The best thing that ever happened to me professionally was being laid off.
Over the past few years it seems that game developers have increased their frequency of this practice. Some companies (allegedly) have made it a matter of policy to stack-rank their staff and layoff the low performers each year arbitrarily. I can’t count how many times my Facebook wall has been filled with sad stories from old friends. This is a small industry and almost everyone knows someone that has been affected over the years. When IGN, Kotaku or Gamasutra post a story on a new layoff event it’s the only time their comment section becomes remotely empathetic. It seems even the trolls know when to tone it down a notch.
This past year I was laid off. I was shaken and had no idea what to do. I was upset, confused, embarrassed and looking for answers. My world was rocked.
I lost my "ness." My Harvard-ness.
But it did not beat me.
I immediately fired up my dormant, unused burners. I decided to “produce” my way out of my layoff. I didn’t let my feeling of failure bring me down. I treated this challenge like I normally approach my projects. I planned, evaluated and executed…then repeated. I reconnected with old colleagues, made new contacts, polished my resume and set out to find my Next Big Thing. I embodied the consummate producer in my effort to re-establish my livelihood. Oddly, it was invigorating. I considered it my personal “Layoff Project.”
Now that I’ve landed at a new studio I’m already slightly nostalgic about this experience even though it’s still fresh. My wife was pregnant with our second child and the time we spent bonding as a family was a blessing. We had so much wonderful family time! Believe me, I’ve consumed enough Chica and Elmo to last me a lifetime! My wife was patient, loving and understanding. She was supportive when I most needed it. I have no idea how she may have endured the ninth month of pregnancy without me at home to help. This is why I love her. My layoff couldn’t have come at a better time and I recommend it to all professionals at least once in their career. J
In this article I’ll describe my lay off experience. I’m beyond thrilled that I landed at a great company in an inspiring position…but it wasn’t all luck. In fact, the end result was very calculated. Here are my guidelines on you can produce your way out of a lay off.
Embrace your mourning period…for 24 hours
Being laid off really (I mean, really sucks.) You’ll be left wondering what you did wrong. It’s not unlike a breakup with a lover. You’ll be sad, angry and confused. You’ll reflect on your past performance and consider what you may have done differently. It’s normal to feel this way. This is your time to mourn. Embrace your emotions and take 24 hours to think back on your experience. Maybe enjoy a few cocktails?
After you’ve reflected MOVE ON. Immediately.
While this period is essential for your personal well-being you can’t let it last longer than 24 hours. You need to move forward. The clock is ticking. There are thousands of people in the same situation and you need to get ahead of the curve. There is an endless supply of neophytes waiting to kick you to the sidelines and take your job. Your skill set is getting older by the minute. Even your comrades that were laid off along with you are competing for recruiter mindshare. If you don’t move beyond the mourning period within 24 hours you will absolutely be left behind. This industry moves that fast.
Actually, 24 hours may be too long. When I was laid off three other major companies announced the same within a week or so. The pool of candidates was already overflowing and competition wasn’t something I wanted to deal with. I should have been connecting and feeling out my opportunities on a continuous rhythm well before my D-Day. I made a crucial mistake and didn’t continually nurture my existing contacts over the years. This put me behind the curve and required some catch up. In the future I’ll continue to stay on top of my contact list and occasionally stay in touch with recruiters and other influencers. I’m positive I’ll be perfectly happy in my new position but being caught off-guard is something I will not allow to happen again.
Your world has been turned upside down. Everything will change. For some the layoff will prompt a big move such as selling a house, leaving behind family, saying goodbye to friends, etc. Once you’ve accepted this fact you’ll be more inclined to explore options that may not have seemed previously possible. It’s important that you act with steady urgency but you must not panic. Panic invites uninformed and often incorrect decision making. Think of your layoff effort as a project. Use an urgent, methodical approach toward a goal.
After my mourning period I got to work straight-away. I evaluated my situation against the current job climate and calmly collected as much information as I could. Acting rashly would have been the worst thing I could’ve done and might have forced me into uninformed decision making. It’s important to note that “acting urgently” is not the same as “panicking.” I acted with cause and fear that was tempered with a bulldog’s resolve. I wasted no time in beginning my search and this simple mindset got me ahead of the game. More importantly, it got me out of the mourning period and into implementing my Next Big Thing Project quickly.
Decide on your priorities
Do you remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? It’s the pyramid diagram that basically describes how people value food/warmth/shelter before their dreams. The basics must be addressed first.
This model becomes very clear and relevant once you’ve been laid off. It’s even more evident if you have people that depend on you. When you get laid off your first question is likely about how you can sustain your livelihood (safety). You’ll start looking everywhere for a new job. Any available opening might look like a great match, if only for the paycheck. “Any port in a storm”, as they say. While I recommend keeping all your options open this is a dangerous balancing act. You must look under every rock but take care that you don’t blindly accept a new job that’s the first one you come upon.
I (carefully) recommend holding out for a few weeks till you get the lay of the land. You need to study your job climate. Blindly accepting your first offer because it fulfills your safety needs may wind up being the worst decision you can make. Sure, it’ll put food on the table but you need to think long-term and find a position that fulfills you on a deeper level. It’s a hard proposition and one that requires you to have faith in your talents and a lot of discipline.
In my case I explored all possible options. My goal was to collect a suite of opportunities so that I could evaluate them against each other. I was very lucky that my former employer offered a substantial separation package. This allowed me to be selective. My immediate “safety” need was fairly solid. If this parachute didn’t exist I’m not sure that I would’ve had the discipline to have been as patient as I was. Most people in my situation never have this luxury, unfortunately. Since I had a bit of wiggle room I was able to consciously evaluate my priorities. I decided that I needed a position that engaged me, inspired me and aligned with my talents/skills. I wanted growth and challenge.
In the language of traditional project management this was my Project Charter.
Let go of your resentment
Your mind will likely wander back to “why?” Why did you get laid off and others didn’t? What do you say to interviewers when they ask “Why did you get laid off and not them?” It’s a tough question to tackle. You didn’t get exactly fired even though you were asked to part ways. Why did you win the laid off lottery?
I can only speak to my own experience. After reflection I’ve decided that the reason, in my case, was very simple. My goals no longer aligned with the organization. They didn’t hate me. There were no smirking villains in a dark room trying to make my life into a living hell. The organization had goals that were not in sync with mine. I disagreed with how projects were being managed. While we all agreed that we wanted a successful project we did not agree on how to do it. The lesson that I learned was that I must constantly be watching and evaluating this alignment. In my case, I should have seen it about a year ahead of my layoff. The signs were all around me but I was blind to them. With some minimal effort I could have identified them and dealt with them directly. The Lean framework of project management is all about reduction of waste. I wasted my time. I could have been better prepared or parted ways on my own terms.
It’s critical that you continually evaluate your own goals against the project sponsor’s goals. If you don’t perform this regular investigation you may find that you grow apart without even realizing it. In the end the organization’s goals will normally overpower yours.
Concept your own “Next Big Thing” Project
Once I was done with my mourning period, setting my priorities and pruning my emotional baggage I was ready to concept ideas on what I wanted and how I wanted to get it. I evaluated the companies I wanted to join. I considered the types of positions that would meet my career goals. I even considered launching my own startup. In the end I decided that I wanted to be with a respected, gamer-friendly, creative, successful company that appreciated the discipline of project management. When you are faced with no future income this can be a daunting task. Fear of a lack of livelihood creeps in and can derail a more long term focused approach. Take care to understand your long term career needs.
Lean on each other
The oddly comforting thing about a layoff is that generally others lost their job too. While it seems a bit weird for this to be a positive thing the comradery that is fostered is strong. Talk to the other people that were laid off. Discuss what happened and stay in touch with them. They are strong allies and the common experience creates robust bonds that will last a very long time.
DO NOT let this develop into spite for your former organization. It might be cathartic to complain about how you were screwed over - even mentally healthy, I think. Don’t let this go too far and spiral down into darkness. Talk about it and be done with it.
Once I decided what I wanted I set out to find it. It was a long process and fairly stressful. I interviewed with a number of companies. At first I was very rusty at interviewing since I hadn’t done so since 1993. I researched interviewing tips and was well versed on the companies I met with. Despite my egotistical belief that everyone would want me to join their organization, they did not. I got some disinterest and even some rejections. It was a bit disheartening at first but with practice and guidance I was able to pinpoint the likely reasons for these rejections and was able to adjust my interviewing tactics. On paper, I’m a very experienced producer…but that only got me in the door. Interviewing face to face is a skill that few people do well and generally, not very often. I worked to get better at interviewing and leave my ego at the door.
Post mortem yourself
The feeling of loss is strong after you’ve been laid off. Once you’ve successfully found a new position it’s important to look back and evaluate why it happened and how you found a new, great spot. In project management terms this is called “Kaizen”. It’s a Japanese term that translates to “always look for ways to improve.” Improve always, in all ways. :)
MY POST MORTEM
Post morteming yourself just after the layoff is likely to be colored with emotional baggage that makes the exercise less valuable. Find a quiet time, once the kids are asleep and write a one pager about what you did right and what you did wrong. Try to be specific on how you wound up in this situation. There are lots of ways to do a post mortem but for the sake of simplicity I’ll go with the “What I did right/wrong” format. Self-reflection is a skill that must be exercised.
Here are my Did Right/Did Wrongs…
What I did right
What I did wrong
At the end of the day, while this period of my professional career has been trying, it’s also been very rewarding. The spot where I’ve landed seems like it was designed especially for me. It feels like home. I hope I’m right and this whole ordeal will be worth the trouble.
I do know one thing. This “Next Big Thing” Project has forced me to grow and I got my "ness" back. That can’t be a bad thing, right?