Leaving the tech industry gave Ashley Morgan peace and optimism she says she never had before. Morgan spent more than a decade in marketing roles at tech companies, most recently employed by a West Coast software firm. But she says she felt constant pressure to deliver on growing demands, undervalued, under-compensated and underrepresented, especially as a woman of colour. Her career eventually took a toll on her mental health and her family, and in June she called it quits.
Now, the 40-year-old St. Louis resident is marketing her own plant-based skin-care company, called Whip It Goods Skincare, which was born out of home remedies she created for her daughter's eczema. After leaving her tech job, she sleeps easier, feels lighter and wakes up excited, she says. She's grateful she left before the tech industry's mass layoffs, she says.
"All that glitters is not gold," she said referring to the allure of a high-profile tech job. "You get very attractive salaries, but you pay a price for that."
As tech companies large and small slash their head counts, tens of thousands of tech workers have found themselves unemployed and unsure about their next moves. Google, Meta, Amazon and Salesforce are among some of the largest companies that have made cuts. Even the pandemic darling Zoom recently said it planned to lay off 15 percent of its staff. The result is a labour market that is flooded with cross-functional tech talent.
But some workers who recently left the industry say they've found fulfillment shifting to non-tech ventures that are passion projects, socially engaging or lifelong dreams. Still, their journeys haven't been without challenges, including attracting customers and being more judicious with money.
After nearly two decades of helping programmers, Chris Phipps is writing sketches for live comedy. The former IBM Watson lead in artificial intelligence and natural language processing delivery had always dreamed of getting into entertainment. Although his area of technology expertise is hot with the release of AI-powered chatbots such as ChatGPT from Open AI, the 52-year-old Los Angeles resident says he's happy in a non-tech job.
We've all basically gotten the wake-up call that the honeymoon is over. Tech employees are just employees; we're not special.
"I haven't been this emotional about anything in 10 years," he said. "It's always been a dream for me."
Phipps joined the tech industry as a linguist in 2004, when companies were scooping up academics as subject matter experts. But his work became more mundane as IBM Watson matured, he said. And now, other tech companies also are having to reconcile with big business problems, including the challenge of growing their profits, he said.
"We've all basically gotten the wake-up call that the honeymoon is over," he said. "Tech employees are just employees; we're not special."
Pursue your passion
Sara Wampler, most recently senior operations manager for consumer products at Google, also wanted to pursue her passion: writing. Wampler, 41, worked three stints at Google in various operations roles. She says the maturation of tech also affected her. She joined Google out of college in 2003, when the company employed about 1,500 people. Now, Google employs more than 150,000.
"It felt like there were opportunities to learn something new every day," Wampler said, adding that she spent six months in India to help open offices there. "But now . . . it's harder to have the generalist approach to learn adjacent new things."
It's really given me a chance to take a breath. My heart rate dropped 10 beats per minute within a month of leaving my job.
Wampler said the slowing pace of change and the approval-riddled requirements to try new things ultimately led her to quit. She moved from Denver to her small Iowa agricultural hometown of 430 people outside Des Moines to focus on her writing career. Wamper, who uses the pen name Sara Ramsey, is working on her first fantasy book after publishing seven romance novels.
"It's really given me a chance to take a breath," she said, adding that her heart rate dropped 10 beats per minute within a month of leaving her tech job.
Jerry Haagsma, a former software engineer and technical lead at Square, is working on a passion project that dates to college. The 31-year-old San Francisco resident left tech only after seeing some of his peers take temporary breaks. He runs his own craft popcorn company, Jerrypop.
He initially planned on reentering tech in a year. But now that he's spent 10 months entirely dedicated to popcorn and his indie rock band, Your Fearless Leader, he's not sure if or when he'll return.
"My goal is just to not have to go back to software engineering," he said. Jerrypop "has been an opportunity to let my creativity shine in ways people directly appreciate."
Haagsma got into popcorn when his college roommates' parents delivered a 10-pound tin of popcorn kernels. After tiring of the flavor, he and his friends started spicing it up. Now, he peddles popcorn flavors including habanero ranch and peanut butter and jelly through his website and at Bay Area pop-ups and bars. As a one-man operation, he is responsible for everything, including web design, marketing and cooking, popping between 30 and 300 bags a week.
"Even if the business doesn't [succeed], I'm happy," he said. "I just don't want to be older saying, 'I wish I would've given popcorn a shot.'"
For Thomas Crawford, a former Tinder director of training and quality assistance, it was all about pursuing longtime dreams. The Los Angeles resident left his job in September after serving tech companies, including Amazon, for 17 years. At his most recent job, he said he was responsible for four different departments.
"I was getting to the point where I was waking up every day and not looking forward to work," he said. "I was losing the enjoyment, and the stress was getting to me."
So the 43-year-old guitar player left tech to apply his skills to the music industry. He's devoting his time to his metal industrial band, Fleischkrieg, and is hoping to become a band manager someday.
Crawford said he might have to go back into tech to financially support his music career, though. But he'd prefer to be a consultant or individual contributor rather than a manager to mitigate stress and allow time for music.
Brian Bahena says stress is ultimately what led him to leave tech for a more social job. Bahena, who was a biology major in college, quit the financial technology firm Blend in July. He said his career took a turn after he was tapped for a managerial role at Livongo, which is part of the virtual health-care company Teledoc.
"I took that leap and realized I took too many steps before I was ready," said the 27-year-old. "At a lot of tech companies, people get thrown into higher-level roles without much experience."
You will always have the marketable skills to get you into those [tech] roles. But you may never have that opportunity that's tugging at your heartstrings if you don't just go for it. If not now, then when?
His appointment came right before the pandemic lockdowns, which eliminated his usual stress outlets. He said he tried to raise his concerns to others but felt people more often than not "normalised" his stress. After realising he was skipping meals and pacing his bathroom an hour before work, he quit the job. He picked up a role at Blend while bartending on the side. But he wasn't fulfilled, he said.
"The more I thought about it, the more I realized I enjoy bartending more," he said, adding that both his and his cat's health and well-being have improved. "I work a shift and unplug. I don't have to constantly be looking at Slack."
Bahena had planned to bartend for only six months - a mark he passed last month. He still isn't seeking to return to tech any time soon.
Morgan, the skin-care entrepreneur, said that not even a million-dollar paycheck could make her go back. The stress and anxiety just aren't worth it. Her advice for laid-off tech workers who may be at a crossroads: Trust yourself.
"You will always have the marketable skills to get you into those [tech] roles," she said. "But you may never have that opportunity that's tugging at your heartstrings if you don't just go for it. If not now, then when?"