How Big Tech’s pandemic bubble burst

New York
CNN
 — 

In January 2021, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella spoke in lofty terms about how the first year of the pandemic had sparked a staggering shift toward online services, benefiting his company in the process. “What we have witnessed over the past year is the dawn of a second wave of digital transformation sweeping every company and every industry,” he said.

Two years later, the situation appears much more stark. This week, Microsoft said it planned to lay off 10,000 employees as businesses rethink their pandemic-era digital spending and confront broader economic uncertainty. Microsoft’s customers, Nadella said, are now trying “to do more with less.”

Microsoft isn’t the only company experiencing such a dramatic reversal. Days later, Google-parent company Alphabet followed suit, saying it plans to cut around 12,000 jobs, amounting to more than 6% of its staff.

Over the past three months, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Facebook-parent Meta have announced plans to cut more than 50,000 employees from their collective ranks, a stunning reversal from the early days of the pandemic when the tech giants were growing rapidly to meet surging demand from countless households living, shopping and working online. At the time, many tech leaders seemed to expect that growth to continue unabated.

By September of 2022, Amazon

(AMZN) had more than doubled its corporate staff compared to the same month in 2019, hiring more than half a million additional workers and vastly expanding its warehouse footprint. Meta nearly doubled its headcount between March 2020 and September of last year. Microsoft

(MSFT) and Google

(GOOGL GOOGLE) also hired thousands of additional workers, as did other tech firms like Salesforce

(CRM), Snap

(SNAP) and Twitter, all of which have announced layoffs in recent weeks, too.

But many of those same leaders appear to have misjudged just how much growth spurred by the pandemic would continue once people returned to their offline lives.

In recent months, higher interest rates, inflation and recession fears causing a pullback in advertising and consumer spending have all weighed on tech companies’ profits and share prices. Wall Street analysts now project single-digit revenue growth during the all-important December quarter for Google, Microsoft and Amazon, and declines for Meta and Apple, when they report earnings in the coming weeks, according to Refinitiv estimates.

The recent cuts in most cases amount to a relatively small percentage of each company’s overall headcount, essentially erasing the last year of gains for some but leaving them with tens or in some cases hundreds of thousands of remaining workers. But it nonetheless upends the lives of many workers now left to search for new jobs after their employers exit a period of seemingly limitless growth.

“They went from being on top of the world to having to make some really tough decisions,” said Scott Kessler, global sector lead for technology, media and telecommunications at investment firm Third Bridge. “To see this dramatic reversal of fortunes… it’s not just the magnitude of these moves but the speed that they’ve played out. You’ve seen companies make the wrong strategic decisions at the wrong times.”

Apple

(AAPL) remains an outlier as the one major tech company that has yet to announce layoffs, although the iPhone maker has reportedly instituted a hiring freeze of all areas except research and development. Apple

(AAPL) grew its staff by 20% from 2019 through last year, markedly less than some of its peers.

“They’ve taken a more seemingly thoughtful approach to hiring and overall managing the company,” Kessler said.

Tech CEOs, from Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg to Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, have blamed themselves for over-hiring early on in the pandemic and misreading how a surge in demand for their products would cool once Covid-19 restrictions eased. Pichai on Friday also took the blame for Alphabet’s cuts, and said he plans to return the company’s focus to its core business and “highest priorities.”

“The fact that these changes will impact the lives of Googlers weighs heavily on me, and I take full responsibility for the decisions that led us here,” Pichai said in an email to employees that was posted to the company’s website Friday.

Notably, however, none of the Big Tech company CEOs now overseeing layoffs appear to have been hit with any change to their compensation or title.

The tech layoff announcements are likely to continue into the upcoming earnings season, Kessler said, amid ongoing economic warning signs. And even companies that might not yet be feeling the pain may follow their peers’ lead in trimming their workforces.

“I think there is an element of [some companies saying], ‘We might not see this right now but all these other big companies, these companies that we compete with, that we know, that we respect, are taking these kinds of actions, so maybe we should be thinking and acting accordingly,” Kessler said.