Participant Spotlight: Vanessa Barker

Company: Wells Fargo
Position: Software Engineer

Vanessa Barker enjoyed a 13-year career in financial services before taking a break to spend time with her daughter and care for her mother. Just as Vanessa was ready to return to work, the COVID pandemic hit, making her job search more difficult among hiring freezes and layoffs. After learning about Path Forward and the concept of returnships, she applied for and was accepted into Wells Fargo’s inaugural Glide-Relaunch Program – where she now works full-time as a software engineer. She talks to us about how Wells Fargo’s program structure facilitated her smooth transition back to work, how her break helped her find joy in her new career, and why connecting with people is so important in a job search.

What did you do prior to your break, what prompted your break, and how long were you out of the workforce?
I’ve been in financial services my entire professional career. My background began as a banker, then I moved into software where I used my banking background to focus on building automated solutions for financial institutions. My most recent role was Program Manager for a global technology and data organization. I had many roles during my thirteen years with the company including Operations Manager, Product Manager, and Platform Solutions Manager.

 After thirteen years, I knew that I was ready for a change and started exploring other opportunities. Meanwhile, my daughter was about to be a senior in high school, and my mother had several medical procedures lined up, and I wanted to be more present for both of them. So, my original plan was to take six months off, and then start looking for my next career. Unfortunately, six months in, just as I was about to start my job search, our home was struck by lightning during a bad storm and the damage was so extensive we had to temporarily move out of our home. Thus began my role as the project manager for the rebuilding of our family home. Altogether, my break lasted about 14 months.  

What prompted your return to work?
My intention was always to return to work. After fourteen months, I had done everything I had wanted to do during my break. I was lucky to be able to dedicate the time I needed to get my family’s home renovated, to spend more time with my kids after working throughout their entire childhood, and to help my mom post-surgery. Once our home was in livable condition and everything was back to normal, I knew I was ready to go back and start looking for my next role.  

How long were you actively looking for work prior to applying for the Wells Fargo program?
I began my search in August 2019, and it was a slow start because I had not job-searched for years. The landscape of the application process had completely changed, so it was a bit of a learning process. I spent a lot of time on LinkedIn talking to recruiters, reading articles for advice, and applying to as many opportunities as I could because I figured it was a volume game. When that approach didn’t work, I took a step back and thought, I need to try a more focused and tactical approach. I honed in on a group of companies I was really interested in. I invested a great amount of time in research. I learned all I could about the companies, watched their job openings, and tried to make meaningful connections within the organization. By January 2020, my new approach seemed to be paying off. I started making connections and getting interviews. In late February and early March 2020, I was in late rounds of interviews when COVID hit. Overnight, budgets were slashed, my HR connections were displaced, and in most cases, hiring was put on an indefinite hold. With the widespread layoffs, there was even more competition for jobs.

Then, in September, I found Path Forward through LinkedIn. The concept behind Path Forward gave me a whole new perspective on my job search. It was so refreshing to find an organization that was focused on helping professionals get back into the workforce after caregiving breaks. It really felt like a light at the end of the tunnel, to see that there is a real effort being made to help people like myself. I visited their website and immediately found local companies with open opportunities. One of them was Wells Fargo, so I applied. The application process was the smoothest I had experienced in all my time job searching – everything from the initial screening to the interview was straightforward and quick. It was a great experience, and it was really a blessing to have found it through Path Forward. 

What was your transition back to the workforce like, and how did Wells Fargo support you?
Everything from the application process to the onboarding was top-notch. My manager did a great job incorporating me in the role and my team was super welcoming. I’ve never worked remotely before, and I was nervous about not only returning to work, but doing it virtually. However, the program provided for a great transition. My manager and I chatted daily, and everyone gave quick support when I needed help. Wells Fargo also did a great job of encouraging employees to connect remotely. We have a plethora of communities across the organization, and there have been lunch learning sessions, networking events, global town halls – there was something for everyone. Not to mention, there’s something to be said for a two-minute commute from the coffee machine to my computer! 

What was your return to work experience like?
Overall, the Glide-Relaunch Program was a highly visible and supported 10-week program that brought us tremendous benefits. From the beginning, the program was organized to be thoughtful and welcoming, and set each of us up for success within our respective fields. For example, our CEO and President of Wells Fargo, Charlie Sharp was among one of the senior leaders who took the time to chat and welcome our cohort. He and our other guest speakers were gracious and candid, addressed complex topics, and candidly answered all of our questions, no matter how tough they were.  

We were given opportunities to take part in writing newsletters for the organization that placed a spotlight on the Glide Relaunch program and its participants. We also had the chance to finish our program with a capstone project. Since this was the inaugural Glide-Relaunch Program, at the end of the 10 weeks we were asked to propose recommendations for future programs based on our experiences.  

We were able to build relationships with our teams as well as one another, and it was just a great way to onboard alongside a group of professionals. I just can’t say enough about the experience and the investment that Wells Fargo made in our group of Relaunchers. It was a tremendous effort on their part, and they did a great job.

What role are you in now?
I’m starting my fourth month at Wells Fargo, working in the Data Solutions and Services organization as a software engineer, the same role I was assigned to during my returnship. I’m beginning to feel more confident in my work and understanding of the ins and outs of the organization. I’m enjoying increasing responsibilities and learning something new every day. It’s been a welcome challenge for me. 

Are there any skills from your pre-break career that you use in your current role?
I’m using most of the skills from my last role. The systems and applications are different, but the concepts are the same. I’m working with developers, application teams, and product owners, to coordinate and deliver changes to various applications and environments. So, I am definitely using my past experience as a program manager in software technology. Wells Fargo did a great job in pairing me with a team that could utilize my skills. Although I started my career working directly with customers, I’ve come to enjoy working with technology and the applications that impact services we provide for customers. Technology groups are never short of challenges, and I like to solve problems and implement changes.  

Are there any skills that you gained during your career break that you find useful now in your current role?
During my career break, I took the opportunity to find some things that brought me joy again. I had lost sight of that in my previous career. I was so focused on working, working, working, and when I wasn’t at work, I was trying to balance being a mom, a wife, a daughter, and a sister. During my break, I had time to myself, and I tried to go back and find the things that inspire and fulfill me. That meant both spending time on personal interests, and trying to find what would bring me fulfillment in my next career. I took the time to read books, watch videos, and sought out interviews with executives of companies I was interested in applying to. I took LinkedIn learning courses, and watched YouTube classes. These activities put me in a great place to restart my career. And I think that was such an important discovery for me during my break. So, while it’s not a hard skill, I think my break reminded me of the importance of taking time for your own personal growth and hobbies. Now that I’m back in the workforce, I still try to set aside time for myself, and dedicate myself to hobbies outside of work, because I now recognize that that’s the best way to fight back against burnout. 

How has Wells Fargo helped with work-life balance?
The work-life balance has been absolutely great. Aside from not having to deal with a long commute while I work remotely, my manager and my team are very considerate about family and life circumstances. They’re very flexible and understanding and like to say, “Make sure you’re taking care of yourself.”  

At Wells Fargo, there’s an understanding that we are all professionals, and we know what our job responsibilities are. If we have to log out for an hour during the day and log back in later to finish something, as long as the work gets done, no one minds. So that flexibility has been fantastic. What’s also great is that, when I leave my desk at the end of the day, my work is finished for the day. I can log off and go spend time with my family, or take time off when I need to. 

Did you find anything helpful about the support that you received from Path Forward during your return to work?
For someone who had been looking as long as I had, you start to get discouraged from all the rejections and messages thrown your way. I even had several recruiters tell me that they couldn’t present my resume because of my gap. After you’ve heard that a few times, and applied to so many jobs without a response, you start to question whether you’ll ever return to work. And Path Forward is a game-changer for people like me – from the site resources, to the regular webinars you provide, to the fact that you have concrete opportunities on your site. Path Forward completely changed the way I thought about my job search, and it was my path to finding my career at Wells Fargo.  

What are you most proud of accomplishing during your return to work experience?
I’ve been given the opportunity to participate in a couple of pilot program tests. I’ve taken aspects of the Glide-Relaunch program and helped integrate it into the Wells Fargo Girls Who Code program, which provides young women with similar onboarding experiences to what I had with Glide-Relaunch. That support system is so critical to fostering success and longevity at Wells Fargo, so I’ve been really happy to be able to take my experience and pay it forward.  

Do you have any advice for future returners?
My first piece of advice is never question your value. The job application process is highly imperfect and there will be roles that you know you can do that you will not get. You need to stay the course, stay confident, and keep applying. Utilize your resources, and never hesitate to reach out and connect with people. You never know what you will learn, or what a conversation might lead to. Finally, if you’re a returner, take advantage of the tremendous resources that Path Forward has on their site.  

Thanks for sharing your story, Vanessa! We are so happy you’ve found success and balance in your career. You can learn more about Vanessa on her LinkedIn page.
– The Path Forward Team