Udacity supports students from a variety of backgrounds, including many who are returning to the workforce. Today we highlight the career story of Kate Rotondo, an iOS Nanodegree Course Manager here at Udacity. After taking 5 years off to raise a family, Kate successfully overcame the challenges of re-entering the job market. In our interview below, Kate details her journey, and offers her advice on how to maintain your skills, grow your network, and ace the interview cycle.

Kate Rotondo, Returning To The Workforce, Udacity

Hello Kate! Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your story. With so many things to cover, it’s probably easiest to just start at the beginning. Why did you first leave the workforce?

At the time, I was an Actionscript developer at a startup and a part-time instructor at RISD|CE. Our son was 2.5 when I left the workforce to support my then-husband’s career abroad.

How long did you leave for?

I had originally thought I would take 6 months off… just enough time to oversee the move, transition our child into daycare, and find work. Ultimately, I took 5 years off.

What changed?

During my baby’s first year I had negotiated with my company to drop down to 25 hours a week, which had helped me to recover from postpartum depression. Working part-time was a crucial tool for maintaining my wellbeing during those early years.

When we moved overseas, we started living in a small, rural town. It was very difficult to find local, part-time work. Around this time, Flash also became obsolete. This meant my skillset had gone out-of-date, which made it especially challenging to find work.

How did you maintain your professional identity during those 5 years?

Even though I wasn’t working in an office during my time abroad, I continued to cultivate my professional skills and community bonds.

How did you do this?

Firstly, I dedicated time. At the beginning, one day a week, I developed software. My husband would watch our son at home while I went to his office to work on personal projects. I used this time to build my first app for the App Store.

Secondly, I attended and spoke at conferences. I used online directories like Lanyrd’s Calls for Participation to find interesting conferences. I applied to speak so that my travel could be paid for. These events helped me to feel energized, part of a group, and inspired to do new work.

I also participated in a couple of hackathons that I learned about through a local meetup’s Facebook group. I felt most comfortable looking for women-centered events, and found Berlin Geekettes, which has since added several other chapters around the globe; BridgeTroll and PyLadies also have chapters and events across the US.

Lastly, I continued to foster my professional connections through social media. I stayed active on Twitter where I connected with interesting people in the industry. I also launched my own project, Motherboard Podcast, to interview parents working in tech. All of this helped me to maintain ties to my professional network and keep up-to date with industry trends.

What was it like, trying to re-enter the workforce after your time away?

After 5 years out of the workforce, entering the interview cycle again was really difficult.

In what ways?

There are a lot of obstacles and challenges. You’re forced to explain and justify your absence. You also have to prove your skills are current.

How did you feel you were received and treated in those early interviews?

They were often really brutal; I was reduced to tears at times.

Did it get better?

It did. I learned you CAN overcome things like self-doubt, tough interviews, and the inherent bias in favor of already-employed candidates.

Can you offer some strategies for how to successfully get through that kind of experience?

Absolutely! First off, prepare. Prepare by building new projects and prepare by learning how to talk about your current skills and goals.

For example, before and during the interview cycle, develop personal software projects. This is helpful because it will provide evidence of your current skills, and talking points during interviews.

Next, practice difficult interview questions prior to your actual interviews. I felt especially rusty on data structures and algorithms, so that’s where I did a lot of review. I highly recommend Brynn Claypoole’s free Technical Interviewing course, which is geared toward complete beginners—my favorite video is the one explaining stacks via chocolate chip pancakes.

Most importantly, be patient with the process. Don’t be hard on yourself if it takes a few months to get your bearings, or several tries before you feel like you nail an interview. This doesn’t mean you aren’t cut out for it. Just learn from each experience, do some self care, and keep trying.

What were your most challenging interview questions?

For me, the most challenging questions were questions geared toward someone who was already employed, such as: What is a recent challenge at work? What’s a project you’ve been working on lately? What are your hobbies?

How did you approach these?

I found that preparing concrete examples of my skills and practicing rhetorical strategies helped ensure that conversations took the directions I wanted them to take.

Did anything else help you get through the tough interview process?

Yes! Having lunches with friends was helpful. It gave me emotional support and it also enriched my job prospects. I visited some friends at their offices, where I got to glimpse into their work environments, and start to form a vision for myself. Having lunch with the women from my Tech Moms Slack group is what ultimately inspired me to look for work at Udacity.

Overall, what are the most important things to cultivate when returning to the workforce?

In addition to developing provable, in-demand technical skills, I believe your network is the biggest resource to cultivate. I learned software skills on my own, but I accessed new professional opportunities thanks to genuine relationships with people. Making the effort to cultivate relationships, and being open to help from others was extremely important for my re-entry into the workforce.

What advice do you have for female students wanting community within the tech industry?

There are so many things you can do to feel more connected to the tech industry! Whether you are returning to the workforce or building a new network, email lists like Anita Borg’s Systers List and the Tech LadyMafia are great for women in tech. Other helpful activities include going to in-person meetups, being active on Twitter, attending conferences, and conversing on Slack channels. Actively participating in these venues is a great way to build your community!

Looking back at your return to the workforce, what’s one thing you wish you knew?

I wish I had known how great it would be to work full time again. I am so happy to get to go to a workplace that values my ideas and contributions, not to mention pays me and feeds me. My kid also gets to see me feeling more engaged, fulfilled, autonomous, and financially secure. Returning to work has been such a positive change not just for me, but for my family. So, if you’ve been away for a while and if you fear the office, give it a chance.

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Endless gratitude goes out to Kate for sharing her inspiring story with us! We’re so grateful to have the opportunity to highlight her journey. The world deserves talent like Kate’s,  and there are still so many talented individuals out there facing similar challenges. Whether it’s attending conferences, staying active on social media, or simply making the time to meet and talk with friends, you CAN stay connected, and you CAN successfully return to the workforce. Kate is a wonderful example of this—and Udacity is excited to keep discovering and sharing similar stories.

If Kate’s career path proved insightful be sure to check out her podcast: Motherboard Podcast, which features conversations with parents in tech.