High Tech Wreck

Note: This article first appeared in May 2004.

“I didn’t expect it to be this way,” said Mark Harper, fiddling with the lid of his cup as he sat at a coffee shop across from the downtown Portland office of his old employer. “I worked hard, went to graduate school, made what looked like the right career moves, then poof—it was all gone.”

After becoming a software engineer and staying one for almost fifteen years, Harper had accumulated all the traditional trappings of a 40-year-old high-tech male professional—a wife, two children, a house, a car, 401(k), and an abundance of optimism about the endless opportunity of the high-tech industry. But in late 2001, the bottom fell out of his world when he and 27 of his coworkers were suddenly handed severance checks and told to immediately clear out their desks.

Most were stunned, but Harper said he walked out with a smile on his face, not knowing what would happen next. “I had been burnt out for a few years,” Harper said. “After getting hired by the California company that bought the startup I worked at, I realized that I just couldn’t do it any longer. I couldn’t make software anymore, couldn’t keep it going.” Harper said that after he walked out the office that day and called his wife with the news, they both heaved a sigh of relief. It had been a stressful few years for both of them.

For the first several weeks, Harper met former coworkers and friends, commiserating over the gloomy happenings in the high tech industry, and talking about what to do next. But as Harper talked to other people like him, he realized something was wrong. “I didn’t want to be part of that world anymore”, he said. “I just couldn’t imagine another 25 years of sitting in a cubicle, writing code and making products that basically did what other stuff already did, then watching the marketeers go out and try and convince people that they needed what we had, and they needed every future upgrade of it. I was finished.”

Gradually, visits with former coworkers became less frequent, Harper said, until after about two years he had completely lost touch with most of them. Many went on to find new jobs in the industry; a few moved away.

Harper began volunteering at the nonprofit where his wife worked, offering to set up computers and teach employees how to use database spreadsheet software. When employees began to point out how good Harper was at explaining things, Harper realized that he really enjoyed teaching people. “It was satisfying,” he said. “At first, I was still walking around complaining about my lack of career prospects, but once I started to get over it and look around, I realized that I was enjoying myself.”

Between August 2001 and December 2002, nearly 36,000 jobs disappeared in Oregon, according to the Oregon Employment Department. Unofficial estimates place that figure at closer to 50,000, with as many as 12,000 jobs lost by professionals in the high tech industry. As of May 2004, less than 10% of those jobs have returned, leading many to wonder if they’ll ever be back.

Marty Weintraub, an Unemployment Specialist at the Oregon Employment Department, has seen a lot of changes in the people coming through the downtown employment office in the past two years. “I’ve seen guys who made 100K, 150K a year coming in and filing for unemployment, right alongside fast food workers looking to fill the gap between jobs,” Weintraub said. “I’ve watched them get desperate, then mad, then disillusioned as benefits ran out,” he added.

Weintraub said that the only difference between late 2001 and today was that he saw fewer people applying for benefits. “But I’m not seeing a return of white-collar jobs,” he said; “it’s probably because there aren’t any more benefits available, and most of them have just given up.”

Harper agrees. “I know at least a half-dozen people who had to sell their houses to get out from under mortgage payments”, he said. “The only thing that saved us was having a decent mortgage that we got in the mid-90’s before prices in Portland skyrocketed.”

Harper shakes his head when he hears about people moving to Portland. “Why?” he asks. “It can’t be for jobs or affordable housing. What do they expect to find?”

But Harper is more cheerful when he talks about his idea for a new business. He wants to find a way to make low-cost training software for organizations like his wife’s nonprofit, and he thinks he’s found a niche. “The folks that need it the most can afford it the least,” Harper says. “I want to find a way to get them access to it, to harness technology and make it work for them. It may take awhile to make money at it, but at this point, I can’t imagine going back to working for a big software company churning out garbage. I almost get ill when I see a cubicle.”

Harper’s wife arrived to pick him up, parking an old blue station wagon across the street. “We got that car last year, got rid of the new minivan”, he said, on cue. “To tell you the truth, we should’ve just bought the station wagon in the first place.”

Harper’s wife smiles when she sees us, taking a seat at the table and squeezing his arm. “Has he talked you into going into business with him yet?” she said. “Not yet,” I said. “Not yet.”