Seven years ago, I was a full-time stay-at-home mom, having quit my budding software engineering career sixteen years earlier during the dotcom bust. Today I am a Software Architect at Nasdaq, a well-known financial services company.
There are days when even I find it hard to believe—but that may only be because as women, we tell ourselves it is not possible—but what if we told a different story?
A few years into motherhood, even I thought it wasn’t possible. I had three children, and for many years, I devoted most of my waking hours to them. I spent the precious fragments of free time I had throughout the day on more interruptible activities like reading or teaching myself how to knit. That was a wise choice at the time, and probably best for my mental health. But as a result, I very quickly lost touch with the world of tech.
I was happy to give my children the home life that my mother was able to give me. My husband was able to support our family financially, and, as my children grew older and enrolled in school, I sought mental stimulation through writing fiction and maintaining an online literary journal. I joined mothering groups and writers’ clubs to meet other people. During this time, my husband and I chose to move from the United States to Syria to raise our children near his family. I was comfortable and happy if occasionally a little isolated. I assumed this would be my rhythm for the rest of my life.
Two things happened to break open my cocoon. The first was the Syrian Civil War, which forced my family to return to the United States. A couple years later, a business venture my husband had put significant effort into abruptly fell apart. The financial impact of both of these events jostled my sense of safety. On top of it, our children were approaching college age and were about to get significantly more expensive. I told my husband I was going to look for a job.
My husband assured me we would be ok—but even he was a little rattled, and I took that as a sign. There is nothing like an external motivator to fuel your drive. I am not the world’s most decisive person, but I did not spend days ruminating over whether this was the right decision or not. I threw all my energy into it.
But I knew it was easy to get discouraged, so I gave myself a fallback goal. If I wasn’t able to get a job right away, I would take a break if necessary and spend few months refreshing my technical knowledge and building side projects before I started applying for jobs again. I scoured job listings for what employers were looking for and bought myself a book on Java programming.
There was no hiding my lack of current experience, so I decided I had to be creative with my resume. I provided brief descriptions of my pre-motherhood experience, explicitly listed my employment hiatus and said why, and also listed my experience as a PTO volunteer and website maintainer. I wish I could say that my well-crafted resume resulted in dozens of recruiter calls, but that was not the case. I applied to at least a hundred jobs, and only scored two actual interviews.
But two is not zero. Furthermore, I got glimmers of support. One of my interviewers explicitly told me, “I respect your decision to leave the workforce, and I respect your decision to come back.” A recruiter who saw an earlier version of my resume that didn’t allude to my “gap” encouraged me to be proud and up-front about my mothering career.
One of the two interviews resulted in an offer, only a month after I had started looking for work. The salary was barely more than what I had been earning sixteen years earlier, and effectively less, once you counted inflation. But I needed to get my foot in the door and was not about to be picky.
I could have congratulated myself at this point. And I won’t pretend that my efforts had no bearing on my ability to get hired. I had obsessively polished and repolished my resume, submitted it to companies without worrying about whether I was qualified, and did my best to sound like I knew what I was doing when recruiters did call. Determination works.
But it’s also true that the market for software engineers has been hot for years, and when there is strong demand, there will always be companies who “settle” for inexperienced engineers because that’s what they’re willing to pay. I have a friend who tried to restart her urban planning career after a similarly long period of raising a family, and was simply not able to find a job. She is just as smart and determined as I am, but the market was not in her favor. She reminds me to be humble. My friend forgave herself and started looking at alternative career choices, and that has worked out for her.
It is one thing to get a job—it is another thing to keep it. I was terrified before going in on my first day. I came in to training with ten other recent college grads. I knew their college engineering classes would still be fresh in their minds. They also fit the junior engineer stereotype—they were young and energetic, didn’t have distractions at home, and they weren’t older than their bosses.
As the weeks passed, it became clear to me that my co-worker’s advantages were not so clear-cut. Remember that saying, “Youth is wasted on the young?” My coworkers had lots of energy—but were not always able to leverage it. When we were given training manuals to review, I studied them at my desk. My coworkers needed to be continuously reminded to do so. They got bored quickly, and wasted time joking around with their peers. When we held meetings with our offshore team, I was the only person asking questions. I knew how to quickly figure out what needed doing, and do it without prodding.
These were all skills I had learned over years as an independent adult. Juggling laundry and grocery shopping and nap times taught me how to prioritize. Dealing with my son’s temper tantrums taught me that even the most worthwhile jobs have moments that are not fun. Mothering in particular taught me a lot about human psychology—and I was able to more easily work with different personality types at work, and adjust my communication styles depending on whether I was talking to my manager or a peer on another team.
But what about the technical parts of my job? My college degree in computer science had given me a good theoretical foundation. But it was now 20 years after my degree, and the tech landscape was unrecognizable. On my first tasks, I felt like I had been parachuted into a forest with no map and no idea where I was. C++ and Visual Basic had moved over in favor of C# and Java. I was greeted by unfamiliar concepts like ASP.NET MVC and REST API’s. One day, I was desperately searching through the large code base for the one place to fix a bug, and I had a panic attack—there was too much I didn’t know. I would never be able to learn it all.
Later that same week, I would remember that I had experienced this feeling of overwhelm before—as a child. I had been thrown into a strange and confusing world, in the same way that all of us are, as young people first learning how to drive a car, get a first job, or make conversation at a school cafeteria table. The difference was that as an older adult, I had become comfortable, used to “knowing things” and being oriented at all times. I needed to remember what it was like to be a child again, to live in unfamiliar and sometimes terrifying surroundings, and to accept that I did not have to know everything about them in that moment. I had survived as a child—I would survive now.
This realization helped me put one foot in front of the other. Each day, I Googled one or two concepts I was not familiar with, or read through a different piece of our codebase. Each day, I knew a little bit more than the day before.
I left that company as soon as I stopped learning as much, but I have maintained that philosophy. A little bit each day gets you far. I wish I could say that I no longer have panics, or that I do not have moments where I am convinced that my brain is hopelessly rusty and incapable of keeping up with the frantic pace of change in our industry. But nobody can claim to say whether I am “good enough”—not even my employer. I let my fears pass, try to keep learning and let my career play out how it will.
It's played out far better than I imagined seven years ago. So I say this to all women thinking about returning to engineering after a long break. Let yourself be lost in that forest. You will be terrified. And you will find your way.