Reassurance for Women Returning to IT After an Absence

By Esther Schindler

There are plenty of good reasons to take time off from your IT career. Maybe you took time off for full-time parenting, or perhaps you needed to care for an aging relative. But when it’s time to go back to work – well, it’s frightening.

Fortunately, you aren’t alone. And you have more resources than you may realize.

I’m writing this advice primarily for women, though it applies to men as well. However, even in this more-enlightened age, it’s often women who take on the caregiver role and drop out of the workplace for a few years. But whoever you are, getting back is hard. And you may not even know how to start.

“My husband was terminally ill. I took time off to be his 24-hour at-home care and then to grieve his loss,” says Meryll. But, she says, it was impossible to find decent work after her three-year hiatus, in spite of 20 years of high tech work. Recruiters were no help. Eventually, she took a difficult job as a contractor at 60% of her previous pay rate, just to get current experience for her resume. And, Meryll adds, “There was no one to turn to for help. There are no safety nets that I have found.”

Meryll’s situation isn’t unique, by any means. However, there are a few more safety nets and resources than she knew about.

Let’s Enumerate Those Challenges and Fears

Scared of re-entering the tech workforce? It’s understandable. Here are some of the challenges and fears you may be facing:

  • You’re afraid your tech skills are out of date. You need to come up to speed with current technology and tools.
  • Even though you have years of experience, you’re treated as a beginner in job prospects and salary. “I found myself in a spot where I was overqualified for entry level, and under-qualified for much of anything else,” one woman told me.
  • You aren’t sure what to put in that blank spot on your resume. How do you explain the absence from the work force in a positive way?
  • Depending on the length of the hiatus, you may also face ageism issues.

All these worries may feed into your existing insecurities, such as a fear that you don’t know enough (even when you do). But don’t overstress. Yes, it can be terrifying, but you aren’t the only person who’s gone through this process.

“Some may find it daunting to go back to work after years or even just a year away, especially in tech, which changes so rapidly,” says LaCinda Clem, executive director of Robert Half Technology. “But finding a new IT job after a break shouldn’t cause fear or dread.”

Need a practical road map? Here are useful steps you can take:

  • Learn which of your tech skills have gone stale and which need to be updated.
  • Build a professional network. You need mentors, technology advisors, and occasionally – as in any job search – a shoulder to cry on.
  • Get the skills you lack, whether by self-learning or external training.
  • Set your expectations realistically. Fine-tune the your business presentation when it’s time to start interviewing.

Find Supportive People

As you consider returning to the full-time workforce, build a network of people who can help you – for both emotional and professional reasons.

You may already have that social circle. “The best resource I used was the professional network I had developed before the hiatus,” says Silvana Gaia, technical consultant at Belatrix Software. “LinkedIn was, and is, a great tool, but its efficiency is based on the trusted relations you developed during your previous career path.”

If you have the opportunity to think ahead before you take that hiatus, put special attention on keeping in touch. “The main thing that I did was to keep my networks active,” says Carol, who was a senior programmer before she took time off for family reasons. That made it easier to get back into her career; a previous team was staffing up for a new project and someone reached out.

But don’t only call on your old buddies. Deliberately cultivate new connections who are in the same position you are, or who graduated from that situation and can share encouragement and advice. Do so in any manner that makes you comfortable; nothing requires you to be an extrovert, and many women find it easier to speak with other women. This can be an online community like the Systers e-mail list (I’ve been a member for more than 20 years), a Facebook group, Quora, in-person meet-ups (such as those organized by Lean In), or attending the Grace Hopper Celebration (and, incidentally, the GHC Career Fair).

Sysamone Phaphon is an alumna of MotherCoders, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help women with kids on-ramp to careers in tech. “I joined a couple of private Moms-in-Tech groups on Facebook and also joined general Women-in-Tech groups,” she says. Those community groups were judgment-free zones and provided moral support from others who had the same experiences. “The women are also willing to provide resources or their network to help,” she adds. Phaphon now works on the growth team for Better, a health-tech company.

Those communities and networks also may be a way step back into tech communities and catch up on the practical skills. For example, Cleo worked in 3D special effects until 1997, when she took time off to raise a family. On her return, she networked a lot with PyLadies, and Ladies Learnin Code (now Canada Learning Code).

“Twitter was also a blessing,” Cleo adds, because it allowed her to connect to other developers and makers and to share mutual journeys. “I learned from them, until one day I realized I was able to return the favor.” And as with all human-networking endeavors, the tech connections can lead to work opportunities. “In fact, I got my current job through Twitter,” Cleo says.

Look for Women-in-IT groups that explicitly aim to help women move forward in computing careers. Some of these organizations work with employers that are making a concerted effort to improve their own diversity. For example, the Resume Database is open to any woman in IT. Whether or not you are attending the Grace Hopper Celebration, businesses are looking for technologists with experience. That Resume Database isn’t just for new college graduates!

Fast-Forward the New Skills

To get back to work, you have to come up to speed technically and get back into the IT mindset. Start by researching your field, learning about its advancements, identifying specific skills to add to your repertoire, and then go about learning the best ways to get that education.

Don’t sell yourself short. You need to find a balance between the job skills that don’t go stale, and the ones that need to be updated. Don’t be so distracted by what you don’t know that you forget where you excel. “While I may not always be the most knowledgeable on the team, I am still the most experienced,” Cleo says. “I can handle bigger projects, and lead a team still. I can deal with clients, and I can act as product manager too.”

The aforementioned human networking is a good way to learn about changes in the tech industry. Your friends, new and old, can help you figure out what to do next. Do you want to go back to web development? Or is this an opportunity to move into IT security? Is it easier to leverage your project management experience? Nothing says you have to return to the exact same job that you had before.

A recruiter at a staffing agency can also help you, as Robert Half’s Clem points out. Recruiters know which skills employers are looking for and where you can learn these new skills.

That guidance and mentoring also can include business-related changes and how to prepare for them. For example, Carol points out, job interviews have changed. “Supportive practice for algorithms and whiteboard interview practice is helpful, since women who left a few years ago might not be up on the new style of interviewing.” In some places, she adds, the field has become less female- and grown-up-friendly, making returning techies “five years away from the ‘Code me a merge sort in python, please’ nerd one-upmanship interviews.”

Get Smarter, Fast

If you have the time and budget, one obvious option to update or add new skills is an IT degree in an specialty where employers are desperate for qualified people. “The college I attend has 98% placement or graduate school so I am aiming to have a job to be lined up before I finish my final semester,” one woman says. “There is a big demand for database folks in my area.”

Degree-based training may not be feasible financially, but there are lots of ways to learn! Consider professional development courses, intensive classes, technology certification training. Take short-term classes and other training that gives you a fast-forward on the in-demand skills. Your real-world experience can probably help you learn new skills faster (it’s easier to learn your fourth programming language than your first), and many boot camps have placement services.

“TED talks and podcasts are very useful as they allow you to stay informed while you are commuting or doing something else,” says Silvana Gaia. “The podcast Women at Work from the Harvard Business Review is a great tool where you hear advice from diverse women, which is often inspirational.”

Cleo found MOOCs to be her best option in preparing for a comeback. “It showed me that intro classes were not what I was looking for. But at least a MOOC allowed me to quickly go over what I remembered, and just pick up the parts that I needed.”

Consider ways to apply your newfound knowledge. One woman did volunteer work using the database skills she learned in class. Someone else might contribute to an open source project. In both cases, the recent experience demonstrates that you have hands-on experience with the technology and might suggest someone the hiring manager could call for a job reference.

The False Beginner

Cleo raises an extremely important point in regard to updating skills, one that I think is vital for anyone trying to reboot a tech career. “I know stuff that beginners have never heard of (like how to set up serial communications) but then I get tripped by stuff beginners know (Github? What’s that?),” she says. “So what I know and don’t know differs from a standard beginner.”

“When teaching foreign languages there’s a concept called ‘false beginner,’ referring to someone who once spoke the language but has forgotten it due to lack of exposure,” Cleo says. “This concept does not show up in tech but it is pertinent.”

Most boot camps and introductory classes do not address the need of the false beginner. They’re meant for people who don’t know anything about the subject. So it can be frustrating to sit in a classroom and listen to someone explain what binary or ASCII are.

I’ve run into that, myself. When I think I know what the instructor is saying, my mind wanders – right until I realize that I’m totally lost.

“That’s why MOOCs were good for me,” Cleo says. “Some stated they were meant to be 15 or 20 hours a week, and I could do the whole work for the week in two hours.” A MOOC or other online course lets you fast-forward through the material you already understand. “That allowed me to still go over the stuff I needed without losing my attention in case something new comes up. And it has happened more than once!”

Polish Your Resume

So you’ve learned the newest, shiniest technology skills, and you’re ready to start work. What do you actually put on your resume?

Add the skills you’ve been developing, which shows determination to advance your career, says Clem. Consider adding any volunteer opportunities or organizations you worked with while away from the workforce.

Don’t try to hide the hiatus. “It’s inevitable,” says Clem. “A hiring manager will ask why there is a break in your employment history.”

“When responding, make it clear that the decision to take a work break was your own and not something you decided to do because other options didn’t pan out,” Clem suggests. “Consider saying something like, ‘I chose to be a stay-at-home parent until my children were in middle school. Now that they’ve reached that milestone, I’m ready to re-enter the workforce to resume my professional and career goals.’”

But don’t freak out over the resume gaps. Melissa has been in IT for more than 20 years, and took significant time off in between gigs. “Don’t worry about defending gaps in your resume,” she advises. “If they like you, that won’t matter. If you don’t make a big deal about it, chances are they won’t either.”

Having said that, however, Melissa says that it’s good to have reasons in your back pocket, like, “I was working on a novel,” or “I decided to take some time to teach myself video-game tools.” Basically, she says, it soothes an employer’s fears to hear anything that translates to, “I took time to update my skills” — as long as you really do have those skills.

Calibrate Your Attitude

It’s hard to know what compromises you need to make. Can you walk right back into the same job you left (though perhaps at another company)? Can you reasonably expect an employer to hire you at the same salary? To some degree, this depends on the length of time you’ve been out of the tech industry and how well you prepared for the hiatus and its return.

“Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Don’t leave before you leave’ advice is critical,” Carol says. “I set up that return before I had my first maternity leave by building a reputation for getting stuff done, being someone folks wanted on their teams, and leading big, visible projects so that folks in different groups remembered me.”

Company size or culture may – or may not – be a factor. Some women expect to start at a less desirable position, working their way back in, or they discover it’s a necessity. Wendy took two years off to care for her mother. “The gap, coupled with my age, suddenly made me either under- or overqualified.” She approached smaller, less-tech savvy companies because “the big franchises wouldn’t touch me.”

Another way back to the full-time tech workforce is to play the field for a while. For instance, call up temp agencies in your area that deal with IT placements. “It’s typically easier to get a temporary gig than a full-time job right out of the gate,” Melissa points out. “And those can often lead to permanent jobs.” Not to mention that temp work lets you explore the new range of options in this area of the tech industry.

It may also behoove you to look for employment that has extra flexibility, such as telecommuting. And some businesses earnestly work to attract women. “Resources that can help women return are internal training programs or a proper on-boarding session about new technology or new company workflows and processes,” says Phaphon. “Just as a new employee is on-boarded, a parent returning from maternity leave should be provided a proper on-boarding transition to make it easier to ease back into the company.”

You Aren’t Alone

As you contemplate returning to tech, it can be easy to scare yourself silly. Plenty of people are ready to warn you about the rough road ahead.

But the truth is that lots of organizations sincerely want to improve the diversity of their IT teams, and not only for cynical PR reasons. Anyone with extensive technology experience is aware that tools and languages change, but competence and dedication never lose their value. And with so many tech jobs available, some consider that women returners may be a solution to the tech sector skills shortage.

Does this task bring challenges? Sure. But you can solve them. You’ve got help.

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