Sandra Norris took a 17-year break from her career in program management when she realized that her busy, travel-filled job didn’t give her enough time to spend with her child. During her break, she supported her family through nine moves and volunteered extensively. When Sandra was ready to return to the workforce, she completed a returnship at Dell, where she now works full-time as a project manager. She talks about her returnship experience, how Dell’s extensive training program helped her refresh her skills, and the unique skills that parents bring to the table.
What type of work did you do before taking a break? What prompted your break, and how long were you out of the workforce?
Before my career-break I worked as a program manager for a technology company in the UK, supporting the installation and ongoing management of global networks for large corporations in the Greater London area: Citibank, BBC Television and Thames Water. I was then transferred to Brussels to support a new opportunity with Whirlpool Europe, supporting client locations in Italy, Germany, Belgium and Spain. Two years later, my partner and I moved to the USA. I worked for 7 years for AT&T Solutions in their network outsourcing group, managing the transformation and life cycle management of Fortune 500 global data and voice networks. I spent a great deal of time at client locations, which meant quite a bit of long distance travel.
I came to my decision to take a career break like many other women – I felt that I couldn’t do my job with a small child. If I was traveling for work Monday to Friday every week, I had no time to spend with my child. So my husband and I decided that one of us would need to stay at home for a while. I never intended to take a long break, but it ended up lasting 17 years. We moved a lot – we had about 9 different homes in that period of time – and it never seemed like the right time for me to return to work.
During the period of time when I wasn’t working professionally, I helped my husband with his business, volunteered for various groups at my children’s school, and when we lived in the middle of nowhere, I was the taxi mom. When we moved to Cambridge, it finally felt like the right time for me to return to work. A 17-year career gap is hard to sell,, even in Cambridge, where new opportunities are plentiful.. I think most hiring managers would look at a resume with such a large gap and reject it, or put it in the B-pile. That’s why I feel so incredibly grateful for Path Forward and my returnship opportunity at Dell.
What was your returnship experience at Dell?
Dell has a very comprehensive onboarding program. I had two mentors when I started at Dell: one local mentor who provided support with HR-related onboarding, and one who provided work-related support for me in my new role. My primary mentor was another project manager on my team, who’s been with Dell for 25 years. I worked with her for five months, meeting with her two or three times a week. In addition, I’d meet with my director once a week or more often when support was required. I also received many one hour-long training sessions with subject matter experts in the team.
I was provided with an individualized compliance and training program and every other week we have a group training session, which anyone in the program/project management office can join. They’ll have a speaker who updates people on specific areas of the business. There are also self-learning courses available for every tool you need for your role: Jira, Agile, Microsoft Teams, Project, Visio, and Office, so you can either learn something new, or brush up on your existing skills.
By providing all of these different opportunities to learn, and an abundance of support, Dell gives you every opportunity to succeed. No question is a stupid question here, and if you want to learn something, you can just go ahead and do it. We have no meetings on Friday afternoons, so it’s a great chance to catch up with work, or to sit down and learn new skills with a training course.
I’m now on my second rotation within my organization. I worked for five months in one group, which focuses on customizing the physical appearance of a product, and how the product functions. Now I’m in another group that supports more complex customizations. I’m enjoying every moment of it.
What was your experience of returning to work remotely?
I am a very outgoing person, I get my energy from being around others. So it’s been a bit of a cultural change, working from home. At Dell, everyone is reasonably flexible about managing your own time and commitments, as long as the work gets done.
What did you find most helpful about the Path Forward program at Dell?
I think the weekly Path Forward workshop sessions were super helpful. Not just the advice they gave, but the chance to have a connection with peers, others who were in the same situation as me. Closely followed by the Employer Roundtable webinars that Path Forward holds, which feature opportunities from different companies that are partnered with Path Forward.
Overall, it’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve talked to many people who’ve reached out to me on LinkedIn after I participated in the returnship program, and Dell returners from the second cohort who reached out to me, just asking for my perspective.
What are you most proud of accomplishing during your return to work experience?
Returning to work as a remote employee during the pandemic. It was a little stressful at first, and there’s always the opportunity for self-doubt. When you run into an issue, you immediately think, is it me? Did I make some kind of mistake? I’m proud that I was able to work through my self-doubt and succeed in my role.
Do you have any advice for future returners?
Don’t be afraid to apply for opportunities even when your skills don’t appear to be a perfect fit. Believe in yourself, what you have to offer. Moms bring a great deal of resources to the table – they’re master organizers and master multitaskers. Think of all those challenging times when you’ve been out with your children and maybe they’re having a tantrum, or running off, you’re trying to manage other things at the same time. I think about how many times we moved when my children were small, and how it taught me to be resourceful about finding opportunities for my family.