Artificial Intelligence Career

OpenAI needs bodyguards…er, “Executive Protection Operators”

While perusing OpenAI’s “Careers” page, I noticed that the drop-down menu that lets you filter jobs by department included Corporate Security, and that doesn’t mean cybersecurity, but security of much rougher, tougher, old-fashioned sort.

At the time of writing, this department has just one job listing, and it’s not one you’d expect to see for a software company:

Executive Protection Operator

About the team
The Corporate Security (CorpSec) team at OpenAI is dedicated to ensuring the safety and security of our people and facilities. We are committed to maintaining a secure environment that enables our team to focus on advancing artificial intelligence in a responsible manner.

About the role
As an Executive Protection Operator, you will play a crucial role in safeguarding the well-being of OpenAI’s executives and key employees. Your responsibilities will encompass providing security support during travel, events, and, when necessary, day-to-day operations. You will need to have proficiency in firearms handling and the legal authority to carry a firearm in the United States. You are a seasoned, collaborative security professional with a deep understanding of executive protection principles and a proven ability to navigate complex, dynamic security situations with discretion and tact.

This position is based in our San Francisco HQ. We use a hybrid work model of 3 days in the office per week, though this role is expected to have a flexible schedule that aligns with the travel and operational needs of the executives you support. We offer relocation assistance to new employees.

In other words: they’re looking for bodyguards.

Clearly the folks at OpenAI — not normally the best at “reading the room” — understand that the “creative destruction” that their products will unleash upon the world over the next few years will make them deeply unpopular in certain circles. It appears that they’re taking precautions (and hey, it might have been a suggestion from ChatGPT!).

My favorite part of the posting is the “desired qualities” list, especially the last item:

You might thrive in this role if you: 

  • Hold a current and valid Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act (LEOSA) card for concealed carry in all 50 states, with 10+ years of related work experience or at least 5 years with an advanced degree.
  • Maintain the highest level of confidentiality and discretion, with a proven ability to stay composed in urgent and high-pressure situations.
  • Have experience in executive protection for top-level leaders in diverse environments and have completed recognized Executive Protection and driving courses.
  • Possess leadership experience coordinating with domestic and international law enforcement, military, intelligence, and corporate partners.
  • Are trained in tactical medical procedures and have a strong understanding of Google Workspace applications.

That last bullet point might be the first time the qualifications of tactical medical procedures and strong understanding of Google Workspace applications have been combined in a job requirement. Applicants might do well to write this in their cover letter:

I’m a medic in the streets, and a beast on Google Sheets!

No need to credit me with this line.

Are you qualified? Are you willing to take a bullet for Sam Altman or an equally machiavellian AI bro? Apply here.

And because the song from The Bodyguard is now stuck in my head, I’m sticking it in yours, too:


Laid off in 2024, part 16: Signs that you’re about to be laid off

Here’s an image that’s been making the internet rounds for the past couple of days:

It’s the most poignant scene from the 1990s mobster film Goodfellas, when Tommy (played by Joe Pesci), believes that he’s being taken to the ceremony where he’ll become a “made man” in the mob. In truth, he’s being taken to a quiet execution as punishment for his many, many transgressions, including killing a “made man.” At the last second — and only for a second — he realizes the true purpose of the meeting, after which he takes a bullet to the head.

Here’s the relevant bit [content advisory: swearing, a guy taking a bullet to the head]…

At this point, you may be wondering: What are the signs that I’m about to be laid off? Here they are, broken down into three categories for your convenience:

  1. Signs you’re about to be laid off in the next hour
  2. Signs you’re about to be laid off in the next 24 hours
  3. Signs layoffs are coming in days or weeks

1. Signs you’re about to be laid off in the next hour

The last-minute high-priority meeting

Back in April 2020, when COVID-19 was picking up steam and the shutdowns were extending beyond the initially promised two weeks, I got an email with these particular qualities:

  • It was a last-minute invitation to a Zoom meeting…
  • …and it was scheduled very shortly after the start of the working day
  • It had vague name — “Special meeting”
  • There was no agenda
  • The guest list was hidden

My first thought was “that seems ominous.” At the time, I’d been laid off three times before, and my “Shenanigans Sense” was tingling.

If you’re suddenly invited to a meeting like this, the odds are pretty good that you’re about to be laid off.

The general consensus among HR people whom I’ve talked to on the topic is that layoff meetings should be scheduled with as little advance notice as possible. They’re typically held as early in the day as scheduling and other issues will allow, and preferably not before a weekend or holiday.

Why are layoff meetings announced only at the last minute? It’s to harness the element of surprise, which helps blunt any angry or resentful reaction from employees, and the shock tends to make some people a little more pliant.

To return to my story, I joined the meeting at the appointed time and was greeted with this (even then, I had the presence of mind to take a screenshot):

The actual screenshot from that meeting.

I decided to test a theory and click the “Start Video” button. My video came on for a couple of seconds, after which it was quickly deactivated by the meeting moderator, who sheepishly said “Uh…we’re going to hold this meeting without video. And everyone but the organizers will be on mute.”

That’s when I knew we were getting laid off.

This was the general layoff announcement. During this meeting, we were told that each of us was scheduled for a fifteen-minute meeting sometime that day. We’d get more details about our layoffs on a one-on-one basis.

Speaking of those fifteen-minute meetings…

Your manager’s calendar for the day is a series of fifteen-minute meetings

If you have access to your manager’s calendar, see if there’s a day full of fifteen-minute one-on-one meetings with members of your team. The odds are better than even that they’re layoff meetings.

If you’re invited to one of those meetings, start working on your resume.

2. Signs you’re about to be laid off in the next 24 hours

Certain subscription services that you use for work are suddenly unavailable

The night before my most recent layoff, I was taking the initiative and editing a tech article that a coworker had asked me to review as a last-minute request. It could’ve waited until morning, especially since I was still jet-lagged from a recent trip, but I was going the extra mile to support the team, for what little good it would do me.

That’s when I noticed that one of our mainstay tools, Grammarly, wasn’t available. I tried re-logging into Grammarly, but my account wasn’t working. I quickly filed a ticket with Support and called it a night.

The next day, I experienced the 15 worst minutes of 2024 (…so far!) and was laid off.

While a company can quickly cut off employees from systems that they administer, it takes longer to cut off employees from third-party systems and subscription services. This means that they have to cut off your accounts some time in advance, which can give you a little heads-up that you’re about to be laid off.

Your manager suddenly cancels a regular one-on-one meeting or suddenly becomes quite unavailable or eerily silent

If this happens, it may be because you’re about to be laid off, and the standard HR guidance for layoffs is to minimize contact with those about to be laid off.

I’ve seen a variation on this theme where managers have more frequent one-on-one or team meetings, and then suddenly stop.

Watch for other signs that layoffery is afoot.

A seemingly low-priority task suddenly becomes high-priority and has to be completed in the next couple of days

You’ve heard of the expression “shaving the yak,” haven’t you?

This happened to me a while back. A manager asked me to update some documentation that while useful, could’ve gone without an update for a couple of months without anyone really caring. It was on my list, and I could have done the update in a day or two, but there were a dozen or more higher-priority items.

“But it really needs to be done by the end of the week!” my manager said.

I said “Sure. I can finish it by end of day Friday.”

“Could you do it sooner?”

“Friday is the end of the week, which is when it needs to be ready.” I replied.

“Could you do it by say, Wednesday?”

That’s when I knew.

(It’s also when I decided I wasn’t going to start that task until Thursday, just in case.)

Coworkers mention an upcoming all-hands and you haven’t been invited to it

I don’t have to explain this one, do I?

3. Signs layoffs are coming in days or weeks

“The Bobs” from Office Space.

Here’s a list of fairly reliable indicators that layoffs are happening in days or weeks. One of these alone might not be enough of a sign, but if you see three or more of these, keep your guard up…

  • The company issues the dreaded “Return to Office” mandate for anyone within “reasonable distance” of an office (typically 30 – 50 miles).
  • You are asked to write up a definition of your role and explain just what it is you do at the company. Doubly so if you’re asked to do so by consultants like “The Bobs” from the film Office Space.
  • Upcoming expenses or travel that have already been approved are suddenly un-approved.
  • An executive somewhere in your chain of command suddenly departs with little fanfare.
  • The following phrases were mentioned more than once in the most recent all-hands meeting:
    • cost-cutting
    • finding efficiencies
    • headwinds
    • challenges
    • investor pressure
  • When someone says “there are no plans for layoffs” at the most recent all-hands meeting.
  • The company recently underwent a merger or acquisition, and as a result, one of the companies was “saved.”
  • The company has put a freeze on hiring, and its “Careers” page is suddenly empty.
  • There’s also a freeze on promotions.
  • Constant reorganization of teams.
  • You notice that some departments are absorbing other departments.
  • More than a few people are PIPped or let go “for performance reasons.”
  • One or more big products or programs has been recently canceled.
  • Projects are handed over from full-time employees to contractors.
  • The company posted big losses in the most recent quarter, or has been consistently losing for 3 or more quarters.
  • Contractors aren’t renewed.
  • 401(k) contributions are reduced or removed entirely [US-specific].
  • The company cuts some minor perk or benefit “so they don’t have to lay people off.”
  • A wave of senior people retire.
  • You are asked to adopt some kind of automation of AI and adapt to its regular use.
  • The company opens a branch in a country that is known for offshore work.
  • The CTO departs because they want to “get back to their roots,” get into “the next phase of their career,” or “spend more time with their family.”
  • If you work at an office: you start seeing extra security staff.
  • A team that you interact with is outsourced completely.
  • Health insurance/vision/dental/prescription medication plans are changed to cheaper, worse ones [US-specific].
  • You were once “in the loop,” but lately, you have little idea of what’s going on in the organization.
  • Outside consultants start popping up. Even worse if they’re MBAs.
  • Payroll is more than one-third the size of gross revenue (this will take a little research).
  • A private equity firm has invested in your company.

What to do if you realize that you’re about to be laid off

ℹ️ I wrote about this in the first article in this series, but it’s worth repeating for those of you who are new.

Do whatever it takes to steel yourself for the bad news. Whether it’s deep breathing, counting to ten, reciting your personal mantra, or firing up your “poker face”, you want to get ready to conduct yourself at the meeting with as much grace, aplomb, and professionalism as you can muster.

You’re about to be in the second most important meeting you’ll ever have at this job. (In case you were wondering, the most important one is the job interview.)

If you work for a decent company, there’ll be one or more follow-up calls, and they’ll be face-to-face. Depending on the size of the company, it might be just your manager or your manager, some other management people, and HR.

No matter what you’re feeling at the meeting, you want your termination to be as good a breakup as possible. This means that you must handle it professionally.

The way you behave at this meeting will set the tone for your departure. If it is full of bitterness, acrimony, and the gnashing of teeth, they won’t be inclined to do you any favors. On the other hand, if you conduct yourself with grace and decorum, you may gain some extra concessions and a willingness on their part to do what they can for you.

If you can remember these questions through the stress of the meeting, you should ask questions like:

  • When is my last day?
  • What is my severance package?
  • What about my bonuses, ESPPRSUs, and other non-salary compensation?
  • How long will my insurance coverage last? (This one’s a big deal in the United States, less so in other OECD countries.)
  • When do I have to return the company laptop and other gear?
  • What arrangements are being made so I can collect my stuff from the office?
  • What do you want me to do with my current projects and files?
  • Can I get a letter of recommendation and use you as a reference?

Don’t worry about memorizing these questions — just remember that you should leave the meeting with a clear idea of what they expect from you and what you can expect from them.

When they send you papers to sign, do not sign them immediately. You’ll be given time to look them over. Don’t look them over just yet.

Walk it off

Your first instinct might be to immediately take all the standard job search actions the moment after you’ve been laid off. Fight it. You need a little time to deal with what just happened.

This is going to sound terribly woo-woo new-agey, but I’m going to say it because it’s an important step: at your first opportunity, get away from whatever you’re doing, get out and go for a walk. Physical activity is a key part of this step, so don’t get into a motorized vehicle. You want to get moving, and you want to do it outside, preferably in your own neighborhood.

The walk is important because it gets you away from anything work-like and gives you a chance to clear your head. It gives you a chance to come down from one of the most stressful experiences you’ll ever face in your working life and come to terms with what’s happened. It is not the time for figuring out what your immediate next steps are. It’s the time to collect yourself so that you’re in a better position to figure out what your next steps are.

Don’t do the walk in a fugue state. Take note of your surroundings. Chances are you’ll see things that you passed by every day but never noticed before. This is good, because it’s preparation for what you’re going to be doing for the next little while: seeing things differently.

As for the next steps? I’ll cover them in the next article in this series.

Also in this series…


Laid off in 2024, part 15: Q-TIP, or Quit Taking It Personally

Being laid off feels like this.

If you’ve been laid off, there will come a moment — or many moments — where the feelings of failure, rejection, and despair will press on you with seemingly unbearable weight.

Image generated with Canva Pro.

Those feelings are an instinctive response that served us well from an earlier time when being exiled from the tribe meant certain death. Being laid off is just similar enough to trigger our “exile” instincts, which remain encoded deep in the ancient kernel of our brains’ “operating systems.” Just as the tribe was a source of support and survival, our former jobs were:

  • definitely a source of income,
  • possibly one of purpose and meaning, and
  • if you’re based in the United States, they made it easier to get medical care and put away money for retirement.

Just as you shouldn’t feel stigma or shame for being laid off, you’re not wrong for having those feelings of doom and gloom after a layoff. We’re wired that way.

But just as we’ve overcome the instinct to club the terrible people in our lives to death with a rock, we also have to manage the instinctive despair that results from being laid off.

Luckily for all of us, there’s some good advice that Mythbusters co-host Adam Savage shared in a recent video in his Tested series on YouTube, where he answered this question:

Do you have any tips for dealing with the aftermath that you didn’t have that much influence over?

I worked on a project (at a company as someone in a junior position) that I predicted that would go bad if approach A was chosen, but nobody listened to me. Approach A was chosen and my predictions came true, however later at a performance review, I caught flack that the project flopped.

The situation described in the question isn’t exactly the same as being laid off, but Adam’s reply still applies.

He cited an example from what he called “the lowest point in his professional life,” where his advice was to follow his Dad’s advice:

You can take a look into yourself and see the things that led to this, and resolve to pay attention to that so that the next time the situation arises, it doesn’t go the same way.

Later in the video, Adam talks about a mnemonic used at a school where his son did some teaching over Zoom during the pandemic shutdown: Q-TIP, which was short for Quit Taking It Personally.

“5 million” might seem arbitrary, but that’s what you save every month
when you lay off 400 people with an average salary of 150K.

“Quit taking it personally” should become your mantra if you’ve been laid off. Chances are that the decision-maker who put your name on the layoff list was looking at a spreadsheet or similar document and had the task of selecting who would be “RIFfed,” with the goal of removing enough people to reduce monthly expenditures by a set amount. It wasn’t personal, and you shouldn’t take it as such.

Near the end of the video, Adam describes a situation where he was working for his then-boss and future co-star Jamie Hyneman. They were working on props for a commercial shoot and a key prop failed. Rather than chew out the crew with blistering recriminations, Hyneman approached the director and presented options for what they could do with the prop given their limited time, and what the outcome of each option would be. There was no blame; just an acceptance of the situation, and proposals for what could be done to resolve it.

This is the approach you should take to a layoff (or, if you’re working for yourself, this is the approach you should take to being “fired” by a client):

  • Quit taking it personally,
  • accept the situation,
  • propose solutions,
  • and take measures to either prevent this kind of thing from happening again, or if that’s not possible, take measures so that when this kind of thing happens again, you’re ready for it.

Once again, if you’re feeling layoff despair, watch Adam Savage’s video, listen to his stories, and benefit from the experience he’s sharing. Watch it twice if you have to.

Also in this series…


Laid off in 2024, part 14: No stigma, no shame

There used to be an unwritten, implicitly-understood rule that you should never mention that you were laid off, but treat it like a dirty secret. That may have been good advice for the previous century, when layoffs were viewed as rare events where low performers were fired all at once, but it’s woefully out of date now.

If you think there’s a stigma attached to being laid off or are feeling shame for having been laid off, this article is for you! Here are five reasons why there’s no stigma nor shame in being laid off.

Reason 1: Big Tech overhired

The theme of the past few years has been “growth, growth, growth,” which was driven by:

  1. An amazing bull run in the market that followed the financial crisis of 2007-8,
  2. the end of the Zero Interest Rate Period of 2009 – 2022, where the central banks of G7 countries were lending money at rates so low they were practically zero, and
  3. the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown.

These market conditions made it possible for a lot of tech companies to hire like crazy — especially the big players:

Tap to view at full size.

The problem came when those conditions changed. We now have:

  1. Higher interest rates,
  2. inflation (especially with food and housing), and
  3. some analysts predicting a recession,

all of which are leading people and corporations to spend less. Suddenly, the people from those big hiring sprees became big liabilities.

One of the solutions to this problem is laying people off, and the tech industry’s been doing this with gusto — in the US alone, they laid off a quarter million in 2023, and 40,000 in just the first two months of 2024.

When laying off this many people, it’s not enough to simply cut the lowest performers in your ranks. You also have to get rid of your pricier employees, which means a lot of good performers and even people I consider to be superstars in their domain have been laid off. I’ve lost count of the number of times in the past few months I’ve said “No! Not you!” when surprised by an exemplary person in the tech industry announcing on LinkedIn that they were looking for work.

Remember, even this person, after working hard, showing extreme dedication to the job, and telling the world about that extreme dedication, got laid off:

Reason 2: The market is rewarding companies that do big layoffs

Screenshot from a Business Insider article.
Tap to read the article.

In the previous century, companies did layoffs when they were unprofitable. But these days, companies laying people off are showing profits in their quarterly reports, and investors are rewarding them for it.

The reason this is happening is that layoffs are now a form of corporate virtue signaling. They say “See? We’re cutting costs! We’re increasing efficiency!” And as a result, those company’s share prices are going up. For example, Meta’s stock price has nearly tripled, Spotify’s is up by 30%, and even my former employer’s share price is up $20 since the beginning of the week (good thing I exercised those options!).

Now if you were a company and your investors rewarded you for doing something, would you do more of it for as long as you could? Of course you would.

Reason 3: Vanilla CEOs following “Space Karen’s” lead

When Elon Musk took over Twitter/X, he instituted mass dismissals in a spectacular and clown show-like way, including the infamous choice he presented to his employees:

  1. Stay and be “hardcore,” committing to long hours at high intensity, where “only exceptional performance will constitute a passing grade,” or
  2. Leave and take three months’ salary.

You might recall how I posed this choice:

Even with a drastic reduction in personnel and egomaniacal mandates given to the remaining staff, Twitter/X still works. It’s a Nazi-plagued hellsite, but it does work, and in late-stage capitalism, the bottom line is all that matters.

As a result, a number of tech company leaders, many of whom are “Vanilla CEOs,” saw Musk’s move and were inspired to do the same.

Don’t believe me? See these articles:

Vanilla CEOs tend to look at what other CEOs are doing, and follow suit. This is driving a lot of layoffs.

Thanks a lot, Space Karen. You are my alma mater’s worst alumnus.

ℹ️ Wondering what a “Vanilla CEO” is? Watch this video.

Reason 4: A.I.

There’s also the temptation of “employees” that you don’t have to pay…

In a recent episode of his No Mercy/No Malice audio series, business professor Scott Galloway describes AI as “Corporate Ozempic” — as in the hot new weight loss drug that works by supressing cravings. Like Ozempic, you’re adopting AI to “trim the fat,” but you’re also doing it in secret.

Galloway writes:

CEOs are being coy about this, at least in public, because there’s a sense of fear surrounding the brave new world of AI. The illusionist’s trick in the Valley right now is getting the media to look over there (trimming fat) while they’re stuffing the rabbit into the hat here (replacing it with AI). In the next several quarters, however, I believe CEOs will come out in  earnings calls and put it bluntly: “We’re going to be a smaller company that does more business thanks to AI.” Pundits will clutch their pearls for a hot minute until the stock explodes, and the secret hiding in plain sight will be visible to everyone. It’s corporate Ozempic. It’s not about less bread, but less craving for bread. Read: hiring people.

Reason 5: You’ll blend in

With a quarter-million U.S. techies laid off since the start of 2023 — Yours Truly included — if you’re laid off, you’re not an outlier or a freak. You’re just one of many.

There is no stigma nor shame in being laid off

As I wrote in an earlier post in this series, Unearned consequences, “If you’re in a layoff-induced moment of despair, remember that you’re probably facing the consequences of someone else’s mistakes.”

Or, as I also wrote in the same article:

The decision-makers at companies making these layoffs sound like Lord Farquaad from Shrek: “Some of you may die, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”

Remember this as you go about your job search — there is no stigma nor shame in your being laid off. Just say that you’re part of the ongoing layoff trend.

Coming up next

Job search tips and tricks!

Also in this series…

Career What I’m Up To

Laid off in 2024, part 13: One day, in retrospect, you’ll remember this time as beautiful

Tap to view at full size.

ℹ️ TL;DR: While wandering around the streets of Austin, Texas, I unknowingly stumbled into Twitch/OnlyFans streamer PeachJars’ “Free Advice 4 Charity” table, and hilarity ensued. Scroll down to see the video!

Tuesday evening

“How do you stay optimistic?”

This is what someone who’d attended my talk at Civo Navigate North America 2024 asked me during the social event at the end of the conference’s first day.

“What do you mean?” I asked, because I wasn’t sure what he was referring to.

“At the start of your talk, you mentioned that you were recently laid off. It’s brutal out there right now, but you wouldn’t know it from the way you gave your talk. You look like you were having fun.”

Me, at the start of my talk at Civo Navigate North America 2024.
Photo by Jay Boisseau. Tap to view at full size.

“Maybe I’m wired that way,” I replied. “But it’s also that this isn’t my first layoff. I find that things go better if you have a firm belief that you can make things better.”

“In fact,” I added, “because this isn’t my first rodeo (hey, we were in Texas; I’m supposed to use that metaphor!), I know that inside the rough times, there are a lot of surprising good times baked in.

Thursday morning

This was the day after the conference. It was morning, and my flight wouldn’t depart until 6:15 p.m. I had a couple of choices:

My hotel — the Moxy Austin.

Option 1: Hunker down in the hotel lobby and continue the job search. After all, it is a brutal job market at the moment, even for people with my experience.

The Moxy’s lobby isn’t so much a hotel lobby as it is a pretty nice hangout space with good free wifi and coffee, lots of tables and power outlets, good music, a bar, and a nice taco restaurant. I could easily get a lot of job search work done there, which some might say would be the smart thing to do with that time.

Mural near my hotel.

Option 2: Leave my bags at the hotel, break a twenty-dollar bill into small change, strap on the accordion, take in the sights, sounds, and people of Austin, and make some people’s days a little odder (and hopefully better).

You’ve probably already guessed what I did.

I met Ryan the busker on Guadalupe Street.
Tap to view at full size.

I met Ryan the busker at Guadalupe and 23rd and put a fiver in his bucket. In exchange, he invited me to play Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ with him, and as a Florida musician, I am legally required to be able to play Tom Petty. We had fun.

A number of people at the nearby bus stop shot video of us, so you might see it floating around the internet.

Free advice for charity

PeachJars’ “Free Advice” table.
Tap to view at full size.

The breakout moment of my walk was when I passed by a table that was promoting free advice for charity, where the charity was Alveus, an exotic animal sanctuary that provides permanent homes to non-releasable exotic animals.

A cheerful young woman sat at the table, flanked by another holding a sign, and a third running what looked like a streaming camera rig. I confirmed the “streaming” part when I saw that the table had a sign that showed the seated woman’s Twitch URL.

PeachJars, I thought. Cute name. I’ll have to look up that channel later.

Rather than tell you what happened next, let me just show you the segment of her stream where I appeared. And be sure to read the stream of comments in the right column!

Quite possibly the first (and maybe last) time that I have been called a GIGACHAD.

Later, on my flight back to Tampa, I looked up PeachJars online. It turns out that she’s a popular Twitch streamer who also has an OnlyFans account. This may be the only time I’ll ever be in a video with an OnlyFans artist!

😘 My thanks to PeachJars and company for being so kind!

Lunch with new friends

Tap to view the original post on LinkedIn.

I had posted earlier on LinkedIn that I was in Austin for the day and asked if anyone wanted to do lunch. Luckily, Connor Brown, Noah Birrer, and Jacob Colvin answered the call, and we got together at Iron Works Barbecue, where Noah covered my lunch and I enjoyed the conversation so much that I forgot to take a picture.

Find the good times in the bad

I could’ve stayed in the hotel and worked on my job search, and I might be a few hours ahead today. But because I chose to step out onto the streets of Austin — a city that I don’t see every day — I had experiences I wouldn’t have otherwise had, met people I wouldn’t have otherwise met, and my headspace is even readier for the hustle.

I now have a better answer for the person who asked me how I stay optimistic while being laid off. It’s because I set out to find the good times in the bad. If you’re laid off, see if you can do the same.

I’ll close with this quote from Sigmund Freud that I’ve been hearing repeated lately:

Also in this series…

Career What I’m Up To

Laid off in 2024, part 12: Lessons from “The Martian” and other notes

I’m in Austin this week to deliver a talk at the Civo Navigate North America conference — so posting might be a little light this week. But here’s part 12 of the “Laid Off in 2024” series!

Lessons from The Martian

If you like sci-fi and are looking for inspiration as you make your way through the process of finding your next gig after being laid off, I recommend the audiobook version of The Martian, the book by Andy Weir that became the film of the same name starring Matt Damon.

While the film gave us STEM majors a memorable line that we’ll quote forever — “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this” — the book tells a deeper story of perseverance, problem-solving, and perspicacity that is nothing short of inspiring.

I’m not exaggerating about the “inspiring” bit either. Whenever I’m working on a tough problem and I can’t figure out a solution, I put the audiobook version of The Martian on and put it on in the background. Listening to how stranded Mars astronaut Mark Watney assess the situation he’s in and uses his knowledge and the materials on hand to survive for 531 sols (those are Martian days, the equivalent of 546 days on Earth) has somehow helped me to:

  • Relearn enough JavaScript and learn enough React to build a little web application that assembled a report for a telecom cost-optimization review, which a major tech vendor sold as part of their suite of services.
  • Build the Python script that generates the weekly list of Tampa Bay tech, entrepreneur, and nerd events. It’s no simple assignment, as it must counter’s anti-scraping countermeasures.
  • Write Augmented Reality in Android with Google’s Face API, my first Android programming article for (now Kodeco), despite not ever having built an Android app or used Google’s API for detecting and tracking facial features.
  • Pass my “audition” for Auth0 (now owned by Okta), where I had to write an application using tech I’d never used before (Auth0 and Spring Boot) and an article about that application.

If you find yourself feeling stuck, read The Martian or give the audiobook version a listen! As a treat, here’s the audiobook version, as uploaded to YouTube by a soul who doesn’t fear the copyright cops:

Peter Wheeler’s take on nondisparagement clauses

I know Peter Wheeler from my time at Auth0/Okta, where we met through initiatives where Auth0 would help out nonprofit organizations. He’s a sweet, solid guy, and he’s so willing to help out that if I had to assemble a crack team of a dozen people to save the world, he’d be one of the first people I’d call.

Peter gave me the idea to include something nice for the team that would have to deal with the company laptop when I shipped it back to them. That team also experienced, and they probably were feeling disheartened by the layoffs and having to process the laid-off people’s gear. I tell the whole story in an earlier post, The Box Came Back the Very Next Day.

In response to another post of mine, The Dreaded Non-Disparagement Clause, Peter posted a response on LinkedIn which bears repeating here:

The reality is – if you’ve got the time and energy to be talking about anything, it should be about what’s next and who you are. Not dramatically rehashing the past. Even in venting.

And with layoffs, who cares? There are thousands of colloquialisms and parables to answer any question that might be posed about your time and your relationship with the organization. “One door closes, another opens.” “Gave me time to pursue….” “Helped me see…”

My favorite, ever, and that I’ve adopted for myself when leaving roles and organizations – that came from someone I was hiring who was pursuing a title and duties drop –

“I exhausted the ways I could positively contribute”

That goes into so much, so easily, without saying anything. Lack of culture alignment. Role no longer what you signed up for. Team issues.

Feel compelled to be honest? “At this point in my career I’m looking for an organization and role that ‘positive statements’…” > “well I know what I don’t want to go through again”

Same thing. Different vibe you personally put off. And different risk in this case.

“Would you work there again?”
Is a very different question than
“Would you go back to working there?”

One is quantum unrestricted :)
Rambling. Bye

He also linked to this classic from the great jazz keyboardist Fats Waller that summarizes the definitive answer to the non-disparagement clause question: You Run Your Mouth, I’ll Run My Business…

Advice from the global financial crisis of 2008 (and Douglas Rushkoff)

Laid Off Still Life (2008, Joey de Villa, mixed media.)
This is the stuff I packed at the office after my first layoff.
Here’s the original article from October 7, 2008.

Way back in October 2008 (this blog goes back to August 2006), I was laid off for the first time. I made the announcement in a post called This Gun’s for Hire…

…and wrote my first-ever series of articles on being laid off, Terminated, starting with The Very First Things You Should Do When Laid Off:

In a follow-up article titled How I’ll Ride Out the Layoff and the Credit Crunch: Friends, I cited technology, media and pop culture writer Douglas Rushkoff, whose essay, Riding Out the Credit Collapse, had a suggestion for riding out the global financial crisis going on at the time. It’s equally applicable to the Great Layoff going on right now:

Whatever the case, the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your interests is to make friends. The more we are willing to do for each other on our own terms and for compensation that doesn’t necessarily involve the until-recently-almighty dollar, the less vulnerable we are to the movements of markets that, quite frankly, have nothing to do with us.

If you’re sourcing your garlic from your neighbor over the hill instead of the Big Ag conglomerate over the ocean, then shifts in the exchange rate won’t matter much. If you’re using a local currency to pay your mechanic to adjust your brakes, or your chiropractor to adjust your back, then a global liquidity crisis won’t affect your ability to pay for either. If you move to a place because you’re looking for smart people instead of a smart real estate investment, you’re less likely to be suckered by high costs of a “hot” city or neighborhood, and more likely to find the kinds of people willing to serve as a social network, if for no other reason than they’re less busy servicing their mortgages.

I’ve internalized Rushkoff’s idea, which is why I do a lot of community-building stuff wherever I call home, whether it was in Toronto (this blog is effectively a record of all that work) or in my home for the last ten years, Tampa.

When you read Rushkoff’s fanciful idea of printing your own “local currency,” replace that phrase with “social currency.”

While you may want to work on your technical skills to land your next gig, you may also want to work on things like building a network of friends and acquaintances and building goodwill in tech circles. I’ve found that these are just as valuable as any algorithm, data structure, programming language, or framework that I’ve learned.

Also in this series…

Career What I’m Up To

Laid off in 2024, part 11: The dreaded non-disparagement clause

Censure, a mural by Dase.
Creative Commons work — tap to view the source.

ℹ️ Remember that I’m not a lawyer; I’m just someone with experience with signing post-employment contracts. None of this should be construed to be legal advice, and if you have any questions about employment law and your specific circumstances, you should consult a lawyer.

What’s a non-disparagement clause?

Sooner or later, you’re going to sign a separation agreement with a soon-to-be former employer. In that separation agreement, you’ll likely find a non-disparagement clause. Even in the sea of legalese of the separation agreement, you’ll recognize it immediately, and it will look something like this:

Non-Disparagement. In compliance with all applicable laws and in exchange for the Severance, you agree and covenant not to defame or criticize the services, business, integrity, veracity, or personal or professional reputation of the Company or any of its directors, officers, employees, affiliates, or agents of any of the foregoing in either a professional or personal manner, or induce others to do so.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, nothing in this agreement shall preclude you from making truthful statements that are required by applicable law, regulation, or legal process.

In plain language, the clause says that in exchange for getting severance, you will not disparage your former employer. In legal terms, “to disparage” means “to criticize, belittle, discredit, dishonor, or lower in esteem.” You are promising to never say anything negative about your former company and possibly a lot of things associated with it, including the services or products it offers, the people who run it, and so on.

Think about it — they’re asking a lot. You’re signing away your right to say, write, or otherwise communicate things about your former employer such as:

  • The people at the C-level’s plans are completely wrong,
  • Their next product launch will fail
  • You think that their stock price is going to plummet
  • Their work environment is unpleasant, the managers micromanage, and they do surveillance on in-office employees and monitor remote employees’ keyboard and mouse activity to make sure that they’re actually working
  • They suck

Basically, you’re promising not to say anything that would harm your former employer’s business or reputation.

Here’s an important notice: the part about “never say anything negative” in a disparagement clause applies even if those negative things are true or just your opinion (“I’m just sayin’, dude”). You are promising to never communicate anything negative about your former company.

What about your free speech rights?

Many countries have some kind of free speech law. For example:

  • In the U.S., where I now live, there’s the First Amendment
  • In Canada, where I spent most of my life, there’s Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms
  • In the U.K., Article 10 of the Human Rights Act covers free speech

However, those rights don’t apply to business contracts — otherwise, things like NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) wouldn’t work, and you’re waiving any such rights by signing an NDA or separation agreement.

What happens if you say something negative after agreeing to a non-disparagement clause?

If you sign a separation agreement with your former employer containing a non-disparagement clause and then say, write, or otherwise communicate something negative about your former employer, you will be in breach of contract. I am not a lawyer, but I can still authoritatively tell you that it’s bad news.

The career platform The Muse says that the consequences are usually financial. If your non-disparagement was in exchange your severance, your former employer may demand that severance back. They could also sue for damages, and lawyers can get pretty creative with calculating the financial value of the damage caused by your bad-mouthing.

Would they really go after you for disparagement?

As a consultant, I am qualified to give you the Standard Consulting Answer to that question: It depends.

ℹ️ Again, I remind you: I’m not a lawyer!

Of course, they’d have to find out that you were disparaging them first. Consider these scenarios:

Scenario 1: You and a friend are out for a walk. Your friend asks: “Hey, you worked at EvilCorp. What was it like?” You reply “It was Hell. Don’t work there. The people who run that dump have their heads up their asses, and the only reason they’re still around is a lack of competition and dumb luck.” Probably not a problem.

Scenario 2: Same as Scenario 1, but in a crowded Starbucks. Probably still not a problem.

Scenario 3: Same as Scenario 1, but in a crowded Starbucks right by your former employer’s office. Probably still not a problem, but getting iffy. There’s a chance that someone at your company will overhear you and will take action, or at least snitch to someone who’ll take action.

Scenario 4: You post “Don’t work there. The people who run that dump have their heads up their asses, and the only reason they’re still around is a lack of competition and dumb luck.” using an anonymous throw-away account on Reddit. Iffy. Reddit has a large user base, but the details in your post or your writing style might give you away.

Scenario 5: Same as Scenario 4, but on Blind. Iffy. Blind is anonymous, but its user base is relatively small. There’s a much greater likelihood that what you post or your writing style might give you away.

Scenario 6: Same as Scenario 4, but on Facebook. A little risky if it’s a “friends only” posting, bad if it’s public. This is especially true with companies that have a social media team.

Scenario 7: Same as Scenario 4, but on LinkedIn. Superbad. Lots of people at a company scan for any mention of their company’s name on LinkedIn: social media teams, public relations, marketing, executives, and of course, the legal team.

If they find out, what they do in response depends on all sorts of factors, including:

  • What’s the size of the company? A small one with fewer resources, a big one with a PR, Marketing, and Legal team, or something in between?
  • Are they too busy to be concerned about you, or are they vindictive and lawsuit-happy?
  • What did you say? How much damage did you do to their reputation?
  • Are you worth going after?

Are there exceptions to the non-disparagement clause?

There are, and they include things such as:

  • Reporting a crime committed by someone at your former employer
  • Reporting criminal activity by your former employer
  • Providing negative information about your former employer to law enforcement or a government agency conducting an investigation
  • Filing a workers’ compensation claim

I read somewhere that non-disparagement clauses were rendered invalid in the same way that non-compete laws were. How about that?

I read it somewhere too.

I keep telling you: I am not a lawyer. Go ask one.

What I can definitively tell you, in spite of NOT being a lawyer, is that non-disparagement clauses are still being included in separation agreements, which are contracts. I know, because there was one in the one I signed.

Is there any reason I wouldn’t want to sign a separation agreement with a non-disparagement clause?

I’ve never had such a reason myself, but I’ve seen cases where that might be the case:

  • The reasons listed in the section about exceptions (see above)
  • If you are taking your former employer to court for harassment, bullying, or a similar reason
  • If there is something that the world really, really, really needs to know about your former employer
  • If you’re a free speech absolutist and you can get by without the severance

I’ve spoken with some people who’ve come to me for advice about their non-disparagement agreements because the thought of never saying anything bad about their old company really ground their gears.

In response, I asked them if there were any situations where they’ve opted to shut up rather than speak the truth because it was worth it:

  • Have you ever not said something or refused to answer a question because it was told to you in confidence or protect someone’s privacy? Even if doing so made you look bad or got you into trouble?
  • Have you ever refrained from expressing your true opinion about something because it would make the situation worse?
  • In a discussion with a spouse or partner, are there topics you won’t touch or things you won’t say because bringing them up will just create a world of hurt — or divorce?

This is a call that you have to make for yourself.

So what did you do, Joey?

Here’s what I’ve done with separation agreements that contain non-disparagement clauses. Please keep in mind that I am not a lawyer, and even if I were, I’m not your lawyer, and this is not legal advice:

I signed them.

I’ve also avoided saying, writing, or doing anything negative about those companies. But keep in mind that none of those places were anywhere near bad enough for me to breach the agreement and bad-mouth them to the world.

Even though I’m in a good spot financially and have savings to see me through this kind of situation, I signed and took the severance because any issue I have with my former employer isn’t worth as much as having extra money to extend my financial runway. The current job market is tough, and I want to have the reserves to ride out a long job search.

In my particular case — and remember, everyone’s case is different — I would come off more as an angry Yelp reviewer than an avenging angel if I were to publicly bad-mouth a former employer. To do so would be a waste of my time and effort that could be directed towards better things.

Instead, I moved on with my life to the next success, singing this song along the way…

…except in the part where he yells out “DJ Khaled!” I yell out “Accordion Guy!” instead.

Also in this series…