If you’ve read about layoffs recently, there’s a good chance you read about the number of tech jobs lost in the past year. If you did, that number almost certainly came from one very small, very scrappy database: layoffs.fyi.
Layoffs.fyi is not a government agency or an “official” source of truth. It’s one guy, Roger Lee, in San Francisco’s foggy Inner Sunset. Lee, an entrepreneur currently leading a salary transparency startup with 33 employees, has never been laid off. He has never laid anyone off. Yet in the past two weeks, his job numbers have found their way into nearly every major media outlet in the country.
I tried to start a tracker for news stories citing Lee’s tracker about layoffs, but quickly gave up: Layoffs.fyi has been recently cited by dozens of outlets including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the BBC, NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg, Forbes, Insider, Fortune, Vox, Axios, Tech Crunch, BuzzFeed, Fox Business, CNBC, USA Today, and yours truly.
A number of outlets have asked Lee for his views as a layoffs expert. (He dispensed his thoughts, for example, to CNBC on the correlation between interest rates and lost jobs. Reader, I also asked.) Lee says that his wife, a doctor, thinks these requests are crazy. “As she points out,” Lee said, “You’re just some dude.”
Lee started the website in March 2020 when he was “kind of on paternity leave” from his job as a startup founder. He keeps it updated with every tech layoff he can find, sourcing from credible reporting and press releases. “It’s kind of a surreal experience every day to be reading and posting layoff news,” Lee told me. “I’ve read, at this point, over 1,000 articles about tech layoffs.”
His pet project is depressing. “It’s not layoffs and kittens dot fyi,” he quipped in an interview with the San Francisco Business Times in 2020. Later, he joked that he should buy that URL.
These days, layoffs.fyi gets about a million hits a month. His tracker does what the U.S. government cannot: It provides nationwide data of specific companies that have laid off specific numbers of employees. In contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics relies on representative surveys to calculate jobs lost or gained. Because these surveys are voluntary—and because layoffs are embarrassing—the BLS keeps participating companies anonymous.
While Lee’s tracker is more transparent than BLS data—he names companies and links to his sources—it is as not methodologically rigorous, particularly when it comes to defining tech companies. “There’s no strict definition,” Lee told me. “If they sell software, that’s obviously a tech company. If they’ve raised venture capital funding, then usually I’ll count them as a tech company as well.” He included Capital One, a bank, because it laid off roles exclusively in its technology department. (In turn, I included Capital One on a ranking of recent tech layoffs.) But, Lee said, “I might change my mind.”
This definitional squishiness is exactly why Lee’s tracker is cited so often. The tech industry is loaded with cultural significance—but is also a made-up category. OK, sure: Arguably, all categories are made up. But inconveniently for journalists, this one does not map neatly to the made-up categories the government uses for statistical purposes.
The North American Industry Classification System has, roughly, worked off one blueprint since 1997; its categories are based on the industry in which a company makes the most revenue or invests the most capital. The dot-com boom redefined the “technology industry” in the popular imagination, a squishy idea that has expanded and shifted around since.
Amazon sells back-end infrastructure that powers most of the modern web, but from the government’s point of view, Amazon is in the “retail trade” industry. Alphabet, Meta, and Twitter were long in the “other” category within the information industry; layoff data for the information sector also includes data for journalism and Hollywood.
It is essentially impossible to slice BLS information to get a “tech sector” that would feel intuitive to Lee and to the rest of us. For anyone looking for a quick tally of tech layoffs, then, Lee’s site is a godsend. But for similar reasons, it is risky to turn to this tracker for macroeconomic trends.
Are “tech” layoffs better or worse than layoffs in other industries? We don’t know (if we compare Lee’s numbers to the BLS) because companies like Amazon could be double counted. Are technology roles taking a new hit compared to recent years, or are most cuts still in functions like sales and recruiting? Lee’s tracker also can’t answer that question.
It is, however, “directionally very valuable,” Lee said. His data shows more than twice as many tech layoffs in 2022 than in 2020; layoffs continuing at a similar pace in 2023; and layoffs impacting large companies in a way that was not happening early in the pandemic.
But Lee never set out to answer questions like that, anyway. He wanted the site to be a tool for recruiters. “My hope was that by giving more visibility to these tech layoffs, I could help the laid off employees find new jobs more quickly.” He believes that the pandemic made layoffs less shameful and that transparency about layoffs should be the norm.
Lee, a serial entrepreneur, founded his first company at 16. A proto social network that hosted AOL instant messenger profiles, it made him a millionaire. He then attended Harvard College with Zuckerberg as Facebook was taking off, and sometimes wondered what it would be like to be in the wunderkind’s shoes. Ultimately, though, he is happy that he lives a quieter life. “I’m not sure I’d be ready to put myself and my family through that,” he told me.
I asked what he would have done if he had Zuckerberg’s job during the pandemic. Would he have scaled up and then laid off more than 11,000 employees, as Meta did in November? Lee paused. “I don’t envy the position he’s in,” he said.
Currently, Lee is working on a new startup, Comprehensive.io, that helps companies better integrate and understand their data in order to make salaries more equitable. On that site, he is hosting a new tracker that keeps tabs on which companies are complying with recently-enacted salary transparency laws in states like California and New York.
“I almost see it as the inverse of layoffs.fyi where I can start tracking some happier news for a change,” he said, noting that, “tech companies are still very much hiring, and salaries are still very robust for a lot of the in-demand roles.”
Meanwhile, I noticed, he still hasn’t bought layoffsandkittens.fyi. “Are you worried about a copycat site?” I asked. Lee declined to comment. I pushed, and asked whether some adjustments could be made to layoffs.fyi. “There aren’t currently kittens on the site—could there be?”
“Ideas welcome!” he said. “My kids would be very happy if they saw pictures of kittens on the website instead of just numbers.”
Layoff news—and ideas for how to incorporate cats—Lee says, can both be submitted through his tips form.