In the last few years, I met many women who were either on a break from their career in the software industry or were planning to take one. It’s not unusual to take a break from one’s career to take care of family, child-birth or for following other dreams and aspirations. I took 2 breaks in last 12 years. The first one was 3 years long – enough to raise a few eyebrows when I joined the industry again in a programming job. And the second one was only 3 months long and was more of an investment for being a better programmer than a break. But more on that later.
The first break
A gap of 3 years from employment in the software industry is a long one and I wasn’t doing anything remotely related to software engineering during those 3 years. I guess, this gives some amount of hope to others on a break. I can understand the intermittent feelings of insecurity that one goes through when one is away from employment since I too went through them. I hope this post helps them in some way.
After working as a programmer for 5 years in a very niche domain called Electronic Design Automation I decided to leave my job and prepare for the Indian civil services exam. It was one of the most important and difficult experiences of my life. It taught me to be focused and hard-working. And most important of all, it taught me to stand on my feet again even after an unthinkable failure.
By now, you have correctly guessed that I didn’t pass the exam. At the end of 3 years, I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to be a programmer again. It was only through pure serendipity, I chanced upon an email asking for applications for 3-month long internship opportunities in open source projects. The program was then known as Outreach Program for Women. We used to call it OPW. Now it’s known as Outreachy. Outreachy offers paid internship opportunities to women for contributing to Free and Open Source Software projects.
I had already been a user of open source tools and operating systems for some years both at the workplace and at home. I applied for an internship with the Gnome Foundation and got accepted. You’ll find about my internship work here. Outreachy doesn’t only offer programming internships. It also offers internships in documentation and marketing among other areas.
The OPW internship experience, even though short, was one of the definitive experiences in my programming career. And I discovered that I liked programming. Towards the end of the internship, I started interviewing with a few software companies in India. One of them is a well-known professional networking company. By that time I had already made a few contributions to the geocode-glib library and I shared my code with them. But they refused to call me for an interview. The recruiter flatly told me that since programming is much like doing maths, 3 years of lack of practice must have rusted away my programming capabilities.
On hindsight, I can now probably understand what the hiring team at that company thought. Here was a woman, who didn’t code for 3 years, who didn’t have any reference in that company (I was contacted by a third party recruiter through an online job portal) and who might again go back to appearing for the civil services exam. Why take a risk with such a candidate!
I also asked a few ex-colleagues and friends who were still in the EDA industry to forward my resume to their respective companies. And that turned out to be the best thing I did. I got calls for interviews from 3 companies. I cleared the interviews with 2 of them and cancelled the interview process with the third one since I already got offers from the other 2 and I was less interested in the third company. I finally accepted the offer from Mentor Graphics. Mentor Graphics has a fairly standard interview process. It typically consists of five technical rounds in a single day with the teams that have requirements. If all goes well, the candidate is called again to chat with the manager and the HR manager to discuss work, role, and salary. At least that’s how the second part of the interview process went for me.
I prepared for the technical interviews by watching videos on algorithms on Coursera and Youtube. I practiced interview questions online. The OPW internship helped a lot because I was coding in C and EDA mostly runs on C and C++ on Linux. But the interview performances of a single day is not the only deciding factor for hiring somebody. And this I speak from my experience of being an interviewer later.
Even before a candidate comes for an interview, some impression has already been formed about him or her. It’s always a plus if the resume comes from a referral from within the company. It’s even more plus if an existing employee can vouch for the candidate. The resume is the second most important thing. It becomes even more important if somebody is coming back after a gap.
The second break
During my second break, I did a full batch at Recurse Center. Recurse Center is an educational retreat for programmers in New York. And it was way easier to get a job after I finished my batch at Recurse Center than the last time.
In short, interviewing for jobs is difficult and stressful. Joining the software industry after taking a break is difficult and stressful. But none of these are impossibly difficult. They take time and effort. Hence, if you are on a break and are thinking of joining the software industry –
* Think carefully do you really want to join a programming job? Is there anything else you would like to do? Assuming you have the privilege to explore other options you are really passionate about, I would urge you to explore them. Because once you join a job, it becomes very difficult to leave it again.
* If you want to come back to the software industry, then invest in building skills. For programmers, it’s actually easy. Start contributing to open source projects, join a coding boot camp, build a small project in an area you want to work on. If you want to improve as a programmer, then do consider joining Recurse Center. It’s an amazing place if you really like programming and want to get better at it.
* Connect with ex-colleagues and friends asking them if they have any requirements in their companies. Contact people with whom you worked. Start networking. Join local meetups. There are many online groups for women in STEM. Join them.
* Prepare for the technical interviews. There are numerous resources available both online and offline. Pick some and start practicing interview questions. Try to arrange mock interviews with friends who are interviewers in their companies.
And above all, have faith in yourself.