With everyone in the room, the layoffs came--one by agonizing one
My wife Michelle and I with our 1-year-old Ethan were just
settling into our new home on the outskirts of northwest Calgary. It was August
2008, six months since the move. After 10 years living in Ottawa, we were ready
for a change in scenery; from hi-tech hub and maple trees to oil country on the
windswept Canadian prairie.
Michelle and I grew up westerners so the decision was an
easy one. Being on our own in Ottawa while our immediate family was scattered around
Alberta and neighboring Saskatchewan meant the gentle tugging of heart strings
was ever present. Since Easter morning 2007, the day Ethan was born, the tugging
was getting harder to ignore. We were excited to be coming home.
Being closer to family was the upside to a move west; the
downside wasn’t immediately apparent until I saw Roger through his office
Roger is a middle-aged family man and serial entrepreneur. Sharp
but unassuming, he takes pride in his work and his team. “Starting companies is
what I like to do”. Those were his exact words in casual conversion a few weeks
prior, but it was obvious that his entrepreneurial spirit hadn’t consumed him
like I’d seen happen to others. Work, family balance was important to Roger, so
seeing him in the office when he was supposedly just two weeks into a
month-long family vacation in Europe made me nervous. Optimistic before he left,
the look on his face announced the optimism had soured. On the other side of
the glass, Roger stood in visible frustration; almost bewilderment. Coming home
early wasn’t his idea.
An uneasiness setting in
My office was the first door on the right, diagonally
opposite Roger’s. I went straight in, took off my jacket and slid it onto my
chair back. I sat down at my desk just as an uneasiness started creeping
through my body. Managers don’t cut vacations short to deliver good news.
It was 10 or 15 minutes later when the call went out for a
meeting in the board room. Roger stood at the door, a nervous smile betrayed his
normally calm demeanor. With arms crossed, he nodded at each of us as we filtered
in and took seats around the conference room table. As the last person entered,
he glanced briefly down the hall before taking his place at the front of the
room just inside the door. There were 20 of us in all, just enough to fill the
room with a little elbow room to spare. It was quiet and uncomfortable.
Roger leaned back against the wall. His arms were
straightened now with his hands in his pockets. His face was slightly reddened.
“Are we all here?”, he asked Velma.
Roger stumbled out of the gate, his attention alternating
between our collective blank stare and a crescent shaped coffee stain near the
edge of the tabletop in front of him. It had clearly been there a while but he seemed
to welcome the diversion. As he searched for words, he leaned forward and rubbed
the stain with his thumb. It didn’t come off.
He offered an explanation for why we were there; a combination
of deteriorating business conditions and managerial ineptness, Roger suggested,
both of which were beyond our control, both of which we were about to pay for.
Everyone knew what was going on, several of us were about to lose our job; six
to be precise. Six was the number San Diego stuck Roger with days before. It
was the number he pondered on the long flight home and the one he thought about
in the sleepless hours the night before.
The moments of truth
At that moment, I didn’t care for an explanation. I didn’t
care about the bad decisions and I didn’t care who made them. I was worried
about the mortgage we just renewed and the cost of Michelle’s university
tuition, neither of which we’d be able to afford if–when–I lost my job. Only a
few months after a paid move to join a satellite office in a promising new organization,
I sat helplessly at the end of the boardroom table, trembling slightly, fuming
“Wei… Amir…”, Roger started. It was easy to tell this was
hard for him. There wasn’t much to choose between the guys leaving and those
staying. There was no deadwood to trim.
“Ok, that’s two”, I thought. “He said six and he hasn’t
called me yet. I hope to God he doesn’t call me. What the hell am I doing here?
Why would these idiots move me all the way out here to cut me loose?”. The
pointless speculation had started. Panic was setting in.
“Stuart …”, Roger continued.
“Three. Two more. No… shit… three more!” In a futile attempt
to focus on anything but our impending financial disaster, I was scrambling to
calculate the odds of mine being one of the last three names. What would we do if
it was? “How much do we have in reserve? Twelve thousand. That’s not much. How
long can we make it on that? Three months, maybe four with unemployment?
Michelle’s university… what are we going to do there? A loan from my parents
maybe? How do we pay that back? Daycare! Shit! Ethan’s daycare!”
“Holy shit!” My heart stuttered. Sam uprooted his family from
Vancouver four months after we did. He
was visibly shaken as Roger said his name, clearly regretting his decision. I sat
regretting mine more than ever. I was living a story I’d heard many times over;
my new job hope was being crushed by lay-offs and financial limbo. I knew next
to no one in Calgary; for the first time in a long time, I had no plan B.
Roger’s attention stalled on the coffee stain. He bent
forward just slightly for a closer look, hands still in his pockets, like he
was peering into a crystal ball. The pause was short and barely noticeable, but
it was obvious. “Sorry about this guys, this was a surprise to me, too”.
The air thinned and my breathing became unceasingly uneven. I
was completely overpowered by the thought my name was next. The trembling
worsened as I felt myself sinking into my faded blue chair. The normally
confident voice in my head quivered and cracked. I could feel the second hand on
my watch reluctantly marching ahead. I was too scared to notice anything else. Except
for the boardroom table, the room went empty and nondescript. The others were
gone; the whiteboards disappeared; the chairs vanished. The walls squeezed
inward. The room was a vacuum and only Roger and I left, him standing partially
disengaged at one end while I sat frozen at the other. My immediate future
dangled precariously between us.
There was complete silence as he brought up the last name. Five
life lessons neatly packaged and delivered in legal sized brown envelopes; just
one to go. My watch stopped. My heart waited, now motionless.
“Siavash. That’s it, the rest of you guys can go”.
With those final words, the air roared violently back into
the room. The walls burst outward and everyone else reappeared. With Roger waving
of us out of the room, a blast of overwhelming uncertainty evaporated with an
anti-climactic reassignment to the status quo.
As he closed the door behind us, I saw the empathetic smile he
lent to those who remained. There wasn’t much else he could do.
That was it. A hi-tech downsizing. A reduction in force.
Short, sweet, decisive, brutal. My narrow escape brought immediate relief but it
wasn’t because I’d fooled myself into thinking my job was safe; not a chance. While
round one was a complete surprise, it was also just a warning shot. The real
relief was knowing there’d be no surprises when round two came back for the
rest of us.
Certainty is the best motivation.
(Neil Johnson has been working in ASIC and FPGA development for more than 10 years. He currently holds the position of Principal Consultant at XtremeEDA Corp, a design services firm specializing in all aspects of ASIC and FPGA development. Neil is also co-moderator for AgileSoC.com, a site dedicated to the introduction of Agile development methods to the world of hardware development).