Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Feb. 4, 1999: A day of a big IT layoff (for other people), even pre-Y2K: job losses have happened for decades


February 4. In 1999, that is, Such is a date that lives in employment infamy for some people. Now, it may not seem so remarkable in these days of massive layoffs. Back on that date in 1999, people who came to work in information technology at Prudential in a Minneapolis suburb found that they could not log on. “We all knew,” they said. I found out as a lot of their people came over to work for “us” by early March of that year.

In fact, they say, the security people kept telling them that it was just a glitch, until they were all called in to a meeting by HR and some woman from corporate mumbled the bad news, barely audibly, without making eye contact. All the staffers and managers adjourned to a Ruby Tuesday’s. “It was wonderful” they said.

I remember thinking then, how odd, to lay people off before Y2K, right in the middle of a widely publicized “War for Talent”.

My own layoff, in December 2001, would come suddenly, as my own work Netware account became disabled as I was on the phone helping an internal customer. There are different ways this happens.

In fact, in the late 1980s it had become common for large companies to consolidate data centers and applications after acquisitions. In the 1990s, the acquisitions were becoming too complex to do this that easily. Companies set up replication and mid-tier designs to absorb legacy systems from acquired companies, while having to keep those old systems running, often for years. Then, they seemed to need mainframers (especially not just COBOL but old mainframe Assembler) desperately as Y2K approached. As we know, Y2K became the crisis that never was. So a mass layoff by a major financial competitor less than a year before Y2K seemed odd.

Still, ever since the mid 1980s, consolidations and layoff cycles in IT have been common. For a number of years, they seemed to throw a lot of programmers into serial careers with small and less than the most resourceful organizations – I recall that from having seen a lot of resumes in those days. In the 1990s, believe it or not, some people still used DOS and UFAM.

I recall something else about the mentality around 1999 and even early 2000. Our stock price wasn’t rising enough and we were acquisition targets then because, as a C-suiter said in a meeting, our company name didn’t end with “dot com”. How quickly that would change! (Remember the dot-com bubble? The Nasdaq has never recovered completely from that.) Then there was the sales conference in August 2001, with a paid motivational speaker saying that the Dow would reach 35000 by mid decade.

All of this sounds like so much moralizing, beyond just poetic rambling. Remember, the age of individualism and “do it yourself” – particularly in computing and on the Net – rose partly because leadership didn’t always behave credibly, even then. Since then, we’ve really learned how weak our corporate and political leadership – at least behavior --- has been. We did this to ourselves, collectively, so no wonder a lot of us like the idea of being on our own. Truth seems to be winning out over Power after all. We’re still living in the age of Yang.

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