Neema Bollampally had a varied career that took her from finance to non-profit management and corporate philanthropy. After taking a break to take care of her twins, Neema wanted to restart her career in tech. She talks about her returnship experience at LendingClub, how the skills she gained in multiple fields and her break have translated into her role as a technical program manager, and the importance of building a community – both professional and personal.
Returnship role: Technical Program Manager
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 started my career in banking on the east coast, with a focus on financial reporting and analysis roles and a stint in HR. I eventually pivoted and joined a small nonprofit where I used my business skills to build our fundraising and operating infrastructure, and growth strategy. It was an incredible two years and it cultivated my interest in philanthropy. I took a new role managing grantmaking for a corporate foundation, which unexpectedly converted to a remote position when my husband got a job opportunity at a start-up in San Francisco.The following year I became pregnant with twins, but shortly after coming back from leave, the foundation shut its doors following a company split.
I was already a bit hesitant about going back to work full-time, so I saw this as a sign that I should take a career break. Once my twins were a year and a half, I started actively looking for a job. That process took about a year, with a lot of stops and starts. I would get plenty of interviews, but I couldn’t quite close the deal – it was usually down to me and one other candidate. I was also really interested in going into tech, but didn’t have a lot of tech experience.
I found out about Path Forward, and learned that they would be holding a Career Restart Seminar in several months. I thought, this is my chance to make it happen. LendingClub was the last booth on my way out that day. I happened to make eye contact with the recruiter, stopped to chat, and we totally hit it off. They even followed up later that week, encouraging me to apply. It all felt very serendipitous!
What prompted you to return to work?
To be honest, I felt very isolated at home. It’s difficult to get out of the house when the simplest things, like pushing a stroller up a hill, were twice as hard with twins! I felt like returning to work would be good for me socially and create a sense of fulfillment and contribution in a different way. I had a hunch that I would feel more balanced, and this would in turn benefit how I showed up for myself, my family, and in the world. As a wise Path Forward alum once told me, “It’s not the quantity of time spent with kids, but the quality.”
How did you prepare for your return to work?
My strategy for pivoting into tech was to attend as many tech-oriented networking events as I could find. And it was a great excuse to leave the house! I drew on all the fields I had experience in, from banking and finance to social impact work, and tried to make connections to tech companies “disrupting” these fields.
I also spent time thinking about what I was looking for in a new role/company and how to communicate this. Most importantly, I spent a lot of time practicing my story and getting crisp on why I was looking to transition back to the workforce now. I emphasized examples of my ability to learn and adapt quickly as evidenced by working in different sectors and why I believed in the power of technology to transform industries I had worked in.
The company I landed at – LendingClub – is transforming the banking system by putting Americans on a path to better financial health. This mission resonated with me and my experience, and I definitely made that clear in the interview process.
What was your returnship role at LendingClub?
I was a technical program manager. I had never done formal program management before, but a lot of my past work had elements of it, and I’m grateful that my hiring manager recognized that and took a chance on me.
Because I didn’t have a strong technical background, my manager and team were really good about easing me into the role. I was given a good mix of technical and strategic projects to work on. Once I converted to a full-time employee, I moved towards majority technical projects – a combo of my desire to grow in this area and the company’s needs. I definitely felt challenged.
My formula for success involved finding people who would walk me through technical design and thought. I am never shy about asking for clarifications, whether it’s a technical matter or about the discipline of project management. Similar to what I needed to do with newborn twins, I had a few go-to resources who were excited to teach and share their knowledge – and I took full advantage of their kind offers to take me under their wing!
What role were you converted full-time into?
I was hired as a technical program manager. When I first started my returnship, I was preparing for this huge shock, but that didn’t happen – my team provided a good on-ramp. Things really accelerated when I was converted, because there was an understanding that both the company and I were fully invested. It was pretty intense for a few months, but a year in, I had a much better handle on everything. The hardest part of any new job is learning how to work with new people and personalities!
Are there any skills from your pre-break career that you use in your new role? What about skills you gained during your career break?
The nature of the program management role is that it can draw on a lot of different backgrounds. One of the most important aspects of my role is planning and execution – which is something I’ve always taken on. At the non-profit and corporate foundation I worked at, a key part of my responsibilities was starting new processes, and instilling discipline and rigor into existing ones to keep everything running smoothly. Even though LendingClub is a much bigger company than these two organizations, the program management team is only a few years old, and we’re very much involved in building it out and shaping what it looks like, which is an exciting part of the job.
Another important aspect of program management is the ability to communicate well with stakeholders and build relationships. That’s something that my previous roles provided me with experience in, but it’s also something that I really built on during my career break. During my break I had to spend a lot of time creating a community, being comfortable reaching out to people I didn’t know very well, being open and vulnerable to learning and getting advice from others, and being resourceful and figuring out things I had never done before. All of those soft skills have helped me during my returnship in an industry and function I had never worked in before.
What did you find most helpful about being part of a Path Forward program at LendingClub?
Definitely the cohort and the network it provided. Prior to my LendingClub interview, I had actually been able to connect to a Path Forward program alum through a friend, which just shows how vast and supportive the network is. The monthly workshop is where I learned valuable “life-hacks,” because a really big part of returning to work is figuring out how to manage everything – your career, your family life, and your new schedule. Tami had a lot of helpful advice to share, and I got to hear real life experiences and hacks from alums and fellow participants. Even though everyone had their own background and story – some people had been out for over fifteen years, for instance – we all found ways to share advice and support each other.
What was your experience returning to work at LendingClub?
One thing I loved was having a buddy – another returnee who was starting as a technical program manager at the same time as me. I felt like we had each others’ backs, and it was a nice way to on-ramp alongside someone going through the same thing as me. The head of my team had also taken a year off work when she had her daughter. This was something she told me during my initial interview, and it really put me at ease to know that she had experienced that transition back to work herself, and would understand what I was going through. I felt very comfortable and supported in the LendingClub environment. The company is very family-friendly, with many working parents, and I was able to create the flexibility that I needed.
Do you have any advice for future returnees?
My first piece of advice is to try your best to get into the mindset of – “I’m taking a risk, and it might not go exactly the way I expect it to.” If you have a hunch that you want to go in a certain direction in your career, just try it and see how it pans out. You will build on it and learn from the experience.
My second piece of advice is to give any transition time. It’s a big change, especially if you’ve been out of the workforce for a long time. How I felt in the middle of my returnship was so different from how I felt a year in. Time and patience go a long way. And ask for the help you need, whether it’s from your colleagues or your community. I was pleasantly surprised at how willing people were to help.
Finally, it took me a while to realize the value of building on and leveraging my network, and meeting people face-to-face at events like Path Forward’s Career Restart Seminars. Tami has a really great quote that applies to this, “who you know is what you know.” That really stuck with me, because when I thought back to my job-search, I spent so much time blindly applying online, which wasn’t as productive as leaning on my network.
What has been the most exciting or gratifying part of returning to work?
While I was a returnee, I was also part of a program on women in leadership, and it was fortuitous that I was going through both at the same time. One topic we covered at my leadership program was the idea that discomfort and growth have to coexist – you can’t have a growth mindset without it. So the discomfort that I felt at the very beginning of my returnship was coming from the experience of working again, especially in a new industry. I can definitely say that I’ve gotten through a lot of those initial growing pains, and now feel this tremendous sense of accomplishment. I’ve gotten positive feedback from my manager on how much I’ve grown.
What are you most proud of accomplishing during your return to work experience?
When the hiring manager offered me the full-time position, I remember she ended the conversation by saying “just be confident.” I really appreciated that she mentioned that, because it made me evaluate how I project my confidence, and all of the things I was still hesitating on. I realized that, though I’m still relatively new to this, I can rely on my intuition, I know how to manage and get things done, and I know how to ask the right questions. I feel so much more confident now than I did at the beginning of my returnship. At the beginning of my job search, there were some dark moments, which I’m open about because I don’t want anyone to think that they’re alone. Looking back from where I started to today, I feel so much more confident both as a person and a professional.