Success Story: Kathryn Zaharek

Kathryn Zaharek returned to work after a 3 year break by completing a returnship at Audible, where she now works full-time as a Senior Product Manager. She tells us about how she prepared for her return, how Audible supported her during her remote returnship experience, and explains why returners should always have an elevator pitch ready.

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 had a career break of about three years because I needed to focus on taking care of my family. It was a combination of family members needing surgeries, getting sick and wanting to be cared for at home, and my beloved therapy dog, who had helped so many people, needed cancer treatment. One or two emergencies at a time is doable, but in this case, it was clear that I needed to focus on my family. Prior to that I was a Senior Product Manager at AOL, then ran my own consulting business. From start-ups to long standing institutions, I provided product management, project leadership, and technical consulting services across multiple settings and functional areas to solve problems, maximize performance, and improve user experiences. When I was ready to restart my career after my break, I knew I wanted to go back to product management in a tech-focused space, and I began strategizing on what that would look like.

How did you prepare for your return to work? Did you take any classes or complete any training?
Working in tech, if you take a break, you date yourself almost instantly because things move quickly, and technology changes. I analyzed job descriptions for roles I wanted to target, evaluated my background, then made myself a project. I treated my job search process like a full-time job. I woke up, sat in front of my computer at 8am, and started working, dividing my time between networking, applying, and up-skilling. Along the way, I got certified as a Scrum master, took a calculus class, participated in an Adobe UX competition, worked on a UX certification, and completed an intensive fellowship in software engineering through General Assembly. That was perfect, because I spent a lot of time with engineers in my previous career and was able to brush up my skills and dive deeper into coding, building applications, and other technical skills that a product manager who works with engineers should know. I also started an MBA program.

In addition, I also volunteered, applying product management and consulting skills pro bono for an early stage SAAS startup, children’s art organization, and a non-profit wildlife rescue group. I did everything I could to make sure that there wouldn’t be a shadow of a doubt about my capabilities, and to show that I was fully committed and serious about returning to work in tech.

Did the upskilling you did help you in your job-search and your returnship?
I think it did. I felt that had a lot of skills already, but during the pandemic I had the opportunity to talk to some recruiters who had unexpected downtime, and they were very candid – they told me that although I clearly had a great background and talent, my experience was not current enough, and that there was nothing they could do for me. That was really sobering to hear and motivating. I think taking courses and volunteering shows your level of commitment during the job search. It makes clear that you’re motivated to get back into the tech space, and that you’re willing to pull out all the stops and make sure that you have everything you need to be successful.

What was your returnship at Audible like?
I returned to work at Audible as a Senior Product Manager. The program was so well done, in every aspect, from the interview to the returnship to the conversion into a full-time employee. It was clear that Audible put a lot of thought and consideration into it and that the company wanted everyone they accepted into the program to be successful. From the first week onwards, we had seminars and workshops, which provided us with success tips, information about Audible, and even a chance to hear executives share their experiences. I was given a mentor, a product manager who was senior to me. We met frequently, and she answered any questions I had. I also had a mentor who held a senior-level position at Audible, who I met with once a month. On top of that, I had my manager, of course, who provided a clear outline of expectations, list of key people to meet, and provided feedback. When I first came in, I was given an outline of what would be expected of me at week one, week two, 30 days, and 60 days. This was all a level of support that I had never experienced. Audible put a lot of effort into ensuring our success. The program was very structured and went well above and beyond.

About half-way through my returnship, I started feeling fully integrated into my team. I had some really interesting projects and was working on them so diligently that I couldn’t even imagine not continuing in my role. So it was a very smooth transition from the returnship to my full-time role at Audible.

Are there any skills from your pre-break career that you use in your current role? What about skills gained during your career break?
I think everything I’ve done in my career and during my ‘break’ is utilized in my current role. I’ve worked in a variety of tech roles, and I draw on all of that knowledge and skills.

As a consultant, I was brought into projects where I didn’t know anyone, and I had to complete them in a short window of time, working with a variety of people. As a Senior Product Manager at AOL, I wrote product requirements documents, white boarded solutions with engineers, and worked with teams across the organization. During my break, I gained a lot of skills and brushed up on some old ones which were specific to a PM role in a tech company.

During my break I also learned balance. In the past, when I was given a project, I would focus on that project like nothing else existed. But there needs to be balance between work and home. Family is important and work is important – you have to make time for both.

How does Audible’s culture help with maintaining that balance?
Thankfully, Audible seems to really put an emphasis on work-life balance and family. It’s not uncommon to be video chatting with someone and see their child walk behind them, see someone pick up a baby in the middle of a meeting, or have a team member take time off for family. Part of that might be a product of the pandemic, but at Audible there is an understanding that you have a family and that it’s an important part of who you are. You are not expected to be fully consumed by work.

You returned to work remotely during the pandemic. What was that experience like and what kind of support did Audible provide? What was it like going through the program with your cohort?
I think I was a little better prepared than most, because my consulting business was largely remote. I was very familiar with all of the video conferencing applications, and already had a home office. However, Audible really set us up for success from the start of the onboarding process and onwards. They shipped me everything I needed, and on the first day I had a tech person who helped me get set up and made sure I had everything I needed. There was a weekly lunch meet up with my team, and a team meeting where we were able to chat, check in, and learn about key areas. As a product manager, you go off to lead your own projects, but it’s nice to have that core group of people and be part of a team.

In some ways, being remote has leveled the playing field. It feels like people are more accessible. In addition, from the beginning, the message from all levels at Audible was to ask questions and reach out. I don’t have any hesitation sending a Slack message, or setting up a meeting with anyone, at any level, because there’s an understanding that we’re all working towards a common goal.

My cohort – we called ourselves the Audible 11 – was great. I set up a Slack group for us when we started, and while we all were placed in different parts of the organization, we had that forum to ask questions and provide support throughout our returnships. I really enjoyed hearing about the projects that members of my cohort were working on, too. It provided perspective and insight. Some members of the cohort also set up virtual meet-ups for us to get together and video chat, which was great. I think we had a special group – we helped each other out during the returnship, and still do now.

What did you find most helpful about being part of the Path Forward program at Audible?
The sessions Path Forward offered were a little different from the ones Audible had for us, and it created a nice balance. Path Forward anticipated all the possible issues we might run into, or questions that might come up, through the course of our returnships. Things that we might not even think about, going in. For instance, the issues of confidence. Anyone who’s been out of work for a while, whether by choice or not, gets a hit to their confidence when they’re trying to return, especially after facing rejection. It feels like you’ve been knocking and no one is answering the door. And even after starting our returnships, it takes a while to build up that confidence and stop feeling nervous. And Path Forward offered us a lot of support and encouragement in that. They really took care of the unexpected parts of coming back to work and helped us validate how we were feeling.

What has been the most exciting or gratifying part of returning to work for you?
I like having a sense of purpose and I love solving problems. Successfully returning to work, after facing an uphill battle to do so, gave me a sense of validation. For me to be part of a tech organization in a role where I’m solving problems, working alongside product managers, engineers, UX designers, and other professionals who are all very smart and talented – being part of that mix and contributing to a great product has been so gratifying. And the products that we work on for Audible are so positive. They help people in so many ways.If someone is stuck in traffic, they can listen to a book or podcast. Or listen and learn something new while doing chores. There are so many different situations where people can use Audible during their routine to make their day better. At this stage in my career, I wanted whatever company I joined to be contributing something positive, and I think that’s what Audible does, and it feels almost unreal that I get to be a part of creating a great product again, while working alongside talented, passionate people.

Do you have any advice for future returners based on your experience?
First, when you apply for a job, don’t just sit back and wait to hear back. When you’re returning to work, applying for jobs should only be a small portion of what you’re doing. You need to network and do your research. I found out about Path Forward and the returnship at Audible only because I kept researching and digging. I networked constantly, and kept expanding my network strategically to find people doing what I wanted to be doing, at the companies I was interested in.

Second, read job descriptions and think about how well your background matches them, and whether there are any gaps you need to fill. Then, find ways to fill those in. There are a lot of great free resources. Colleges, universities, professional groups, or organizations providing certifications have resources you can leverage. If you need to and can, consider pursuing another degree – you will gain skills, have access to a targeted network, and have the career resources for that program available to you.

Third, I’d think about your story and how it fits into the job you want. Have your story ready and make it concise, almost like an elevator pitch, so that you’re always ready to say who you are and what you’ve done. Then use that story to tell people what you are looking for – your neighbor while you are walking the dog, at a soccer game, etc. People are happy to help.

Fourth , make sure your resume accurately reflects who you are, your background, and speaks to the position that you’re trying to get. I have a large background and can’t possibly fit everything into a one page resume. So, for every position I’ve applied to, I’ve rewritten my resume and made sure to only pull in the experiences that best represent my ability to do that role. Same with a cover letter. Some people say that no one reads cover letters, but that’s not true for everyone. And it’s your best opportunity to convey what you see in the company and why you’d be a good fit.

Fifth, and this one deserves repeating, network. If you see a job or a returnship that you think you would be a great fit for, don’t hesitate to research the position and find key people. Even if that position doesn’t work out, you have made a connection, and there might be a different position that you would be a better fit for that hasn’t been posted yet.

Finally, if you get a returnship, or land a full time job after returning, don’t hold back. Show them what you can do, and don’t be afraid to speak up. You have professional experience. You have skills from previous work and gained some new skills while you were away from work. Now is your chance to flex those professional skills and show the positive impact you can make.

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