effect on the hiring decision unless you and your potential new manager take an instant personal dislike to each other.

The HR screening interview, just checks you are a genuine candidate for the job.
The Manager interview similarly is more about checking you will fit in with the company and team, plus that you have basic personal communication skills.

The Technical Interview is what matters

Passing the technical interview is what really decides whether you will get a job offer. Sometimes the tech interview may be split into two, one more task and questionnaire based and the other more discussion. Often the initial task part will be given as WFH.

The technical interview will consist of technical questions to explore whether you have the knowledge and experience required, plus some thing to confirm you can write code and discuss that code, for a developer or SRE role. For the former it would likely be application code whilst for the latter automation code.
For a more purely system administration / IT support role it will involve specifying your processes for resolving issues.

If you are unlucky and it is an in person interview, you may have to whiteboard pseudo code live in response to a changing task described to you on the spot. Although I have only had that once. More common, especially for hybrid / remote roles, is the take away task. To be completed in a 'few hours' at most.

It is possible that either of the above could be replaced by another source for your code. Talking through one of your open source packages, if you have any. Or talking through one or two longer automated coding exercise assessed tasks. I have never come across either of these though.

The main point is that the core of any technical interview for a developer related role will involve talking through code you have written, as a kicking off point to check your understanding of the code, how it could be improved, how you would tackle scaling, or a new exemplar functional requirement. Its faults and features.

You will be asked to talk through past code or technical work in a more generic manner in response to standard questions along the lines of examples of your past work that show how you fit the job. 

Preparing for the Technical Interview

It doesn't take much to work out that a 20% pay rise is worth, a day's worth of work a week.
Assuming you stay in your new job for 2 or 3 years - that is equivalent to 6 months pay.
On that basis even doing a week of work to apply to, and prepare for a single job is still very well worth it, if you get the job.

Adopting a scatter gun approach, ie applying with a generic CV and covering letter to 10 or more jobs, is a waste of time in my view. If you need a new job, then it should be one you are genuinely interested in and research. That means probably you should only have a maximum of 3 tailored applications on the go at once. Even when I was made redundant (and about to get married) I think I limited myself to 4 job applications in total, with one primary one that thankfully I did end up getting.

There are many sites that can advise how best to do that, based on the framework that your hiring will be decided upon I have outlined above. I think preparing some Challenge Action Result stories targeted at the details of the new employer is useful. Plus spending a day or so refining that '2 hours'  development task. Researching the company and preparing specific questions and perhaps suggestions for your interviewers.

Being a Technical Interviewer

From the other side of the table, clearly candidates need to show sufficient competency for the post. They may show it, but only within a totally different technical stack. Smaller companies tend to have less capacity and time to get people up to speed with new tech. So will likely fail these candidates even though they are capable of doing the job eventually.
The technical interviewers will tend to pair on the assessment - to improve its consistency. Swapping partners for interviews regularly also helps.

The assessment process is likely to use some online system such as Jobvite or Greenhouse where each interviewer assesses the candidate. Finally summarising it all with a recommendation for strong pass, pass or fail. Sometimes for a specific post and grade, otherwise the assessment can include a grade recommendation. The manager then rubber stamps that assuming appropriate funding is available. HR's job is to beat the candidate down to the lowest reasonable price, without going so low the candidate walks away.

A healthy growing company will tend to have a rolling recruitment process as they expect to be increasing head count in proportion to customers and revenue. On that basis they will likely be aiming to recruit anyone with a good pass, plus maybe most of the passes too.

Given that engineering jobs are highly specialised and require relevant experience I have not seen cases of way more interviewees than jobs. Currently, even with all the redundancies, there is still an under supply of engineers.
Also the approach for HR will be to set experience and skills pre-requisites for the roles that will keep the numbers down for those who make it to technical interview to around double the number of vacancies. Since it takes out a day of work for each interviewing engineer, to prep, interview and assess.

HIRING SUMMARY

You must pass each of the first 5 or 6 steps to get to the next one and get the job.

  1. HR check written application is a plausible candidate
  2. FAANG sized company - automated quiz / Leetcode style challenge - to reduce the numbers - because they get way more speculative applicants.
  3. Recruiter chat to check candidate is genuine and available
  4. CV skills / experience check vs other applicants to shortlist those worth interviewing
  5. Technical task could be takeaway or whiteboard / questionairre interview
  6. Technical interview, in person or Zoom with engineers

  7. Manager interview / introduction to team mates. 
  8. Recruiter chat. Negotiate exact salary. Agree start date.
  9. Contract is signed, YOU ARE HIRED.






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