Advice for Laid-Off Engineers


The year 2009 began for many on an anxious note, on the heels of the 2008 financial crisis. Layoffs were everywhere. Foreclosures stalked them from town to town. By the fall, unemployment in America hit 30 million, over 10% of the population. But life goes on. Bills come in, mortgages come due. Looking for a job in this environment is no doubt a daunting, if not impossible, task. Against this backdrop, I profiled several entrepreneurs who managed to turn adversity into opportunity during the dotcom bust.

Kansas farm girl Michelle Munson is one such entrepreneur. Munson bucked her family's multi-generational agricultural tradition - raising cattle and growing wheat, corn, and soybeans - to study computer science. After a brief stint at IBM, she went to work for two technology startups in a row. Both went under, and Munson was laid off for no fault of her own.

"At the end of my time with the second company, I was burned out on startups," she recalls. "It was an ironic situation because startups are what I love. I poured myself into these companies. I worked almost as hard for them as I do now. But I was very disillusioned because I felt both had mismanaged their direction and their placement. I couldn't imagine working for someone else again."

So she didn't. In 2003, with $20,000 in seed money from her parents, Munson started her own venture, Aspera. She brought aboard her mentor, engineer Serban Simu, and the two developed software that transfers large data files at high speeds.

Fast forward five years. Emeryville, California-based Aspera had 400 customers and 42 employees. Munson and Simu took control of their destinies and built a profitable, multimillion-dollar company. What's more, they maintained full control as Aspera remained a self-funded venture for those five years.

Munson's message to the glut of engineers who had received pink slips: "Look at Aspera. The company I was at canned us all, and that's how I got here."

Michelle Munson and Serban Simu, her co-founder, were married in November 2009. In December 2013, IBM acquired Aspera.

Today, at the wake of the 2016 tech layoffs that threaten 260,000 people, these stories are especially important as evidence of how high the human spirit can soar. In the face of adversity, it is human endeavor, and human endeavor alone that can turn the tide. Of all the options before us, the one that presents the greatest potential as a solution for economic turnaround is this: entrepreneurs get to work, innovators apply their creativity, and in the process companies get built, jobs get created. To find work for 260,000 people, this process needs replication at a monumental scale. But necessity being the mother of all invention, my hope is that this downturn will spawn an unprecedented level of entrepreneurship and innovation, positioning us for a vibrant, robust future.

Photo credit:  IcE MaN/