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How to recession-proof your software engineering career

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on April 7, 2020

For a long time, software engineering was a very stable career. HIRED recently released their 2020 State of Software Engineers Report, which offers stats on who’s hiring, for what roles, what they’re paying, how the pay breaks down by geography, and more. Demand for frontend and backend engineers grew 17% in 2019. The total number of software developers rose from 23 million in 2018 to 26.4 million at the end of 2019. American companies added 104,000 IT workers to their rolls in 2019. Companies are hiring IT talent across the board, with 67% of IT managers saying they plan to expand their teams in 2020.

Most developers are used to employers fighting over them, offering more pay and perks to compete for scarce talent. But experts have been issuing warnings about an impending global recession for years. Now COVID-19 has pushed fast-forward on an economic reckoning, causing layoffs, furloughs, and hiring freezes.

While we don’t know what’s going to happen, or when, it’s possible that more and more software engineers could find themselves out of work in a recession. This is something Kevin Goldsmith has lived through twice. In a recent essay, he offers advice for individuals who find themselves in this situation. I want to take some of that advice, along with advice from other experts, to help you get together a game plan for being in the best position possible should employment opportunities continue to dry up.

Consider staying put

“If you have a good job, with a good salary, keep it,” Kevin writes. “If you were considering that it might be time to move on and find a new role, don’t. Even if you have an offer in hand, when companies hit a rough patch, after freezing hiring, they start rescinding offers. A friend of mine left his steady job during the bust to join another established company. He quit his old job and then the weekend before he started his new one, his offer was rescinded. He was now unemployed. His former company didn’t want him back. They got someone more senior for his role at the same salary.”

Obviously there will be exceptions. If your current role is in the restaurant software business and Google comes in and gives you an offer that doubles your pay, uh, take it. But in many cases trying to move up might not be the play right now.

This is especially good advice if you have a good manager. According to a lot of research, and my own personal experience, your manager can make or break your experience at your job. If you have a good one, stay there. Of course it’s tempting to leave your job for a higher paying one, especially when you’re worried about money. But the last thing you want is to be overpaid relative to the market when management decides to cut the fat.

Save as much as possible

Unfortunately, you cannot control the global economy. At some point you may be looking at months of unemployment no matter how skilled you are or how much you prepare. How stressful this prospect sounds is completely different based on whether or not you have some savings. You want this money liquid, since selling stocks in a recession isn’t the move. For tips on this, check out The Penny Hoarder, Mr. Money Mustache, and I Will Teach You To Be Rich.

Another thing you want to start saving, if you’re not already, is your relationships. A large network is essential for finding good jobs in any economy. The last thing you want is to be looking for a job in a recession and needing favors from people you haven’t checked in on in a long time. Think of your relationships like banks. Are you making more deposits than withdrawals?

Take anything that pays

If you don’t have a job right now, fix that. “Some money coming in is better than none,” Kevin writes. “The market will rebound eventually, and salaries will go up again. When that happens, you will be able to find a new role that will pay you appropriately. If the offer is much, much too low, take it. Keep looking for another role, but now with some security. No one says you have to put every position on your resume.”

Again, your mileage may vary. But there’s something to be said for taking what you can find. Besides the money, long-term unemployment is really hard on your mental health. Being turned down again and again will chip away at even the most confident developers, making them even less hirable.

Consider switching careers

“If you are finding it hard to find a job doing what you want to do, it may be time for a temporary (or permanent) career change,” Kevin writes. If you’re open to this, it can be helpful to decide what it is you care about most, whether it’s a particular mission, level of autonomy, or product. And then find a role that offers those things.

Learn new skills

HIRED’s 2020 State of Software Engineers Report found that 89% of IT managers said recruiting machine learning, artificial intelligence, and blockchain talent was a challenge.

Here are the areas where demand for talent is increasing fastest.

AR/VR

HIRED called 2020 “the year of AR/VR.” And for good reason. Demand increased by +1400% in 2019. Journalists Shirin Ghaffary and Rani Molla looked into what’s driving this demand, and found that companies including Google, Facebook, and Apple have been investing in AR/VR tools including Google Maps’s “Live View” option and ARCore platform and Microsoft’s new HoloLens 2. Even non-tech companies like Ikea and Sephora are investing in AR.

2019 demand growth for engineering roles

2019 demand growth for engineering roles HIRED

AR/VR patented inventions grew faster than any year to date in 2019, and in 2019 experts estimated global spending on AR/VR would grow 79 percent to nearly $19 billion in 2020.

Talent insights ar vr

HIRED

AR/VR engineer salaries in large US tech hubs like SF and NYC range from $135k - $150k.

But keep two things in mind before putting all your eggs in the AR/VR basket. First, huge percentage increases are easier to attain with smaller absolute numbers. While Facebook does have more than 3,000 jobs on its career page with the term “AR/VR,” that’s a tiny fraction of its

44,000+ full-time employees. Those fractions are even smaller for Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google.

In addition, demand doesn’t always stay high for trendy new roles. Last year demand growth for blockchain engineers was 517%, and for 2020 it’s 9%. Another thing to note: What software engineers are interested in learning about and what employers want don’t always align. While hiring managers want AR/VR engineering most, only a quarter of survey respondents ranked AR/VR first or second for kinds of tech they most want to learn about.

Tech skill most interested in learning

HIRED

Gaming

Hiring demand for gaming engineers grew by 146% in 2019, and gaming was also among the top-10 highest paid roles. With the exponential growth of multiplayer games like Fortnight, cross-platform games like Dauntless, and free-to-play games like Dota 2, this trend seems unlikely to stop anytime soon.

Machine learning

For machine learning, interest and demand line up: 68% of respondents ranked machine learning as the number one or two type of tech they want to learn about. Nearly 1 in 2 software engineers say machine learning is the most interesting field in software today. In every major market, machine learning engineers rank within the top 10 highest paid roles, with San Francisco leading the pay pack at $162,000/yr on average (also a 6% increase over last year’s average machine learning salary in SF). And while interest between hiring managers and employees don’t always align, they do for machine learning.

NLP

Hired also found Natural Language Processing (NLP) engineer cracked the top-10 highest paid roles in at least two Hired markets, along with security engineer. This is unsurprising, as NLP weaves its way into everything from task management software to mental health apps. Gartner predicts that companies will outsource 85% of customer interactions to bots by the end of the year.

Also check out In-Demand Skills to Get a Remote Developer Job (March 2020).

To help you learn these new skills, check out these two resources: 42 Projects to Practice Programming Skills and 80+ resources for learning to code online.

Going forward

Most developers are used to being in-demand. But it can’t hurt to be prepared for whatever the economy throws at you. Saving money, getting and staying employed, and learning in-demand skills is always a good idea. What are you doing to recession-proof your software engineering career? Let me know at cathy at getclockwise.com.

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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