Friday 8 April 2022

A New Challenge

Photo by Peter Conlan on Unsplash
Last month was interesting. I got a job. 

I know this happens to a lot of people every day, but I've been self-employed for 15 years so for me it's kind of a big deal.

For the last few years I've been hearing that the corporate world is keen to recruit 45+ women with tech management backgrounds. I'm 45+ and I have a corporate tech management background. I also have a more recent business owner and business management background, and a current relevant degree. And now my kids are teens, my time is a bit more flexible. On paper it seems I'm exactly what they're looking for. I was interested!

It's not easy though.

LinkedIn is daunting if you haven't used it much. (An acquaintance who had to jobsearch for the first time in years after a Covid redundancy described it as "soul destroying" and they're not wrong.) I didn't really know what to call myself any more. When you run your own business you wear ALL the hats so there were about a dozen job titles I probably could have done pretty easily, but I didn't want to do just one thing when I had experience in many. Then there were bunches of job titles that didn't even exist last time I was a corporate employee. As a business owner and ex-IT Manager I could probably run somebody else's organisation or department without too much trouble, but I felt weighed down by the "15 years out of corporate" thing. It was hard to know where to pitch. I'm not a fan of LinkedIn but I waded in and spent some time looking around.

I saw a job that looked interesting so I updated my old CV and applied. No response. I saw another job and applied. Nothing for a couple of weeks, and then a recruiter got in touch. Her first words were "You're not right for this job but I don't know what you are, there's too much in your CV". Alrighty.

She suggested I do a "How to get the most out of LinkedIn" course so I did. I learned I should "personalise" LinkedIn, "diversify my options" and "post new content". I didn't understand this - what's the point of talking about my family and love of travel and sport and coffee and wine, and posting random quotes purely to "have content" on a professional networking platform? It's not Facebook. Nobody's going to hire me because I say I like coffee. Neverthless, I updated my CV.

I decided to address my qualifications. When you're self-employed you don't spend a lot of time/money picking up CV-stuffers. I had a bunch of certifications from years of multinational companies but they were out of date, and I had my degree. But this makes things challenging when you realise that recruitment today relies on algorithms and keywords in your CV before anybody ever considers actually talking to you. 

I signed up to get new project management qualifications. I figured even if I didn't want to be a full-time project manager again, it would be useful to refresh myself with modern techniques and processes and formalise what I already knew, and if nothing else I could use the new skills to finetune my own business processes. 

It was March 2020 and Covid-19 was taking hold. There was speculation if the course would go ahead and at the last minute they agreed it could as long as we all sat far apart and sprayed everything with disinfectant. On the last day I wandered down Collins Street with new shiny certifications in hand. The city was virtually empty. It reminded me of those old westerns with the big dust balls rolling down the main street. Totally surreal. The train was almost empty and people were looking furtively at anybody who got too close. It was nervewracking. The next day, Melbourne went into the first lockdown and that course didn't run again for months so I guess that was lucky.

Melbourne during lockdown - Michael J Fromholtz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My business helps small business with online. Lots of small business needed to suddenly get online or improve what they had. There were no corporate roles being listed. It was easy to keep doing what I'd been doing, so I did.

In 2021 there was an article in the Fin Review where the CEO of a large organisation was talking about a program to help get tech women back into corporate tech roles. I reached out and was surprised when the CEO replied personally and introduced me to HR. Eventually I received an email inviting me to fill out a form - to apply for a customer service role. I've never worked in a customer service role in my life. It didn't seem very "tech" or a very practical use of my skills. 

The experience was deflating. It was easier to keep doing what I'd been doing, so I did. But it was getting harder. Small business was either saving their money, or expecting the world for very little, and there was a lot of stress.

By the end of 2021 I was burnt out. The challenges of the pandemic on small business were overwhelming, including on my own. I decided to take January off and chill out, and think about what my next steps might be. 

I knew my biggest challenge - confidence. My husband has told me for years I'm underselling myself but I still had that mind niggle. This is weird and hard to explain because I run my own business and I'm confident when dealing with clients and suppliers and technical resources. I'm confident in my knowledge of technology and how best to apply and deliver it, and how best to communicate it. I'm confident that I know what I'm talking about because I've done this successfully for years, and others who do what I do sometimes ask for advice. I'm confident in all the skills and knowledge I built while studying for my degree, and volunteering in a global open source software project. I'm confident that when I used to work in global IT, I was pretty good at it.

But the thought of going back was somehow different. IT continually changes in ways a lot of other industries don't, and 15 years is a long time. I was quite anxious about what I no longer knew, and very conscious that both ageism and sexism were things even if nobody openly admitted it.

Even though I've been out of global IT specifically, my business is still in tech and I'll just go ahead and say it - tech is and always has been a bloke-fest. Most of the time I've loved working in tech and #MeToo has helped improve some things, but the exceptions really stand out. I'm not sure of the percentages in 2022, but in the 2000s women made up less than 10% of the IT industry. Logically, this can't possibly be due to lack of ability. Logically also, some of that 10% are the ones industry are now keen to re-recruit. 

Even though logically you KNOW nobody can possibly know all of it, part of you subconsciously thinks you don't know enough. Part of you believes that being out means you've lost some of what you had, even if you almost certainly haven't. My brother tells me it's called imposter syndrome and it's really common.

At 45+ after a gap, it can be confronting to put yourself out there in an environment like LinkedIn, to deal with recruiters who are often younger and don't necessarily understand your particular demographic. It's not obvious that all recruiters understand that women do CVs differently to men, or that hiring gender bias is a thing, particularly in STEM. Then if you actually get through to an interview for a tech role, you'll almost certainly face an all-male panel, many of whom are younger than you (but more "recent"). It's tough.

If there's one positive to take out of the global pandemic, it's the successful introduction of remote and hybrid workplaces. One of the main reasons I left corporate IT and started my own business was flexibility. Things were relatively simple to manage before I had a family, and after that much harder. IT was server-room and office-based and required a lot of hours outside of normal business hours. It was not geared to working mothers. Childcare only covered business hours, my husband also worked long hours and we had no family close by who could help. I got the hours done but I was exhausted, and one day I was offered a promotion which meant more hours and I had to make a choice. 

Now, everyone knows how to Zoom and it's acceptable and productive to meet and work that way. Flexibility is one reason I decided to take another look at my old career. Even though we don't need to juggle childcare any more, teenagers have different needs and flexibility means we can both juggle that a lot better than we once could.

In February I asked a couple of people for help with my CV. We took out the coffee nonsense and updated the lingo to 2022-corporate-ese. Turns out I had plenty of experience but not the right words to trigger the algorithms, and I'd left out some stuff I didn't think was as important as it actually was. 

The next 3 jobs I applied for, I got 3 interviews almost immediately. That helped enormously with confidence. And here I am with a new job.

I'm approaching this whole experience with an open mind, as I've always tried to approach new situations. I know it will be challenging. I've been able to set my own hours for years now and fit in family, a degree and volunteering as well, so I'm pretty good at multitasking and getting things done. But part of my brain still remembers how physically and mentally hard being a full-time IT employee was before I left, and I've had to talk myself out of some genuine deep-seated apprehension about giving up my fully flexible life.

The main reason I want to give this another go is to test myself - find out what I can do and know, see how much is new and what hasn't changed at all, work out how to apply everything I've learnt running my own business in new ways, build some confidence, gain perspective, and boost my super up a bit. I don't want to hit retirement and wonder "what if?" or as a friend said "die wondering". If the list of pros/cons leans positive, great. If not, that's fine too. Wish me luck. 😁



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