Returner Spotlight: Heidi McAllister

Company: Amazon
Position: Software Development Engineer

Heidi McAllister took a break from her 20-year career in software development to spend more time with her young children. After seven years, she was ready to return to her career, and had just begun a returnship at Amazon when her team went virtual due to the pandemic. She completed her returnship remotely, and now works at Amazon full-time as a software development engineer. Heidi talks about her extensive preparation for her return to work, how her team and managers supported her remotely, and the ways Amazon’s onboarding and program structure ensured that her returnship was a success.

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 was a software development engineer for 20 years, and spent the last 13 years at Microsoft, where I worked on application development. I really enjoyed my work, but when my kids were still little, I felt torn between home and work, and wasn’t able to focus my attention fully on either. I had been thinking about taking a break for a while, and when my daughter was in first grade and my son was in third, it just felt like time was passing by way too quickly. I wanted to take a step back and make sure I wasn’t missing them growing up, and I knew that things were only going to get busier and busier in the coming years, so I took a break from my career to focus on my family. 

What prompted you to return to work?
My break lasted about seven years. I never expected to be out that long, but I was worried about going back, especially because I worked in technology, and it changes so quickly. I felt like I had been on a train, and I jumped off, and it just kept going. And I thought, I want to go back, but how am I possibly going to catch up? So, the years went on, my kids grew into teenagers, and the prospect of college and tuition was coming up. My kids were becoming more independent and didn’t need me running after them anymore, and it seemed like the perfect time for me to focus my energy on something else. During my break, I stayed busy with volunteering, but I always loved my job, and I missed it.

How long were you actively looking for work prior to applying for a returnship?
I was looking for about a year, but I wasn’t actively applying. I spent more time checking to see what kind of jobs were available, reading job descriptions, and trying to assess if any of the skills I had were still relevant. I mostly looked for remote work, because that seemed like a good way to ease back into working, but I was selective about where I applied.  

Did you take any classes or complete any training in preparation for your return to work?
To freshen up my skills, I watched a lot of tutorials. I took various C# and C++ classes on Pluralsight and CodeAcademy, and watched technical videos on Udemy and LinkedIn Learning, as well as reading up on how to interview well. I started writing a little software application just for myself, so I could figure out which technologies I knew and which I needed to work on. My biggest struggle was trying to decide where to put my focus and what specific field to commit myself to, because my experience was in a few different programming languages. I’d look at a variety of different jobs, try creating some sample apps, and practice a little of everything. And that was tough, because I never felt like my qualifications quite fit into anything. I started to get discouraged and thought maybe this career return was never going to happen. What helped was ultimately narrowing it down to two areas that I felt strongest in, and focusing on familiarizing myself with those technologies. 

That’s why Path Forward’s returnship program is so amazing, because I knew in my heart that I had value to add to a company, and I had a lot of experience, even if it wasn’t fresh experience. I just had to figure out how to get an employer to recognize my value.  

What happened when you started your returnship at Amazon?
I was in a software developer returnship, and had a bit of a unique experience because I was physically in the office for only eight days before we went remote due to the pandemic. That gave me just enough time to get set up on their system, and to meet my team in person. But that transition to working remotely actually went pretty smoothly. The entire team was getting used to it at the same time and trying to figure out how to restructure team interactions, so it felt like we were all learning together! My manager was also good at making sure that we had all the resources that we needed, trying to help people be conscious of how much they were working, and making sure people weren’t getting burned out. 

The onboarding was a great experience. Amazon wanted to make sure that we really understood the culture, our role, and the resources available to us. Everyone has their own personal onboarding plan, with a mentor and training specialized to your role. For a returnee, going through that thought-out onboarding process was really nice. My manager and team understood that coming back to work as a returnee is a big transition, and they were really understanding and supportive. Even remotely, I always felt like my team was available when I had a question, which was helpful. Even though expectations exist for you, there’s a comfortable transition. I initially worked on an internal project, and then I moved over to a customer-facing project, which I’m still working on today. 

How did your team at Amazon support you?
What I really appreciate is that, even though I still have some self-doubts, I can tell that my manager and my team had a lot of confidence in me and recognized my abilities, which is refreshing. They made me feel like I was part of the team and believed in my contributions. For instance, shortly after I was converted full-time, I was asked to give a tech talk to about 50 other developers in our larger engineering team, on a project that I’d been working on during my four-month returnship.  

It did take some effort to put together a presentation, and to figure out what was expected of me, but I ended up learning even more about my project. And it showed me that you can tackle so much more when you have support from others. Because what helped me through it was knowing that my manager had enough confidence in me to know that I could represent our project well. 

Are there any skills from your pre-break career that you use in your current role? What about skills you gained during your career break?
When I was applying for jobs, I was so worried about my experience not being current. But I quickly realized that in a returnship you’re not expected to know everything immediately. There’s an expectation that you can learn and grow. There’s an emphasis on the ability to problem-solve and pay attention to detail, which are just as important – if not more important – than technical skills, which can always be refreshed. As I started working and got more involved, my technical knowledge started coming back to me, so it’s not like I was starting from zero. The classes I took during my break, and my previous work experience, even if it wasn’t an exact fit to my current role, could still be applied, especially best practices.

My break, and the experience I got from raising my kids and volunteering, helped me build up my organizational skills, made me better at dealing with stress, and helped me approach difficult situations more calmly and strategically. 

What did you find most helpful about being part of the Path Forward program?
When I initially found out about Path Forward, I got a lot out of reading the advice blogs and success story interviews of previous returnship participants. When I was a part of the program, I loved being part of a community, and the support and check-ins that come with that. I really appreciated the advice and encouragement that the Path Forward team, especially returnship Program Manager Abigail Kelly, provided along the way, and the fact that they were always there to chat if I had any issues.  

Being part of a program with others lets you take a step back and recognize that, although this is kind of a unique experience, you’re not going through it alone. There’s a sense of community that comes from sharing your return to work with others, and all the successes and challenges that come with it. 

I’m grateful to Path Forward because the entire team’s efforts feel so sincere. They really care about us and want us to succeed, and to get as much as we can out of our returnship opportunities. 

What are you most proud of accomplishing during your return to work?
I’m really proud of earning the trust and respect of my team, being recognized as a contributor, and being able to get up to speed on technology and continue to pick up new skills. My kids were pretty small when I last worked, so it’s been a good example for them to see me work hard at my returnship, and to see me put continued effort into my role, as a model of both work ethic and the importance of continuing to learn.  

Do you have any advice for future returnees?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. This is something I still struggle with, because I always want to figure things out on my own. But you need to strike a balance between working it out yourself and reaching out to someone for help. 

And just have confidence in yourself. Take on whatever challenges are presented to you. Dig in and work through them. That’s what I did during my returnship – from the different tasks that were given to me, to the tech talk that I was asked to do, I just embraced it, even if I was thinking internally, how am I going to do this? Operate with an outer confidence and you’ll find that you’re able to figure out more than you think.

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