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5 Job Tips for Developers Preparing for Economic Recession

Here are ways developers can protect themselves from being out of work in a recession.

If you work in software development, you may feel like you're living in a sort of parallel universe these days, at least as far as the job market is concerned.

For years, software developers were so in such short supply that they had little reason to worry about economic downturns or layoffs. For many developers, the biggest concern was how to earn even more money, not simply finding and holding onto a programming job.

Now, however, the times seem to be changing. The "tech boom is over," according to some observers, and layoffs that impact software engineers are afoot.

Even if that doesn't mean every developer will be out of a job tomorrow, smart developers should start thinking today about how to protect themselves in a recession. Keep reading for steps that developers can take to keep the jobs they already have, or make it easier to find new ones if the time comes.

1. Interview for a New Job — or Many

Probably the single best thing developers can do to protect themselves during a recession is to interview for new jobs, and accept a new position if it's a good fit.

In your current job, you may have been hired years ago into a role that managers will no longer consider essential in the event that they have to come up with lists of people to lay off. But when you take a new position at a new company, you stand a higher chance of being hired to do something that will remain a priority for the business until the recession ends.

There's a chance, of course, that you'll end up more vulnerable as a newer hire, in the event that managers take a "first in, first out" approach to layoffs. But it's more likely that companies will make layoff decisions based on which projects or roles are most relevant to them, and the more recently you were hired, the more likely it is that you're in a role still considered key.

2. Work for a Mid-stage Startup

If you do go looking for a new developer job, you'd do well to focus on landing a position at a mid-stage startup — as opposed to a younger startup or an enterprise.

From the perspective of job protection, mid-stage startups are the sweet spot. Early-stage startups are vulnerable to running out of money and firing everyone, especially in a recession. And at a large company that isn't necessarily in a growth mindset, it can be easier for management to resort to layoffs during an economic downturn.

But mid-stage startups are different. They are still growing, so they will typically avoid layoffs at all costs. They also (hopefully) have at least some financial stability and revenue, making them less prone to running out of runway than smaller startups. And their investors have already dumped a lot of money into them, which means it's easier to keep the VC tap flowing, even in tough economic times.

3. Learn Tried-and-True Technologies

Recessions are not the time for developers to make themselves masters of up-and-coming programming languages or tools. Instead, a recession is a time to invest in learning tried-and-true technologies — the kind that companies need to support because they are essential to business operations.

So, if you spent the tech boom years learning about cool new technologies like unikernels or the metaverse, you may want to take the present moment as an opportunity to go back to the basics. Brush up on your Java skills, for example, or remind yourself how to write a good SQL query. Those are the types of tasks that companies will keep paying developers to do, even if a recession means that they hold off on investment in new projects that require different types of expertise.

4. Consider Freelancing

If you've ever thought about working as a freelance developer — or if you've found yourself out of a developer job and are wondering what to do next — now's a great time to explore the world of freelance software development.

One reason is that companies that are wary of investing in (or maintaining) full-time developer roles during a recession may be more likely to work with freelance developers. In that respect, developer layoffs are a good thing for freelance coders.

Another advantage of being a freelance developer in a recession is that you can work for multiple companies at once. That way, if one company goes bust, you'll have other revenue streams to fall back on.

5. Become 'Overemployed'

A variation on working as a freelance developer for multiple companies is to join the ranks of the "overemployed." These are workers who endeavor to hold multiple full-time roles at once.

Typically, the main attraction of overemployment is that you can earn a lot more money. But it's also a safeguard against job loss, because if one employer lays you off, you still have a job.

Overemployment has its drawbacks (and there's more than a little to debate about the ethical implications of this approach to software development work). But if you've ever thought about trying to do more than one full-time developer job at once, a recession is a smart time to experiment with overemployment.

Developers Must Prepare Now for Possible Job Loss

Although economic recession may or may not actually be in the cards for later 2022 or 2023, developers who want to protect their jobs and careers should think strategically now about how to gird against the possibility of layoffs of a tighter job market. That means looking around for new job opportunities, mastering new technologies, and even considering new approaches to software development work — like freelancing or overemployment.

About the author

Christopher Tozzi headshotChristopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.
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