Deepthi Parthasarathy took a break from her decade-long career as a software engineer to spend time with her toddler-aged daughter. When her daughter started school, she decided to return to work, but sought to make a career shift from development to product management. After completing a returnship in product management at Walmart Labs, she was hired there full-time as a Product Manager for their retail supply-chain technology team – the very role and area she had wanted to return to work in. She talks about her career restart journey, the ways running a small business helped her gain valuable career skills, and how she utilized her strengths to stand out and be an asset to her Walmart Labs team.
Tell me a bit about your career break. What type of work did you do before taking a break? What prompted your break, and how long were you out of the workforce?
I have a degree in Computer Science Engineering and had more than a decade of experience, mostly as a developer or tech lead in retail and supply chain for Fortune 500 companies. When my daughter was born, my husband and I made a decision that we were going to fully be there for her, so my husband actually took a two-year break from his job to take care of her. By the time she was two, she had gotten a bit older and started to talk and became really curious, and I wanted to spend time with her and connect with her more. My husband found a job in California and we relocated from Texas and I decided to stay home and spend some quality time with my daughter. but I still wanted to do something while she was napping, so I started a small business with a friend. It had nothing to do with my software background, but it brought some money home to help pay the bills.
This part of my life really took me away from my old life as a software engineer, where I was someone who worked full-time and coded for a living. But it was my choice, and it was exactly what I wanted at the time, so I see it as a good phase.
What prompted you to return to work?
After four years off, my daughter was getting older, and she had just started school full-time, so I had a lot more free time and decided to return to work.
How long were you actively looking for work prior to applying for a returnship?
You know, I started the process by thinking, “I have over a decade of experience, going back to work will be easy, all I have to do is to update my resume,” but startlingly, the whole process ended up taking me about 10 months. After that, I was actively looking for a job for about 6-8 months. I wanted to return to retail and supply chain management for a Fortune 500 company, but as a product manager, rather than a developer, which was what I had done previously. So there was a shift in the kind of work I was looking for, but at the same time I had so much experience in the domain that I thought it would be easier for me to get a job.
I really wanted to work at Walmart because I figured my previous work background would make me a great fit. I actually initially applied to a regular full-time product manager position at Walmart and did not get any response. I then applied for that same role, but as a Path Forward returnship, and have ended up exactly where I wanted to be — as a product manager at Walmart.
Did you take any classes or complete any training in preparation to return to work?
Before I took a break, most companies did not have a clear-cut product manager role. There were project leads who would end up doing most of the work of a product and project manager. I knew that I was lacking in a few developer methodologies that had become popular, like Agile. so I took some trainings and became a certified Scrum master, which helped me learn what Agile was, what practices companies followed today.
What was your returnship role at Walmart like?
When I did get the returnship in product management at Walmart, I thought, “This is awesome, this is exactly what I wanted. Everything has turned out so well.” Except after I started, I realized that I had been put on a team at Walmart that did cloud platform-based work, rather than retail supply-chain, so my background and experience was not really applicable. For about four months, my returnship role involved highly technical, cloud-based architecture, which I was completely unfamiliar with. It felt like a bit of a set-back for me.
I went ahead and started looking for areas where I could make myself more useful and add value to the team. And I realized that my fellow teammates were great at the technical aspects, but they weren’t as strong on the social element. So I took the lead on talking to other teams, raising awareness of our work, and presenting our product at conferences. So I was able to complement my team, which really helped them value my contributions. Although I was disappointed about where I landed, I decided to make the most of the opportunities that the returnship brought to me.
I also took advantage of the training sessions that Walmart organized for all of its returnees. In addition to Path Forward’s workshops, we had technical trainings at Walmart, which were specific to the company and made a huge difference for me. So we had a great support structure within Walmart itself which let us be there for each other, bounce off ideas, and to form a community. Another door the returnship opened for me was access to the leadership within Walmart, as we had all these talks and sessions with senior leadership. It was during one of those leadership conversations that I got to talk one-on-one to the senior vice president of supply-chain management. He realized what my background was, and that I would be a great asset to his team, and he helped me transition over to his team.
What role are you in now?
Once my returnship was ending, and thanks to traction from the senior vice president I had talked to, I was offered a product management role within the supply-chain team, which is exactly where I wanted to be – so it all worked out great in the end. I was not only hired full-time, but was moved up a level when I got converted. I don’t think I would have been able to get to where I am right now without Path Forward.
Are there any skills you gained during your career break that are useful to you now?
From a technical perspective, learning the Agile framework was pretty helpful, but otherwise the non-technical skills I gained were just immense. Having a child and having to manage the expectations of a toddler, as well as running a small business and managing the home, taught me a lot of soft skills that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. My small business showed me how to put yourself out there and be unafraid to ask for things, how to cope with people turning you down, all of which really helped me in both my job search and in my current job.
As a product manager, the nature of my job is such that I have to be able to prioritize what things are absolutely required for a customer, to get my engineering team to work on those priorities, as well as how to say no to my business-side colleagues and knowing how to manage stake-holder expectations. All of these were things I learned how to do well during my career break, rather than in my previous career.
What did you find most helpful about being part of a Path Forward program at Walmart?
There are a couple of things. First was the support structure that Path Forward provided. Being surrounded by other returnees made me remember that I was not alone and that others were navigating the exact same situation. The second thing was having access to training and opportunities for networking at Walmart – Path Forward opened that door for me. Finally, the Path Forward workshops were very helpful. Just hearing returnship alumni come back and speak about their experiences, and share their perspectives from the end of the returnship program. It made me feel like I could get to that point too. The workshops taught me to focus on the opportunities I had, versus wallowing in self-pity or feeling like I had reached a dead end.
What was the experience of returning to work at Walmart like?
When I got onto my original team, they were so welcoming. However – funny story – when they heard that I was part of a returnship program, they assumed that I had taken a career break from Walmart, and was coming back. So they thought that I already knew a lot about how Walmart worked. Eventually I burst that bubble, and they realized that I needed a bit more support and on-boarding, and it helped them set the right expectations for me.
But if I had gone to Walmart directly after my break and had gotten a job without a returnship, I think it would have been much harder for me. With a returnship I had more support, and felt more comfortable reaching out and asking for help, and that four month period helped me understand my capabilities, get rid of my self-doubts, as well as ramp up gradually and be able to be the best I could be.
What has been the most exciting or gratifying part of returning to work?
The parts that scared me the most were what turned out to be most fruitful parts of returning to work. I was afraid to leave my daughter at first, but now I see how well she is able to cope, self-manage, and help out with chores around the house. She sees me in a different way now, and has set certain expectations for her father now that I’m working, too. All these things boost your morale and convince you made the right choice, both to take a break, and to return to work after.
What are you most proud of accomplishing during your return to work experience?
I got the opportunity to represent our team in the Global Data Science Conference in Bentonville, Arkansas. Being able to take my team there and present our product was something I am so proud of. We made a cool video to present our product, which I had done the voiceover for. It was telecast to Walmart offices all over the world. It came with a lot of apprehension, but was a tremendous experience.
You came to speak to our Spring 2019 returnees at their first workshop a few weeks ago. What inspired you to return as a Path Forward alum and share your experience?
While I was part of the returnship and having alumni come back and talk to us, I knew even then that if I made it through my returnship, I would come back to share my experiences and pay it forward. It was so helpful to me at the time, so I was super excited to be given the opportunity to come back as an alumni. I think speaking at the workshop was the least I could do.
During the months that I was applying to work, I thought I was a minority, and had an inferiority complex from it. But after attending a Path Forward Career Restart Seminar in Palo Alto, where I saw an auditorium filled with hundreds of other folks just like me, I had a transformation. I realized that if there were this many people at this one event who were in my situation, there must be thousands of other folks like me, and it made me feel better. I am extremely thankful that everyone at Path Forward makes the effort to do this over and over again for people like me.
Thanks for sharing your story, Deepthi! We are so happy you’ve found success and balance in your career. – The Path Forward Team