Getting Fired: Not The End Of The World

Talin on 2018-12-21

Engineering Insights

My goal in writing this Engineering Insights series is offer guidance to aspiring software engineers, particularly in areas other than just teaching them how to code. This includes topics such as working in teams, assessing risks, and recognizing recurring patterns.

In this essay, I want to cover one of the most traumatic experiences that you may face — getting fired. In particular, I want to share some of my own experiences, and offer some strategies for coping. For that reason, much of this essay is autobiographical, because I want readers to understand that “I’ve been there too.”

Most people won’t talk about the experience of getting fired, particularly not on a public forum like Medium. It’s embarrassing, for one thing; worse, there’s a fear that such an admission could negatively impact future hiring prospects.

However, in my case, I have little to lose by discussing my past failures; I’m a successful software engineer nearing the age of retirement. I have the freedom to be a little more open and not worry about the consequences.

That being said, I want to begin with an important caveat: being an experienced software engineer with a long resume, living in Silicon Valley, I recognize that I am extraordinarily privileged. If I were to lose my current job today, I could be working at another company in a week or two. In fact, I’d have my pick of dozens of job offers.

But not everyone is so privileged, and it’s important to remember that. Someone working in a different industry, in a different region, with a different background, might have vastly greater challenges finding a new job. It is vital, I think, to have compassion and understanding for people who are in these situations, and not assume that just because you are playing the game on “easy mode” that this will be true of everyone else.

Yes, I’ve been fired. More than once.

Nor am I alone; some of the brightest and most productive people I know have also had the experience of being fired. Even Steve Jobs got fired in 1985, if you recall.

(I’ve had the exact opposite experience as well — being the last person to leave a dying company.)

The first time I got fired was in 1981, shortly after I left the Air Force. The job was at IMED, a medical instrument company, and the job was writing COBOL programs for inventory control.

In fact, I only lasted a month. Part of the reason was that I hated the work, and was miserable working there. But another reason was that I was young and stupid; I had a lot of technical knowledge but hadn’t really learned how to behave as a professional. As someone who is compulsively creative (innovating makes me feel good), I would constantly engage in brainstorming and ideation, in particular the “no idea is too bad” kind of wild speculation that can sometimes be annoying. This was not the behavior they wanted.

When my manager called me in and told me I was being let go, I was utterly taken aback; I had no idea that I had done anything wrong.

How do I feel about this today? I am very glad that it happened. If I had continued working there, I would have been miserable; but it would never have occurred to me to quit on my own volition. By firing me, he did me an enormous favor.

I got fired a second time just a few months later; this was a similar job at an elevator company, doing accounting software. As before, the work was uninteresting and I was bored out of my mind. Moreover, I couldn’t understand how my co-workers could treat programming as “just a job” — to me, programming was a devotion, a way of life. Computers were the key to freedom.

This time, when I was told I was being fired, my reaction was that of immense relief — “Oh, thank God!”

After this, I moved back in with my mom for a while (see earlier comment about privilege), and took some classes paid for by my veteran’s benefits (ditto). I also did occasional contracting work for small software companies. The next time I got a “real” job was 1984, and I was much more successful — I lasted as long as the company (DataSoft) did. Afterwards, I had a long career creating computer games and music software, which I have written about elsewhere.

What were the lessons I learned from these experiences?

The first one is that they are, in fact, lessons. That being fired is a teachable moment. That the problems which lead to termination are likely fixable with time and effort (in my case, it was several years before I fully absorbed what had gone wrong). You should avoid thinking that your inadequacy is some intrinsic characteristic which cannot be changed.

Another lesson is that being fired doesn’t necessarily mean you are a bad worker; it’s more likely that you were a bad fit. In my case, part of the reason I was able to function better at DataSoft, compared to earlier companies, was the nature of the work: I enjoyed working with personal computers much more than working on mainframe computers in COBOL. It was also an industry which was much more exciting and innovative, which matched well with my need to be creative.

Being fired forced me to come to terms about the kind of job I wanted and needed; Every company I have worked for since then is one that I was passionate about — it was never “just a job”.

A third lesson is this: being fired has never impacted my ability to find another job afterwards. Of course, I did not openly admit that I had been previously fired. Luckily, prospective employers are usually very circumspect about asking why you left your previous job; they don’t expect you to volunteer the fact that you were terminated.

A potential employer will contact previous employers listed on your resume. Most of the time the previous employer will only offer minimal information, such as how long you worked and what your job title was. Although they are not legally restricted from saying that you were fired, most companies avoid doing so because of concerns about lawsuits and other liabilities. (Of course, the laws concerning employment will vary from place to place, so YMMV.)

What if they do ask the question, “Why did you leave your previous job?” How should you respond? Here’s some general rules of thumb:

  1. Don’t lie — you will be caught. For example, don’t claim that you were laid off when in fact you were fired.
  2. You can, however, put a positive spin on it. For example, you my want to subtly imply that your reasons for leaving wouldn’t be applicable in the new environment.
  3. Be brief, don’t dwell on your failures, and don’t express bitterness at what happened. There’s no need to go into details or give excuses.

Here’s a concrete example: if part of the reason why you got fired is that you were unhappy working at that company, I think it’s all right to just say “I wasn’t happy working there.”

When I look at a resume for a candidate, I’m not looking to find “black marks”, specific cases where that individual did poorly or was fired. As an interviewer, I’m not interested in the details of any single incident. Instead, I am looking for general recurring patterns of behavior and attitude.

Thus, if an individual worked for a dozen different companies in a five year period, and there’s no apparent reason for it, I would be concerned. Conversely, if I knew that someone was fired many years ago, but hasn’t had any problems since then, then I would most likely dismiss the earlier episode as irrelevant — an anomalous data point.

The final lesson is this: each of the times I have been fired, the eventual outcome was positive; I was better off having left that company than I would be if I had stayed.

A friend of mine, who founded a successful consulting firm, agrees: “Getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Time for a fresh start, a new journey of discovery.


See Also

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