Break ke Baad: Tips for Moms re-entering the IT-workforce after a break
(Last week, Persistent Systems played host to a week-long workshop by “Break ke Baad”, a newly created group in Pune which aims at helping women who are looking to re-enter the IT-workforce after taking a pregnancy/children related break in their career. As a part of this workshop, I was on a panel discussion about opportunities amongst startups and other smaller companies for such ‘break-ke-baad’ moms. This article is based on that discussion, and an email discussion that I had initiated on the Pune Startups mailing list)
Let me first start with the common concerns of break-ke-baad moms:
- Cannot work full-time: Even when a break-ke-baad mom is ready to get back to work, in most cases, she cannot work full time. Typically she can work part-time (maybe 9am to 2pm – when the kids are in school), or she needs to work from home for a significant fraction of time. This means that she is unsuitable for some roles, and/or some companies will simply not consider her.
- Out of Touch: After having taken a break (typically of 5 years or more), most are out of touch with the latest trends in their field, and would typically not have skills in the latest technologies. The fear is that they are less employable because of this.
- Lack of confidence: Both of the above issues result in many break-ke-baad moms significantly lacking in confidence that they will be able to perform, or in fact even at their ability to get a job.
My experience is that none of these are real problems and break-ke-baad moms can not only get good quality jobs with flexible timings, but there are certain circumstances where companies might actually prefer them over other candidates. Here are some suggestions:
- Target startups and smaller companies: Consider a typical small company with 10 to 20 employees. This will usually have a couple of co-founders who’re senior people, and most of the other employees would be freshers or juniors. They desperately need a few senior people in the company who can serve as team leads – for their maturity and experience. And they find it very difficult to hire senior people for two reasons – first, most seniors prefer to do jobs with larger companies, and second, many companies at this stage are not able to afford the salaries of seniors.
This is an situation tailor-made for break-ke-baad moms. First, since they can only work part-time, their salaries will also be proportionately lower, making them more affordable to the small company. Second, larger companies are much less accommodating as far as the time-constraints of break-ke-baad moms are concerned and hence the small company and the mom are made for each other.
- Be aware of your strengths: Most break-ke-baad moms are not aware of their own potential. Here is a list of skills that companies would look for because their junior employees are typically missing those:
- Maturity – which pretty much any mom will have!
- Team-lead skills – if you have any team-lead experience in your background, this is valuable
- Communication skills – if your English is good and/or you’ve done presentations in the past, then you have a valuable skill
- Ability to handle customers – the sad truth is that most junior employees in India are just not good enough to be allowed to talk to customers directly. So if you have some customer facing experience, or good communication skills, you should highlight this during your interview
- Ability to help with hiring – Seniors at a small and growing company spend a very large fraction of their time in interviewing or other hiring related activities. So if you’ve any experience of that in your past, you will have a skill that most juniors don’t have. Even if you don’t have hiring experience, your seniority and experience put you in a position to pick up this skill easily.
- Appropriately highlight your past experience: I’ve noticed that most break-ke-baad moms behave as if they are inexperienced juniors appearing for their first interview (or at least this is the impression I get). The reason for this is their break, lack of information about latest trends, and the general lack of confidence. However, this is a mistake. Any experience is valuable in some way or the other. I’ll just give two examples:
- Suppose you’ve done 3 years of J2ME programming for mobile phones. You’re concerned that your J2ME experience is worthless because nobody does J2ME programming these days, and you don’t have any experience with Android/iPhone/Blackberry etc. However, you need to separate out the short-term, not so useful skill (J2ME programming) from the long-term, useful skill (domain knowledge of mobile phone development). Try to look for companies that are doing some mobile development (Android, iPhone) and they will value your past experience
- Suppose you’re a teacher who taught herself programming (or did a core Java + advanced Java course) during the break. Now if you go looking for a regular development job, you’ll be treated as a developer with zero experience. This is a bad situation, and few companies will prefer you over a fresher out of college who’s willing to work until 10pm. However, if you approach companies building educational or e-learning software (and trust me, there are many of those), and tell them that you are a teacher who knows Java, they’ll probably start jumping with joy at having found such a unique combination that is ideal for their needs.
My point is this – look at what part of your past experience has long-lasting value, and then search for companies that would value that. While doing this, don’t forget to take into account the skills from the previous bullet point (hiring, communication, team lead, etc.)
- Approach companies through references: Most of the hiring at smaller companies happens via references. Sure, they have websites where you can submit resumes, and they have HR email addresses where you can send an application, and they even employ recruitment agencies. In spite of all of that, most hiring happens through references. Which means that if you’ve found some interesting small company, you should try to find someone who knows you, and knows someone in the company, and get them to forward your resume.
How do you do this? Linked-in is your friend. I’m sure most of you have a linked-in account. If you have a very small number of contacts on linked in (i.e. less than 50), then focus on increasing it. Link with all your past colleagues. Link with your friends from college. Link with recent new contacts you’ve made in the industry (you do attend some tech events, don’t you?). Once you’ve 100 or 200 contacts (takes some effort, but not very difficult to do), you’ll find that searching for any company will give you some employees of that company who are “2nd degree” links in your network. This means that if you go to that employee’s profile, linked in will give you a list of people you know, who also know that person. Mission accomplished!
- Learn about latest trends: Pick a domain or domains you’re interested in. Use some Google searching to find the top websites/blogs in that domain. Figure out how to use Google Reader (or some other RSS reader), and use that to “subscribe” to those sites, and read daily. A few months of doing this will make you almost as knowledgeable as someone who never took a break, and will boost your confidence significantly.
- Be flexible about the role: It is very likely that given your constraints, the company might not be able to give you a role that is exactly like the role you had before the break. First, smaller companies tend to give more responsibilities to individuals, and hence you’re likely to be given a role with a combination of multiple responsibilities. Second, the company is likely to create a special role just for you, based on your constraints and their requirements. Hence, you should be willing to take on roles different from what you originally had in mind. For example, testing, quality assurance, training, customer support, are roles that you might be offered, and where you maturity and experience as well as your previous development background will actually help you do a very good job.
Other areas/roles to look at would be documentation, pre-sales support, project/program management, content creation (writing articles / white papers), and KPO (knowledge process outsourcing).
There are also some common misconceptions that I would like to clear out.
- Part-time doesn’t stay part-time: Many are worried that a company might promise a part-time job, but in reality expect you to stay late on a regular basis and it becomes pretty much a full-time job. This is not true in most cases. Most companies will honour the time-constraints as long as they were made very clear during the interview process. Once in a while, there can be a deadline due to which you might have to stay late for a day or a few days. But this would be an exception, and shouldn’t happen more than once a month or once in two months.
There are a few bad companies where due to bad time management, or simply because the founders are evil people, everybody is forced to work more than is reasonable. Hence, it is important that you talk to the founders and/or your immediate managers during the interview process, and reject the job offer if you don’t feel comfortable about those people. Do not get desperate and accept a job just because you think you won’t get another one.
- Late night calls: In most Indian IT companies, it is very likely that there will be some conf-calls with people in the US or UK; but especially with smaller companies, this situation is not very bad. My guess would be that in most cases, there would be an average of 1 or 2 calls of this type per week. Most companies will be OK if you take the call from home. Most companies will also try to accommodate your constraints, but it is not always possible, as the timing depends upon various factors. Most of these calls will be “regularly” scheduled calls, so you know their timing beforehand, and can make arrangements at home to be able to take the call undisturbed; once in a while calls might get scheduled at the last minute and you’ll need to scramble a bit. My experience is that most break-ke-baad moms manage this without causing too much of a strain on their home-life balance.
How to find interesting small companies where you might find a good role? If you’re in Pune, here are some suggestions:
- Join the Pune Open Coffee Club. It’s free, and there are lots and lots of small companies represented there. Poke around on that website, the various forums there and sub-groups. You’ll find interesting people and companies.
- Join the Pune Startups mailing list. Follow the discussions there. See who’s posting, and use google/linked-in to find out information about their companies.
- Subscribe to the PuneStartupJobs mailing list and watch who’s making job postings. None of those job postings will be an exact fit for your profile, but this is how you find out about interesting companies who are hiring. You should then approach the companies directly and try to explore whether they might have a role for you.
- Subscribe to the PuneTech Calendar to keep track of latest tech/startup events in Pune. Attend the ones you find more interesting. Most importantly, talk to as many people as possible before and after the event. Let them know your background and the fact that you’re looking for a job. Good things will start happening after a few months of doing this.
Last week, I asked a bunch of entrepreneurs on the Pune Open Coffee Club whether they would hire break-ke-baad moms, and what qualities they would look for. And, one of the most common answers I got was this: “We don’t care about time-constraints, and part-time vs. full-time, and other things. The most important consideration for us is the attitude and passion – everything else is secondary.”
So my overall recommendation is this – realize that you are a valuable commodity in the job market, identify and highlight your strengths, approach the right companies, and go with confidence.
(Thanks to Rajeshwari Godbole, Shekhar Sahasrabudhe, Santosh Gannavarapu, Arun Kadekodi, the “Break ke Baad” group, and the Pune Startups mailing list for inputs and feedback on this article. Note: I’m obviously not a domain expert in this area, so if you’re a break-ke-baad mom who has actually been there, and done this, your inputs would be very valuable – so if you have additional suggestions, please leave a comment below for the benefit of future moms.)