No time left to lose
May 16, 2012 8:34 PM   Subscribe

Did nothing for 3 years. Now I need a job again. Am I doomed?

Three years ago, I had a nice job in the computer industry, programming for $$$. I was good but not great and had that job for 2 years. On a whim I quit my job and have spent the last three years failing at things and staring into the abyss. I have nothing to show for it, literally nothing. On my résumé it will look like a vast blank area. No projects, no portfolio, no nothing.

This was not the plan, but this is how it turned out. I'm 42. Now I need $$, so I need to reenter the workforce. I don't think I have the time to start a new career from scratch. I have a degree, I have work experience, but these lost years feel like an unshakeable stigma and my confidence is very low. Who would hire me?

(If you would guess severe depression is in play, you'd be right, but medical care was not involved so I have no paper trail. Should I mention it at all?)

How screwed am I? Is this gap fatal to my career? How should I put it on the résumé?

What expression can I expect on the faces of potential employers? Is there hope?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I would say you tried starting your own business, or you did contract work, or you simply took a sabbatical. There's going to be some raised eyebrows by a gap in your resume, but covering it with something other than, "I WAS A GIANT FAILURE!" is going to be your best bet.

Employers want to hire the right person for the job requirements they have. They don't care too much about what your story is (unless it's something unsavory), so as long as what you're saying is something that doesn't set off red flags and isn't a giant, whopping lie, you should be okay.
posted by xingcat at 8:42 PM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

No, do not make any reference about your depression to explain your absence from the workforce under any circumstances. What did you fail at, exactly? If you can frame it as a learning experience, that can work well for you if you can sell it. If you volunteered, attended any classes, helped any one, perhaps you can use that to explain the gaps.
posted by Issithe at 8:44 PM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

For what it's worth, I went back to work after a time out of the workforce (shorter than yours, only nine months) but no one I interviewed with even batted an eye.

You may have some explaining to do, but layoffs have become so common over the past few years that resume gaps don't seem to be as big a red flag as they used to be. As long as you have good and reasonably current skills (were you working on absolute bleeding-edge technology or more mainstream stuff?) I don't think you'll find it impossible.

The bigger problem for you may well be the lack of confidence -- you'll need some of that to go through the application and interviewing processes. Have you addressed the underlying issues (perhaps with a professional)? Are there volunteer projects (open-source, etc) you could work on in the near term to sharpen your skills and confidence, and give you something to put on the resume?
posted by jdwhite at 8:44 PM on May 16, 2012

First, a comforting pat on the arm from a comrade here who has been there, done that, and is coming back on the grid after time away. You can do this thing.

Those three years off the grid? How about you were a "Consultant"?

Depending on how comfortable you are with fudging things, "Caring for a sick relative" is also legit, and not entirely untrue (you were caring for yourself).

Keep the depression DADT. Not because there's any shame in it, but because it's no one's god damn business.
posted by quivering_fantods at 8:47 PM on May 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

What were you doing for the last three years? You say you spent the time "failing at things" — what were those things? If you tried to start your own business or you wrote a screenplay or you studied to become a Jeopardy contestant, then that is what you did the last three years and you say so. There's no need to say you "failed at them". At most you say, with a rueful smile, that it didn't work out but you're glad you gave it your best shot anyway, and now you want to get a regular job again.

Start building your portfolio again. Work on your own projects or start volunteering somewhere. That'll give you some fresh references and contacts as well. Take classes. Get back in touch with the people you used to work with and for. LinkedIn is good for that.

Above all, don't use words like "doomed". You're 42, not 92 years old, and you've got marketable skills and a work history to build on. It just needs a little dusting off. And you need to be more positive.
posted by orange swan at 8:50 PM on May 16, 2012 [18 favorites]

You'll be fine. Every parent coming back into the job market after taking time off to care for small children has a very similar CV gap. Mums and dads of school-aged children get hired all the time, even after much longer gaps out of the workforce. Gaps are totally normal.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:02 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you want to get back into programming first thing I'd recommend is geting some visible code under your belt.

Get a github account, find some interesting OS projects, fork them, and improve them if you can. Write some of our own stuff. Figure out tools you need and write them for yourself. This is especially important because many interviewers are interested in the code you write and want to see it. If all you have is the code you wrote 3+ years ago, that's not going to look great.

Depending on the languages you were coding in, a lot of things might have changed about them. Read up on them and become familiar with the popular languages in your area of programming. I know for web programming at least while there are still plenty of jobs out there for PHP programmers you'll also want some familiarity with Python and Ruby (and maybe even JavaScript with the rise of Node.js).

The past 3-4 years have been tough; the economy has been terrible and jobs have been hard to find and hold. So long as you weren't literally sitting on your butt doing nothing, your struggles and trials can be pitched as an asset. Think of it this way: you managed to keep yourself housed, clothed, and fed for the past 3 years without a steady paycheck, so you had to be at least somewhat resourceful.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:24 PM on May 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

my confidence is very low

This is the real problem. Other commenters have pointed out that the gap is surmountable. Your belief that it has created an insurmountable stigma that will prevent anyone from wanting to hire you is a bigger hurdle than the 3-year gap itself.
posted by John Cohen at 9:25 PM on May 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

Nthing that your "failures" look very much like other people's successes, minus the good luck. You're someone with the same experience as any other entrepreneur, except with less of a swelled head, so you're smart and ambitious but you know when to cut bait. You possess some humility and recognize the advantages of working for someone other than yourself. Consider your potential employer's point of view -- this is all good.
posted by desuetude at 9:43 PM on May 16, 2012

Having done some interviews and helping with hiring, sat in on some interviews, and hung out with recruiters, you will need to:

Come up with a convincing narrative. Okay, you left the field and tried some different things because (reason). Like "I stopped programming because I'd always wanted to be an acrobat in Cirque de Soleil, so when the opportunity arose, I felt I had to take it..."

But it didn't work out, so like the teacher says, what did you learn? Mistakes are a valuable learning tool, so tell me what you learned about yourself and the business skills. "I learned that when I set my mind to it, I can do anything, including some of those really difficult swinging-from-silk routines that look really painful. And I learned that even Cirque du Soleil clowns are creepy. Sometimes moreso than normal circus clowns, and it doesn't pay to have creepy clowns when people are paying to see a family friendly show. Furthermore, the way the box office computers handled tickets was terrible and I thought their system could use (specific technical things, you get the idea)."

Tell me why you're coming back. "Unfortunately, I tore my ACL and could no longer be an acrobat, but those three years off made me realize how much I love programming and how much I missed it."

And then tell me what you've been doing to get back into shape, as it were. Picking up new technologies and tools, examining the field, trying new things, starting some projects. Show me you still have your chops and can pick up new things. "So I checked out (whatever the new tools and developments are), wrote some iPhone/Android apps, did some bugfixing on (whatever an open source project might be), and am working on picking up..." Again, you get the idea. Show me you're engaged and getting up to speed again.

That voice telling you you're permanently damaged/doomed is depression. It's a parasite. It wants to live, so it's attacking your emotions to burrow its tendrils in further.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:45 PM on May 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

I used to be a programmer, restarted my career from scratch, and now work in a corporate finance department (where I'm much happier). Even though I don't directly use my programming skills anymore, I've never regretted having them on my resume. Where other people who didn't know the software had to justify it on the interview, saying unprovable things like "I'm a really fast learner", I could always say "Look, I made software for a living, so I really doubt that a lack of technical skill is going to be an issue here." We live in a technical world, and having that skillset is a tool that will open doors regardless of what field you choose to be in.

I also agree with what was said upthread about your phrasing. You didn't fail at stuff, you tried your hand at entreprenurship and learned some very valuable skills from it, even though the market may not have been ready for your ideas. (It's all about spin.)
posted by wolfdreams01 at 10:03 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Tell 'em you left to explore becoming a massage therapist. Or real estate agent ("Boy was my timing BAD!") or whatever. You had needed a change, so you left; gave it your best shot, butlearned it just wasn't for you & you missed X, Y, or Z aspects of your old job.

Seriously, this worked for me.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 10:44 PM on May 16, 2012

I'm in a similar position, having been underemployed for a couple of years myself. A lot of us are out here, and I'm also over 40. Take heart, you are far from alone and not a failure. WolfDreams01 is right, it is all about the spin, and Deathalicious has some solid advice.

I have a friend 10 years older than you who was out of work for two years and got a programming job, and after leaving that found another in just a few weeks. It can be done.

I have professional resume writing experience and would be happy to take a look at yours and can probably also run it by my friend. Memail me.
posted by xenophile at 10:47 PM on May 16, 2012

You are not doomed and, whatever you do, do not mention your depression. You are under no obligation to disclose a medical condition, and this medical condition in paritcular, even very intelligent, reasonable people react in odd ways. That baffles me to this day, but it's the truth. If you think of interviewing like dating, well, you present your best self in the best possible light with the knowledge that the other layers, which add depth and dimension, will reveal themselves over time. So, full disclosure is not necessary during the first few encounters by any means.

As for your specific gap, it really is all in how you present it. Right now, you are framing it in terms of failure and futility. Instead, articulate it in terms of hope and possibility as best as you can. You left a lucrative, stable position because you had a deep desire to pursue something else that you were more passionate about (the "more" is important, because you want to come across as enthusiastic about your field of expertise because that is where you will most likely end up again). Focus on the lessons you've learned and what you have gained. It sounds like you might be finding it hard to discern what those are, but they are there. Ask friends/family/colleagues/a therapist/career counselor about what you have gained during these three years of exploration. It might not have resulted in fantastical success, but you did something the majority of us dream of doing. You left the status quo in search of something more. It didn't end in the fireworks, unicorn awesomeness most of us also dream about, but that's okay and completely normal. You were brave and forward thinking (even if most of the time it didn't feel that way). Emphasize that and people will be excited about you. Trust.

On a more personal note, I know how scary it is. I had to job search after very visibly and publicly psychologically imploding. Once the dust settled, it was petrifying, but I secured a good job that worked well for me for quite a few years. So, there is hope. Your ambitions and dreams may shift and need to be redefined, but don't even worry about that now. Focus on what you have to offer and separate out all the personal/medical bullshit. Most people do not and never will need to know about that. Focus on who you were as an employee and professional before the gap, and then weave in the good things that have come about during that time. Best of luck! If you have questions or want to talk, please feel free to email me. My address is in my profile.
posted by katemcd at 11:17 PM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Are you joking me??

Man! I wish 20 years someone had told me what I am about to tell you...

It is ENVIABLE that you had the resources to take three whole years and pursue whatever it was you were pursuing!

It's like you were on independent study time or something. Really!

Being depressed during some of that time, btw - totally normal. Part of your "independent study" was studying yourself. A noble pursuit!

Embrace it. Like I said, it's the dream everyone wishes they could option:))

I'm also 42. I understand your concerns, but really, life is different today in 2012. Your concerns about the gap in your resume are so 1992!
posted by jbenben at 12:39 AM on May 17, 2012 [9 favorites]

I agree with others who say that your recent experiences outside of programming need not be a problem if you phrase it correctly; might even be an asset!

As for getting back up to speed... just get coding. You have a computer, right? What language(s) have you coded in? Do you want to concentrate there, or move to a new language? I'd be happy to help you pick/set up a development environment or two. Have you used VM's? There're tons of stuff online: tech communities, classes, projects. Here's a site where non-profits need coding, and you pick one to volunteer for, That could look good on your resume and give you your confidence back. I'd be happy to offer some suggestions on languages, technologies, methodologies, etc. as well as problemsets, tutorial videos, online classes, open source projects, etc.

Remember how, in your previous programming jobs, most of your time was spent discovering stupid things unique to that industry, that company, that project, that team? Things that everyone was figuring out as they went? You haven't lost any ground there, any new team member will have to learn that stuff, so in many respects, you'll be just another new team member, learning which drawer they keep the spoons in.
posted by at at 6:37 AM on May 17, 2012

One man's story, British and possibly not relevant but just to encourage you (hopefully)... I worked in IT from the age of 21 until I was almost 50, hating every damned minute of it. I reached snapping point and quit, back in early 2009. I had no plans and no job lined up. I did, however, have money, so there was that. I didn't even try to find work for about 18 months. I travelled. I relaxed. I brought my elevated blood pressure down. I spent most of my savings. So it goes.

In October of 2010 I started looking for work. I knew I'd probably burned my bridges with the IT/Business world but I was fine with that because I thought I'd probably rather die than ever do that work again. I was willing to consider any job but teaching and I expected that the best salary I could hope for would be no more than half my previous one, probably quite a bit less. This was okay because my mortgage was paid off and I live alone, and cheaply. My outgoings are low. I was prepared to take work as a driver, in a warehouse, in a factory, behind a bar... I took a course in security guard training. Anything. I needed a complete change. Then I got lucky.

I started training as a train driver in July 2011. I qualified this March. The job is very well paid and I absolutely love it. I will be 53 next week. It can be done. Hang in there, accentuate the positive and keep plugging away. Don't be disheartened by the inevitable rejections just be flexible, think outside of your comfortable boxes and keep. Plugging. Away.

And the best of luck!
posted by Decani at 10:14 AM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

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