As the holiday season approached one year ago, it was increasingly clear the global economy was in a tailspin. Wall Street and Detroit were looking for government handouts, real estate had tanked, and unemployment was creeping toward levels not seen since the early 1980s.
While CNET chronicled more than its share of layoffs and company failures, we also wanted to put what was happening to the technology industry in human terms. What resulted was our "Faces of the recession" series, a set of profiles ranging from a laid-off Circuit City employee to a woman who cut the cord from cable television and saved big bucks.
In recent weeks, we revisited some of the people and places from the series. We found they had hunkered down, making do with less, picking up odd jobs, or starting on new careers. While economists and politicians still bicker about how to right the economy, life goes on for everyone else.
When Ben Klausner lost his job as a contract employee at Microsoft, he was one of few in Redmond who had lost work. The company had yet to announce any major layoffs and was only quietly paring back its temporary workforce. Since then, of course, Microsoft has cut the jobs of 5,800 of its own workers and continued to pare back its spending on vendors and contractors.
For Klausner, who remains out of work a year later, that has meant even more competition. Klausner said he has been applying for tons of jobs in IT architecture and network security but gets very few interviews.
For now, Klausner says he continues to plug away, "mostly keeping my head down, and trying not to spend money." But the odds, he knows, are long. "It's a buyer's market. Recruiters tell me they get hundreds of resumes for every posting."
One year ago, biofuel start-up Mascoma was hunkering down. The Boston-based company laid off staff, including its former president and senior executives, and prioritized its most promising development work over other projects.
Mascoma has survived the nasty financial environment, but money is still tight.
"Banks are still getting their houses in order before they are willing to put new loans on the books," said Bruce Jamerson, the chairman of Mascoma. "Young companies in new sectors--that's a little bit of a different risk profile than lending to Coca-Cola."
Mascoma has already benefited from federal and state grants. Now Jamerson is spending a lot of his time in Washington lobbying Congress to free up some of the loan guarantees set aside in renewable energy programs.
"There's still strong interest in what we're doing because so many people see this as inevitable--we have to replace petroleum with a low-carbon alternative that costs less and has less price volatility," Jamerson said.
"Cybercrime continues unabated and social engineering is at an all-time high in terms of the success rate," Warren said in a recent interview. "There are more opportunities for cybercriminals to make money, in part using forums to buy and sell stolen data... People are losing their life savings."
Meanwhile, budget crises in governments mean there are fewer law enforcement resources to fight cybercrime and help victims, according to Warren. "The state and local guys still have received no additional funds to help their communities, while the number of victims continues to grow," she said.
A year ago, longtime programmer Dennis Hescox had just released his first iPhone app, Maze Wars Revisited, and was optimistic that the game, and its success, would be his ticket to a stable financial future.
Unfortunately, that rosy vision didn't pan out. Maze Wars Revisited sold poorly. "Last year," he recalls, "the iPhone [App Store] was still so new that all the obvious apps were still to be done. Now, most of [them] have been done. To do something that will actually make money, it has to solve a real problem, and that typically takes a team."
Still, Hescox's economic fortunes may well be looking up. While he'd hoped Maze Wars would catch fire and cement his bona fides as a hit indie app maker, there was always a plan B: to establish himself as someone with the skills to make good apps, and to get hired by others to do so. A few contracts later, plan B is working a bit. The work is coming, though it's not steady.
Hescox still hopes his talent in this hottest of markets--there are 100,000 iPhone apps, and counting--will land him something full time. "I'm still open for contracts," Hescox said. "But a nice job would be good."
One year after earning the dubious honor of ranking among the cities most hit by real estate foreclosures, times are still rough in Modesto, Calif., where the real estate crash was among the worst in the country.
Apple chose Modesto as the site of its 250th retail store in the U.S. last fall--just as the 2008-2009 recession started to hit, fueled by the collapse of the real estate market. Yet as Apple continues to flourish, Modesto is struggling with unemployment and crime.
Apple did decide in early 2009 to limit the pace of its retail expansion, but that brief pause ended in October. New Apple stores are planned throughout the country, and another gleaming New York store opened in November.
Back in Modesto, however, foreclosures continue to plague the local economy as unemployment remains high. The unemployment rate in Stanislaus County, where Modesto is the county seat, came in at 16.6 percent in October 2009, well above the state average of 12.5 percent and national average of 10.2 percent. Likewise, Modesto ranked third in the number of foreclosures among cities with 200,000 or more residents in October, behind Las Vegas and Vallejo-Fairfield, Calif.
You don't need a satellite TV when times get tough
Debra James isn't afraid to cut the cable cord and has been encouraging her friends to do the same since we spoke with her last year. In June, she bought three used Dell Studio Hybrids for $700, and she gave them to family members because they said they had wanted to give up subscription television.
So far her niece has cut the cord. But her father and brother-in-law have been slower.
She also said that she has noticed better quality video and a wider variety of offerings online now. And she also noted that there are more choices in hardware that can be used to access online content and connect to their TVs to view it.
Still on the to-do list: shifting her viewing to watching more on free, over-the-air sources, and dealing with the prospect of video-sharing sites like Hulu charging for some of their content.
For a Net consultant, a crisis, then a silver lining
Steve Borsch, a social media networking consultant in Minnesota, ran smack into the recession. But the crisis fired up his survival instinct and made him take a fresh look at his business. A year later, business has picked up--though not in the way he expected, and his income still is down 25 percent compared to previous years.
"There is a growing amount of consulting work with start-ups and innovators, and it has become key to my business," he said. "That work has grown faster than my previous consulting engagements with established Fortune 500 companies," which are using larger, traditional consulting firms. He's also become a blogger about education issues for publisher Scholastic.
And he learned a lot along the way--"Basically, to place my ego on the shelf and hit my personal reset button, and not get hung up on the types of engagements I'd take, the level of project I'd be willing to propose and perform," he said. "The result has been more work than I'd hoped for one year ago."
Once T.K. Campo's Circuit City store closed for good in late 2008 as part of the chain's Chapter 11 bankruptcy, he had every intention of looking for another job in electronics retail, a field he enjoyed as a sales associate. With none to be found, as a second choice he took a position as a line cook at a cafe in his hometown of Scottsdale, Ariz., in order to support Riley, his 2-year-old son.
But after three months, Campo, 22, was again among the ranks of the unemployed. In his home state, the unemployment rate has crept up from 6.2 percent a year ago to 9.3 percent today. After trolling Craigslist for new opportunities, Campo gave up on looking for full-time work, and opted to go back to school.
He started his second stint at Arizona State University this fall, where he is now studying secondary education in mathematics in hopes of one day being a high school calculus teacher. He also found a job that is a far cry from Circuit City, but is better than nothing, he says.
"I found one at school, it's just six hours a week, though," he said recently. The job? A nude model for students in ASU's art department. "It's the only job I've been able to get." The one problem is, he says, "there (aren't) exactly a lot of hours available for it."