'I'm still shocked': Tech workers offer insider account of mass layoffs

Three laid-off workers describe losing their jobs and how they're coping.

January 30, 2023, 5:04 AM

Layoffs have battered the tech industry in 2023, carrying over a series of job cuts that began last year. In all, about 50,000 people have lost their positions this month.

Tech giants such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon have led the sector in the size of their cuts. While a slew of smaller companies like Spotify, Vox Media and IBM have imposed layoffs too.

Sales at top tech firms have retreated from the blistering pace attained during the pandemic, when billions across the world were forced into isolation.

Company officials have often cited economic uncertainty in their layoff announcements.

While the large-scale job cuts sound economic alarm, they mark a more immediate, intimate rupture for the workers who suffer them. ABC News spoke with three laid-off workers about what the experience was like and how they're coping with it.

Nneoma Ajiwe, Spotify

What started as a normal morning turned into a surprise for 29-year-old Nneoma Ajiwe.

Around 5:14 am last Monday, Ajiwe says she received a calendar invite requesting her attendance in a one-on-one meeting with someone on Spotify's HR team.

The Spotify logo on a laptop computer arranged in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, Jan. 25, 2023.
Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg via Getty Images

"It's funny because the night before I was texting my coworker Tiktoks that we were laughing at and she's like 'I don't mean to alarm you' and sent this Bloomberg article about Spotify doing layoffs as early as this week," Ajiwe said. "I told her that we're probably okay."

Little did she know, she'd be one of the 6% of employees, roughly around 600, slashed from Spotify's workforce so far this year.

About an hour after Ajiwe received her calendar invite, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek sent out an email to employees breaking the news.

"I was literally driving on my way to the gym," Ajiwe said.

The Houston native is a 2016 graduate from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor's degree in public relations. She'd worked for a plethora of companies in the industry such as Billboard, Genius, Sirius XM and XXL Magazine but always saw her career at Spotify as "unattainable."

Ajiwe had applied five times before she was granted the job of social marketing manager for Spotify for Artists and Spotify Charts in May 2022.

Having been laid off from a different employer before, Ajiwe shared that she felt many different emotions this time around but the one that she felt just days after the Monday layoff was "annoyed."

"This sucks because I particularly loved this team. I just got there. I loved my job," Ajiwe said. "I'm still shocked and just trying to sort through feelings and think about what I need to do."

In response to a request for comment, Spotify provided the memo about the layoffs that Ek sent to employees.

"Like many other leaders, I hoped to sustain the strong tailwinds from the pandemic and believed that our broad global business and lower risk to the impact of a slowdown in ads would insulate us," Ek said. "In hindsight, I was too ambitious in investing ahead of our revenue growth."

Although layoffs can cause an immediate bout of financial trouble, Ajiwe works as a photographer on the side and calls herself a "good saver." Laid-off employees received an average of 5 months of severance pay, Ek said in the memo to employees.

In turn, she figures she will take a month or so to figure out her next move.

Ajiwe said she "wasn't devastated" by not having money coming in for a few months because of her side work.

"But it does suck because this was the highest I was making. It was my career," she said.

"I just think that with every opportunity that has closed for me, something better has always happened. I firmly believe that God is going to put me in a better place," Ajiwe said.

Jonathan Bellack, Google

Jonathan Bellack, 50, who worked at Google for nearly 15 years, said he knew his tenure was nearly over -- and he wanted it that way. Two months ago, he told the company he sought to leave early in 2023.

The reopening of Google office in a historical building at the Main Square in Krakow, Poland, Nov. 29, 2022.
NurPhoto via Getty Images

When he made the request, Bellack had expected Google to work with him on a plan for handing off his duties and saying goodbye. Instead, he didn't hear much, he said.

"I had an inkling that something was up," said Bellack, who lives in Montclair, New Jersey.

A self-described "workaholic," Bellack had climbed the ranks at Google, becoming a senior director of product management who oversaw a team of about 45 employees devoted to developing systems that protect users from phishing schemes and other attacks.

Over time, he came to enjoy the mentorship and relationships more than other parts of the job, he said.

Bellack says he woke up at about 5 a.m. on Jan. 20 and found an email telling him "'the company no longer has a position for you,'" he said.

His access to work email remained long enough for him to see another message announcing company-wide layoffs. Within minutes, he was locked out, he said.

In all, Google slashed 12,000 jobs or about 6% of its workforce. Having watched the onslaught of layoffs in the tech industry, Bellack wasn't surprised.

"It seemed like the thing all the cool kids were doing in Silicon Valley," he said of the layoffs.

Google did not respond to a request for comment. In an email to employees last Friday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said: "This will mean saying goodbye to some incredibly talented people we worked hard to hire and have loved working with."

The layoffs left Bellack "very torn," he said. The forced exit clarified his status, allowing him to move on; but he felt badly for colleagues who hadn't expected it.

"A lot of people had no idea that this was happening or that they might be involved," he said. "For them, it's obviously a shock."

Bellack is not worried about his financial outlook, he said, characterizing his previous job as "aggressively compensated." Further, he praised the severance package provided by the company, which gave departing employees a 16-week base compensation with an extra two weeks for every year of employment.

A new project already awaits, Bellack said. He has launched a consulting service that advises start-ups and other companies on how to grow.

The father of two sons, aged 9 and 14, Bellack looks forward to lunches with his wife and time with his kids, he said. Their first big move: Getting a dog.

"If you put that in the article, my 9-year-old will be excited," he said. "It'll mean I've firmly committed."

Phoebe Gavin, Vox

Phoebe Gavin, 37, the former executive director of talent and development at digital news outlet Vox, was laid off by the company last week. But she had been preparing for something like this ever since a "very scary situation" nearly a decade ago, she said.

In this photo illustration a Logo of Vox Media seen displayed on a smartphone.
Getty Images/FILE

In 2014, Gavin lost her job at a different media company. Lacking any savings, she had to "put everything on my credit card to get to my next job," she said. Since then, she said, she began placing 10% of every paycheck into savings and later cultivated a side gig as a career coach.

Last Friday, Gavin had a previously scheduled meeting with her boss, who told her she was being let go and that she should take the rest of the day off, she said. Vox Media, the parent company of Vox, laid off 130 workers, which amounts to 7% of its staff.

Gavin, who worked at Vox for a little more than a year, oversaw the internal experience of employees, so she said she understood what her manager could and couldn't say about the decision. "I wouldn't have expected her to tell me more," she said.

The news surprised Gavin, but she knew she worked in a tumultuous business.

"It was a little bit of shock and a little bit of 'well, I work in the media industry,'" she said.

Vox Media declined comment about the layoffs. In a memo to employees last Friday, Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff cited "the challenging economic environment impacting our business and industry."

After years of planning for a possible career setback, Gavin isn't worried about her finances, she said. In fact, she's ready to turn her side gig into a full-time job, having turned away clients from her career coaching business over the past six months.

"I've had to strike a balance of making sure the side hustle fit into side-hustle time -- I don't have to do that anymore," she said. "Instead of 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., I'll work on it from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m."

Gavin, who is Black, said her commitment to protecting her career owes in part to her knowledge that widespread job losses disproportionately affect people of color and women.

"That's something that as a society we clearly have to take strong steps to address," she said. "The system is not going to improve fast enough to keep us safe as individuals."

To weather the mental health challenges of job flux, Gavin says she will draw on therapy that has helped her assemble an "emotional toolbox," she said, noting that a more flexible schedule will help her do stress-relieving activities.

"I'm mostly focused on being able to go to the gym in the middle of the day when it's empty," she said. "One of the things that helps is picking up heavy things and putting them down."