Back to work after 18 years

My mum always said everyone has a story to tell. The one in this article is about me returning to work after a gap of nearly two decades.

Trying to get your foot into the door of a workplace after 18 years isn’t a walk in the park and the I.T industry, well that’s another level. You may be wondering how old is this woman to take a break of nearly two decades from work. I sometimes wonder that myself but then I remember before my career even ever took off I gave up all my aspirations to please my traditional Pakistani parents.

It was the year 2001 or my kids like to say when the world was black and white and colour had not been invented. I had been working for an investment bank since my graduation, it didn’t bother me back then being the only woman in a team of forty male network engineers – back then sexist jokes and swearing in the office were the norm! Cisco routers were my thing, subnet masks and IP addresses got me excited.

Later that year, in September, I am approached by another bank with an offer to relocate from the UK to New York, and join their team. A swanky Manhattan apartment, along with a high-flying IT career? It feels like living the ultimate dream. Unfortunately, it remains only a dream; I don’t even bother discussing this with my strict parents. Accepting would have been a complete no no. Out of the question.

A woman, living on my own, a woman, in another country? Unmarried?! As a condition of having been allowed to attend a local university, and start a job, came the firm understanding that I would be married very early into my 20s.

During 2002 I relent to these unwavering expectations, dropping all my then career aspirations.

Salma and husband Nareman on their wedding day

Fast forward 14 years. It’s 2016; I’m a stay at home mum of two children. I’m not one of those yummy mummies in Hammersmith whose limbs are bendy due to endless yoga; instead I run a supercar business along with my husband. I drive a Lamborghini for the school run, and head to the gym when I want to (but no yoga).

The business is doing well but, to me, even supercars are boring. I miss infrastructure diagrams, network issues, and unexpected error notifications. The itch of working in IT remains after all these years, but my husband doesn’t want me to step away from our business. Things are pretty hunky-dory financially; my eldest Sarah is in a high school that helps her stammer and dyspraxia, and we can dine in the finest restaurants in London. Although I’m driving a Lamborghini, I’m also driving it to Asda: all that Pakistani parenting means I haven’t lost an urge to be frugal. Of course, this is a story. Something has to change and that thing was… Brexit. Doesn’t matter what side of the fence you sit on Brexit, good old Brexit arrives whether I like it or not and hits the luxury car industry tremendously.

January 2017 we are selling no cars and after three months of 0 income and hefty outgoings, things have to change drastically. After my husband makes me redundant from the company, I do something I never thought I would… I claim jobseeker’s allowance. No more Kasper’s Savoy for dinner; now I buy 50p Nissin Ramen noodles to feed the family. It’s a massive shock, so much so I have random panic attacks. Not much later we put our house on the rental market. Moving into my parents’ flat isn’t the part that breaks me. What does is watching my daughter pour her eyes out when she has to leave her school. Now in a class of 30 children, Sarah has gone back to not speaking in school as the stammer will make her stick out. Even with that strategy of silence, the bullying has started. I’m gutted.

August 2017 I’d managed to clear all the cockroaches and mice from my parents’ flat: a three bedroom place in north west London that hadn’t had any work done on it since the early 1980s (I told you frugality was a family trait). Living on a high street, the police sirens and noise keep me up more than my panic attacks. The turning point? Sarah crying her eyes out before school every morning and begging me not to send her. For me, the sense of helplessness and despair is truly overwhelming. As a mother, I feel a complete failure. Surely, I think, I can install a Cisco router or two and earn money again? Had the IT industry changed so much that I couldn’t get my foot through the door?

In steps, my brother - who’s older than me and a DevOps engineer - I ask him what I need to know to get a basic junior job. Pointing at his laptop stickers he reads out Kubernetes Docker AWS. “Why don’t you try A Cloud Guru” he says, they are running some free courses if you want to get back into things.

October 2017 I distinctly remember this day in October 2017. It’s 5:00am, and I can’t sleep. The anxiety of sending Sarah to school is now all-consuming. I wake up and switch on my laptop, the first course I see is AWS Solutions Architect Associate. An entry exam course. I start skimming the materials; very soon I realise the industry has changed so much that by 5:15am I slump back into bed depressed.

What’s with this pets vs cattle thing they keep banging on about? I decide to spend part of my job seeker’s allowance on a monthly subscription to this guru who sits in the cloud and watch every video I can get my hands on. I won’t give up, I will get a job I tell myself. I’m cleaning and watching a course, cooking and watching, on the toilet and yeah I admit Ryan from A Cloud Guru kept me company there as well. There’s no actual time in the day when I’m not learning, even when the kids are watching TV I put on my noise-cancelling headphones, sit with them and watch a course. Things haven’t changed just in the industry, I realise I’m not remembering anything. Is it old age? Or the daytime trash TV over the years that has taken up space in my head?

February 2018 which is around four months later I have three personal AWS test accounts, six binders of notes, and am ready to take my first AWS exam. My kids are quite shocked when I tell them my AWS Solutions Architect result is 87%… “Mum, did you cheat?” (no).

Armed with my degree, two years’ investment banking experience and the newly printed AWS Solutions Architect Associate certificate, I look again for a job. However, recruiters are not returning my calls and not one person offers any feedback on my CV.

March 2018 and I’m losing heart, maybe I need to take another exam or two? So I sit the AWS Developer Associate and SysOps Associate and pass both. Still no joy, not a single peep from anyone. My brother then says it’s not just what you know but who you know, sign up for Meetup and attend every talk you can, and pitch your CV as everyone is always hiring.

August 2018 marks the first tech talk I attend in nearly 2 decades. It’s at the Shazam offices in Hammersmith. The talk, by Dawn James from Kobalt was memorable - and the pizzas were good too. A free margherita with 2 cokes… is a luxury on my income. My introverted personality keeps me from talking to anyone… but not grabbing 4 slices of pizza. Soon after that I’m attending at least one meetup every week with AWS User Group, Women in Tech and so on. Slowly but surely I muster the courage to start to talk to people. Annalise from Facebook reviews my CV and many others talk about their own experiences. Some seem excited when I say I’m trying to return back to work. “Did you just finish maternity leave?” they ask. “No, I’ve been out of the sector for 18 years”. They seemed shocked…. Did I look like I had just given birth? How many pizzas was I really eating?

I have a routine now in that, all meals are well planned for the kids so I can pencil out time to study and time to attend meetups (as well as mum duties). I’ve signed up for the AWS week-long summit for every single class and I sit there from 10 am to 4 pm. I’m quite lost in the content when I notice Dawn from the first talk I ever attended sitting in the front row. I smile, “Hey I know her,” I think and look away as soon as she sees me. My shyness and loner personality will be the death of me, I know that. I don’t listen to a single thing the speaker has to say about Deep Learning but instead, I’m going over conversations in my head to have with her. “Hi you don’t know me but my name is Salma and I was wondering could I get a job?” Or more like “Hi you know that one who ate a lot at your talk and spilt cheese on her t-shirt? That was me”. To my surprise, my feet carry me to her and I blurt out “Hey you work for Shazam right?”. She smiles back and says no I gave a talk there, I give her the low down on my situation but eliminate the planning of meals around Nissin noodles and try not to look nervous. Do you know what she says? I’ll mentor you. Mentor? This is not what I wanted I think but I’ll go with it. She tells me to deploy an app using Python Flask, using a CI/CD pipeline to an AWS account and send her all of this in code. Wow… actual coding?

September 2018 Switching from qualifications to actual coding against a brief gave me a new energy and a chance to hone those skills. Presenting my code to Dawn, in the end, was nerve-wracking but she was impressed. Dawn did something for me that no one had in all my life, she had instilled confidence and made me realise I just needed to believe in myself.

March 2019 Attending the Scale Summit conference resulted in 4 interviews and 4 job offers. My slightly protruding pizza belly and sob story were not what people were interested in, it was the Flask app Dawn asked me to make and deploy. An actual piece of code not exams was what people wanted to see.

I’m sure you guessed, this led to a job offer from The Scale Factory that I accepted. In fact, Jon explained that the company was looking at different ways to grow the business, and seeing my CV had decided to add a new recruitment stream for people who had less experience but showed promise. Since then, the company has hired three more colleagues into junior roles, and we’re keen to continue.

Present day you may ask what happened with the Nissin noodles? Well just between you and me I still keep the Spicy flavour ones in my cupboard. Sarah? Well, she moved back to her old school, won the junior drama cup and is now Drama Captain for the school. My husband’s business? He’s now selling and servicing supercars still but including electric ones (got to help the planet somehow). Me? Well, we moved back home and I’ve mentored and trained our junior consultants. Writing this blog sitting here sipping tea with some discounted biscuits of course from Asda… well there are some things you just can’t change!

Sarah with her junior drama cup

Sarah with her junior drama cup

On reflection of the past 5 years, I would say there is always something good that comes out of something bad. I have gained that confidence I never really had, helping our customers on a daily basis and spending time with my fantastic colleagues was the missing piece in my life. Coming back after an 18 year gap was a challenge, but I succeeded. If you’ve had a career gap, especially less than 18 years, you can succeed too.

You need the motivation, the willingness to push your boundaries and the support of people. I was lucky as I had Dawn and also Jon from The Scale Factory to guide me when I needed it the most. Don’t just study like I did: network with people and get hands on with infrastructure / code / both. What brings a smile to my face? Sarah telling her younger brother “if mamma can study and pass all her exams at this age so can we”. Cheeky monkeys!

“Nothing is impossible. The word itself says: ‘I’m possible!’” — Audrey Hepburn


Interested in a company that thinks outside the box? We are hiring for consultants to join our amazing team. Whether you’re starting your cloud consultancy journey or already have experience, get in touch because we would love to hear from you.

This blog is written exclusively by The Scale Factory team. We do not accept external contributions.

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