Coming Back to Software After a Break? 5 Tips

I was recently speaking with a software engineer who had been referred to me. Very smart guy, good track record, but unfortunately some serious medical issues had pulled him out of the workforce for several years. Now recovered, he was ready to return, but sadly, I had to tell him that, in my opinion, he was going to have a difficult time of it.
The software business moves so rapidly that anyone who’s away from the latest technologies for a year or two stands a very real risk of being passed over, in favor of someone who’s been immersed in the stuff all along. So, what do you do if you’ve been away from your software engineering career for an extended period due to illness, being with the kids, caring for a relative, or some other reason, and are now trying to jumpstart yourself into a new software job again? Here are some tips that, in my experience, can potentially help:

  1. Realize that you’re in an unconventional position, and that conventional job-seeking approaches may not work for you. It’s certainly not going to hurt to talk with headhunters and to apply for jobs online, but don’t lull yourself into a false security. Outside recruiters are paid to find current skills and employment 99% of the time, and they’re not very likely to be in a position to help. Similarly, internal recruiters are not likely to want to stand up behind a candidate who might be perceived as a risky hire. You’re going to probably have to make it happen on your own.
  2. Strengthen your LinkedIn network immediately. Mentally walk through every place you’ve been, from your education on through every one of your jobs. Brainstorm on who you remember from each of those places. Make sure you’re connected with them on LinkedIn. If you aren’t, send them a connect request immediately (with a polite reminder of how you know each other, if it was a long time ago). If you are already connected, send them a quick message to say hello and to let them know that you’re available. But go beyond just brainstorming: actively search LinkedIn for people that have worked at each of your companies during the time you were there. Obviously, if you worked at IBM, there will be too many to go through, but taking a “searching-out” approach, you’re likely to encounter people you hadn’t even remembered, but with whom you enjoyed a good relationship in the past. People who know what you’re capable of, and who remember you as a good and productive co-worker are the single best chances that you’ll have to get re-hired into a software job. You certainly don’t want to be obnoxious about asking, but now is not the time to be a shy wallflower. Let as many people as possible know that you’re actively seeking a software job. Plus, any time one of your connections posts an update about an available job, it will show up in your feed.
  3. Get a GitHub account, and put code repos in it. If you’re familiar with GitHub, you know that it’s a valuable tool for potential employers to see samples of your coding work, or perhaps even to seek out and recruit you. Get your best work in your account immediately. Don’t have samples of code? Create some! Check out a site such as https://projecteuler.net if you’re stuck for ideas. There are lots of other sites like this with interesting programming challenges, easily Googleable. Web application development skills are particularly marketable these days. Especially if none of your previous experience was web-related, I suggest programming in open-source languages such as Python, Ruby, Java, and/or Javascript especially. While you’re at it, this could be the best chance you have, timewise, to learn new programming languages and build up some work samples. Nowadays, there are plenty of free, online ways to learn programming skills, from edX andCoursera, to Codecademy. If you’re not familiar with GitHub, get familiar at https://github.com
  4. Consider particpating in open-source projects. Perhaps a bit of a longer-term strategy, but getting involved in the open-source community is a good way to build your technical skills, demonstrate to potential employers that you’re serious about your software career, and possibly even create some great networking relationships. Just Google “how to get started in open source” … you’ll find plenty of tips.
  5. Take care of yourself, stay busy, and keep going. Software’s a tough business. While you hopefully will land a software job, the hard reality is that you might not ever get back into the industry once you’re out for too long. If that happens, you may have to accept it, recognize that it’s not a personal rejection, and channel your life into a different direction. However, you can minimize the chances of that occurring by putting lots of effort into two main areas: networking with people who know what you’re capable of, and steadily building your portfolio of web-oriented coding in modern, marketable languages. Keep going!

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