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Episode 199: Reskilling & Relaunching as a Data Analyst After a 20 Year Career Break with Miriam Berkowitz

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Episode Description

Miriam Berkowitz started her career as a software developer and returned to work as a data analyst after a 20 year career break. To update her technology skills, she enrolled in a 6-month intensive Data Analytics & Visualization bootcamp. She is thriving in her role and has been an active member of our private Facebook group, the iRelaunch Return to Work Forum, where she has shared her valuable inspiration and advice. In this episode, Miriam shares the specifics of applying to and attending her bootcamp as well as the steps she took to prepare and apply for jobs. She also discusses the importance of perseverance and overcoming imposter syndrome when starting her new job.

Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO, and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. Today, we welcome Miriam Berkowitz. Miriam returned to work as a data analyst after a twenty year career break. She is a computer scientist who started her career as a software developer at IBM.

She did a lot of volunteering during her twenty years on career break to be home with her children, some of it senior level on a board of trustees at a private school where she served as board chair to update her technology skills. She enrolled in the George Washington University Data Analytics and Visualization Bootcamp, which was a six month intensive program that we will discuss.

Miriam has been an active member of our private Facebook group, the iRelaunch Return to Work Forum, providing valuable inspiration and advice from someone who has already relaunched, especially into a highly technical area after a long career break. Defying stereotypes, Miriam is thriving in her role and just celebrated the third anniversary of her relaunch.

Miriam, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Miriam Berkowitz: Hi Carol. Thanks so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Carol Fishman Cohen: We're really excited that you're speaking with us and we want to hear all the details of how you returned to work in this highly technical role after twenty years out of the workforce, because our technical relaunchers who are doubting their abilities to do this, and employers who are hesitant to hire them have a lot to learn from you.

So let's get started. Can you first start by briefly reviewing what kind of technical work you did before your career break, and whether you were at all connected to your field during the twenty years you were home with your child?

Miriam Berkowitz: I was a software developer, also known as a computer programmer at the time. I worked for eleven years at IBM on a large government contract, and then for two years as a consultant in private industry followed by two part-time years. Back in the eighties and nineties, we used the waterfall method of development, in which each phase of development is done sequentially, taking a very long time. The first eight or nine years, I developed software on mainframe computers.

The last few years I worked on Unix workstations doing more modern software development, or at least modern for the time, anyway. I then decided to stay home with my children, whom we adopted after several years of infertility treatments and failed adoptions, because I thought my staying home would be best for them.

I also knew that I needed to do activities for myself. I wanted to contribute to my community. So I began volunteering. Some of my volunteer work involved helping new families and other potential adoptive parents. As my children got older, I joined the board of trustees at the private school they attended, doing fundraising and ultimately serving as the board president.

This work wasn't connected in any real way to computer programming. I found that the tasks I enjoyed the most were working with data and spreadsheets, or helping to form data queries using the fundraising software at the school. These volunteer positions allowed me to be at home with my children, give back to the community and gain additional skills.

I also enjoyed mentoring other people in various volunteer positions.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's really interesting. So even in the fundraising and development role, there was a data inquiry piece that had to do with the software that you were able to engage with?

Miriam Berkowitz: Right, the director of development, the fundraising person at the school really didn't know how to use the software they had. So I figured it out and taught her how to do queries and things. So that was one little bit of my technical skills coming to use.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. That's great. So at what point did you start thinking about what you wanted to do when you relaunched? Did you always know that you wanted to return to something related to what you left, or were you thinking about other things? And what kind of upskilling did you think you needed to have in order to reach your career goal?

Miriam Berkowitz: I think I always thought I would go back someday to something technical. And when my daughter was in her last semester of high school, I realized I was ready to go back. I had been taking care of everyone else and focusing on non-profits and it was time to get back to me and use my brain differently using my analytical skills. I also missed that type of work and problem solving, and I missed the culture of a work environment. So I attended some workshops on getting back into the workforce and I knew I'd have to update my skills. In twenty years, software development had evolved from mainframe computers to the internet laptops and agile iterative development.

So I decided that a coding bootcamp would be a good way to learn. There were languages and methodologies, it would be faster than going back to school for a master's degree.

Carol Fishman Cohen: You know what you're saying about enabling others, I feel is such an important piece of the relaunch experience, that you're enabling family members, or other people in your community, or other people to reach their goals, and then finally, it's your turn. I remember feeling like that myself when I was getting ready to relaunch. My career break was only eleven years, but it was still a long time and I was still thinking about that.

Now, when you decided you were going back into a technical role, of course technology had evolved significantly over that twenty year period. You identified that you were going to go into this bootcamp. Are you the kind of person that just approaches this with curiosity and excitement? Or did you have any voice inside of you that was saying, "I have no idea if I'm going to be able to do this now," or did you just think you would?

Miriam Berkowitz: Well, I did think I'd be able to do it and I wasn't worried that all my technical skills were lost, but one thing that I did after I decided all this, is I took a community college course on Python programming. It was an online course. And I just did that to make sure that this is something that I can really do. And so I just did that on my own, and I enjoyed it, and it got me back into the right frame of mind for getting back into programming.

Yeah. I was really excited.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I love hearing this, and the reason I asked the question the way I did is because we hear from so many of our technical relaunchers who worry about this. And I also love the idea that you did this test run. You took this Python course at the community college to sort of get yourself in that mindset again, but also a little bit of a test to see, how does it feel? How am I responding to this? And it feels to me like the experience you had reinforced that you were really ready to enter this bootcamp.

Miriam Berkowitz: Yes, I think so. I really, I think if I hadn't liked the course, maybe I would have changed my mind about the whole thing. But I enjoyed it and it made me feel even more interested.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Now I want to get into some detail in terms of what the day to day was like. It's a six month intensive program, was it like you sit down at nine o'clock and you're focused, head down for eight hours? Was there homework? And at the beginning, did it feel like, "Whoa, okay. What did I sign up for?" Bring us through that a little bit.

Miriam Berkowitz: Sure. The first thing was deciding which bootcamp to attend. There were lots of options and the data analytics just spoke to me. I'd always worked in databases, and it was this new upcoming field, data science was getting very big.

It just called to me. So I applied. And I'll be honest when I applied it didn't occur to me that I had to go through an actual application process. I thought, "I'll just pay the money and they'll take me," but that's not how it was. So I went through the process and I was accepted. And it was considered a part-time program, which meant that we met two evenings a week and one day on the weekend.

It was a total of ten hours of classroom instruction. But on top of that, there were probably about twenty or so hours per week of homework and projects. To really master the concepts you had to practice during the day or during those hours when you weren't in the course. Homework took at least ten hours a week, sometimes more.

And then on top of that, there were three group projects spread out over the six months. Each of them were with three students. So we had to come up with the project topics, do all the analysis and then present the project to the class. So the way the class worked is there would be some instruction of a topic, and then you had to try it out and do these little programming projects, small little things in the class. And then they'd go over the solutions, and then they go onto the next one. So there was like three hours of that each session. And then they wanted you to go home and redo them to make sure you really got it.

The other thing that the boot camp had was a small amount of career services. They recommended updating your resume and they’d review it, that kind of thing. But the other thing that they did that was really great is they brought in some data analysts and data scientists to speak to the class so we could find out what it was like to really work in that field. That was very helpful. And the whole thing, the whole time, once I got started, I loved doing the exercises and the homework. I found it really fun and challenging. There were other people who were groaning about it, but I loved it. So I really felt that I had made the right choice.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And so the way you structured your week, when you were in class, were you all online?

Miriam Berkowitz: Oh, this was before, this was way back.

Carol Fishman Cohen: A few years ago when we used to do things in person.

Miriam Berkowitz: Right, before COVID and yes, it was in-person. And you were supposed to attend in person. if you couldn't, they recorded the sessions, if that worked and then you could watch it. But you also were required to be at, I don't remember the number, but it was like for 95% of them, you had to be there in person.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And did you find any of it more challenging than you were expecting, or really frustrating, or you had to really spend extra time to understand?

Miriam Berkowitz: Well, one of the topics that I didn't realize would be so prevalent in the visualization part was the JavaScript and CSS, or HTML and CSS with JavaScript. And the CSS I just found very frustrating. That's the code that's used to change things like formatting of websites, changing the sizes and the fonts and the colors and the resizing as you change the size of the window and things like that. So it didn't occur to me that I'd be learning that as part of the data, but that was part of the course that you could display the data that you had analyzed.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. That makes sense. All right. That gives us a sense and I'm just so intrigued by it, the idea that you were able to go in and just dive in and approach this, and you loved it, that probably was even more of a clue that this is the right place for you to be relaunching.

When you completed the course, how did you approach the job search? Were you pretty much on your own at that point? Or did you get assistance from the bootcamp and how did it go?

Miriam Berkowitz: So the bootcamp, like I said, they brought in some employers, and people to speak with us. One of them was interested in interviewing people who were doing well in the course. But that was, I think two months before we finished the course and I just didn't want to do that until I was finished.

I really wanted to focus on learning everything I could, doing good projects and not being stressed about interviewing. So I decided not to interview with the company that was there doing that. Another thing, at the very end, there was a, I don't know what to call it, like a party, where we had to set up our projects around a big room and different employers were supposed to come and look at our projects and we could explain them.

It was okay. There weren't that many employers there interested. And I think that was something that the university tried to provide. But other than that, I was really on my own. But, I found some great things online that were really helpful. The first thing was I joined a bunch of professional groups. One of them is Women Who Code, another is Tech Ladies. And then there's something else around here in the Washington area called Women in Technology. Some of them have Facebook groups, some of them have Slack workspaces. And then of course, I also joined the iRelaunch Facebook group, which was really great.

During that time I saw an offer in one of my Facebook groups, I don't remember which one, for someone who was giving a free one hour workshop on how to do a make-over of your LinkedIn profile. So I thought, “That's free. I'm going to do that.” And it was this young woman who was just fabulous and she provided so many ideas and things to do that I never would have known. Like I found out that there were groups on LinkedIn about the different technologies I was interested in, that I should join those groups and read the articles that people post about. So that was really interesting.

And then after that I asked people that I knew to write LinkedIn recommendations for me, which I never would have thought to do, or I wouldn't have bothered. And then the same instructor also taught other workshops. So she was I guess a career coach kind of person, and she taught one on resume writing and cover letter writing, and another one on interview skills. So I signed up for those and those were longer. Those were like four or five weeks each once a week. And they were pretty intense, but the result is that I gained a lot of confidence in my ability to describe my skills and to describe my experience. It was really helpful.

I practiced my elevator speech. I did practice interviews with the other people, and then as part of it, I had to update my resume and I had to write cover letters and I had to apply for actual jobs because I had to report back on what was happening. So it forced me to do it. And, by then I had also learned about returnships. But there weren't any in my area at the time. So one of the things I did is in a couple of my cover letters, I described what that meant, what a relaunch or a returnship is as compared to an internship. And I applied to a couple of internships saying, "Can we do this as a returnship?"

Carol Fishman Cohen: Good idea.

Miriam Berkowitz: And I applied to two. One of them called me, and I had a phone interview. That's as far as it got, they were really looking for a graduate student. But the fact that they even called me was a huge boost to my confidence. Another thing I did is I went to job fairs. I went to all kinds. I went to some of those that were for women in technology.

I went to job fairs for people over fifty, I just went to everything. And it was pretty interesting. I had people review my resume. You know, everybody gives advice and it's all contradictory, so you don't know what to do. But at that point, I knew that I didn't want to work just anywhere. I wanted to find a company whose mission I believed in. And that was the most important part for me, because at this point I wasn't really doing it to make money. I was doing it for my mind and my personal wellbeing. so I figured I could look around and find a company that I like. And that's what I did.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. So can we get into more detail about that next step? Because we've been corresponding for a while and you wrote that you saw a posting in a group. "I saw posting in a group I belong to, Women Who Code, Slack Jobs Channel, that sounded exactly like what I wanted to do. The woman who posted the job doesn't work there, but her friend does." So can you tell us what happened?

Miriam Berkowitz: Sure. So I saw the posting and it really described everything I had learned in boot camp and everything that I enjoyed. It was a company whose mission sounded really interesting to me. I guess I asked her about it and I applied online. And then things got started.

Carol Fishman Cohen: But when you applied online, did she have a friend who worked there?

Miriam Berkowitz: She posted on behalf of her friend who was one of the people that I ended up interviewing with. So apparently, because she recruited me, that sort of enabled him, the person who worked at the company, to put in a good word for me, even though he didn't really know me, but I think that really helped a lot.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. I just want to underscore for our listeners what Miriam just said. So she said that the lead came from a professional group that she belonged to online. It was posted on their Slack Channel. The person who posted the job doesn't work there, but her friend did and her friend put in a good word for her, even though they hadn't met. So I know people get really hung up about this and they don't really believe that this kind of thing can happen, but here is a perfect example. So I wanted to make sure that we highlighted this.

Miriam Berkowitz: Since then I've done the same thing where I posted jobs on that same channel for my company that I now work for, and I have actually hired from there.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. So I hope everyone's listening. This is a really important part of the job search. And Miriam, were you surprised? I mean, were you one of the people who doubted this friend of a friend kind of networking strategy?

Miriam Berkowitz: Yes, actually, you hear people talk about it and you hear how important it is to network. And being an introvert, networking is not something that I gravitate to intentionally, but I do as needed.

And that's what I did. I feel like people say, "It's talking to other people and getting the word out and that really makes a difference."

Carol Fishman Cohen: So let's move now into this interview process at this company that you've applied to. They've called you in. So our technical relaunchers would want to know, what was the interview process?

Was there some sort of a technical coding interview? Was it timed? What was the actual process that you went through?

Miriam Berkowitz: Okay. Sure. So first I had a phone interview with the recruiter, and then she invited me to do the video technical interview. So that was in 2018 and not everyone was doing video interviews then, but my company was, and it was to be a technical interview, but not a coding test.

I met with the manager of the data science department, and then the data scientist who worked for him. And he turned out to be the friend of the person who had posted the job. They knew that I had prior coding experience. They knew I had just finished the data analytics bootcamp. They asked me some Python questions. They asked me some SQL questions.They asked me to write some SQL queries, which I did, and I already knew SQL before attending the bootcamp, so I had enough confidence with that.

And then they asked a couple of statistics questions, which I didn't know all the answers to, but they told me that was fine because they weren't expecting me to.

That part went really well. And It was evident from what they were saying and how they were treating me, that they were interested in my new coding skills, but also my prior experience and my life experience. So it seemed like it would be a really good fit and they decided to take a chance.

And moving on to the next step, so that was a meeting in person at the office with a larger group of people. And I didn't really know what to expect, because it had been such a long time since I'd had any real interviews. But it was very relaxed, and I spoke with a lot of people. I felt very comfortable. And then after that, they asked me to meet with the CEO. He had been unavailable the day I was there. So I had a video interview with him and I prepared by researching him. He was on a podcast about something, so I listened to that and that was a good way to prepare for that. So that was that.

I also did an interview for another position and that was back at the bootcamp, then we were looking for a teaching assistant. And I thought about doing that. I had a pretty technical interview as well, where they asked me a lot of technical questions and I had to do a mock tutoring session, which was very different from interviewing for a regular job.

Ultimately I decided not to take that, even though it was part-time, which I thought would be a good way to get back into things. I didn't want to give up my weekends. So I went for the full-time position and have been there ever since.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. Let me ask you a question about that. So initially you're kind of hoping to get a part-time role. Were you applying, trying to find part-time roles that were interesting and substantive and you couldn't find them, and so then you started looking for full-time or how did that happen? And then when you took that full-time job, were you like, "Oh my God, what did I sign up for? I hope I can do this." What was that thought process?

Miriam Berkowitz: So there just weren't part time jobs.They were hard to find.

I wasn't really trying to find them because I realized that they didn't exist, except for this TA job that was part time. And there were pros and cons. I felt if I did it one, it would be part time, and two, it would give me a way to relearn all the things I had just learned and be even stronger. But really it had to do with the idea that I didn't want to give up my weekends. And I said, “If I'm going to do this, I'm just going to do it.” So that's what I did.

Carol Fishman Cohen: All right. So you got hired and all of a sudden it's day one, and you have a full-time job. Were there any conversations that went on the home front or that all of a sudden mom's got this full-time job? Or What happened there.

Miriam Berkowitz: Right. So, you know, my kids were grown.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Oh, that's right, twenty year career break, of course.

Miriam Berkowitz: So one was still living at home and, I think what changed was things like I had to get a dog walker to come walk my dog, and I had to figure out how to make dinner when I was coming home after work, things like that.

So it just disrupted those sorts of things. But over time those things all kind of worked out.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Good. Now, can you bring us into your life in the first couple months on the job? Because I remember you saying something about "I feel like I'm working slowly." And then when I heard back from you a few months later, you're like, "I feel much more comfortable."

So can you talk about those two inflection points and what happened in between that you are able to make that transition to feeling more comfortable?

Miriam Berkowitz: Sure. So the beginning was really challenging. And I think many people, certainly many relaunchers and many women have feelings of imposter syndrome, "Can I really do this or am I just faking it?” And so I had those feelings. I had some roadblocks in terms of setting up my coding environment on my laptop and trying to understand the requirements for the products they wanted me to build. That the requirements were not clear, I didn't know who to talk to, different people said different things. The database was very large and complex and I had a lot to learn. So it took longer for me to produce anything than I thought it would. And I also realized at the time that although I had learned quite a bit of Python between the community college course and the bootcamp, I had only scratched the surface and there was much more to learn.

So that was all very challenging for me. I felt discouraged and I just felt like "I'm not getting enough done. I'm working hard, but I'm not producing anything yet."

And I remember having a conversation with you, Carol, you told me don't make any decisions until you've been there six months. And I really took that advice. It was great advice. And I said, "Okay, I'm going to stick it out. And I'm not gonna think about this until I've been there for six months." And then, over time I just, I learned more. I worked hard. I was more willing to ask for help. I think that was one of the things, when I needed help and I didn't understand something, it was fine to go and ask somebody. I didn't have to figure it all out myself. And that plus time really got me there. And I think after about five months I was working well, I was producing, and I felt I was working faster and more accurately, and I felt like I was contributing. And at that point it didn't occur to me to quit, where I had been thinking about it in the beginning.

The other thing is people at work seemed very impressed and still do, that I had come back after being away for twenty years. That was a big ego booster too.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. It works both ways though. When you're feeling like, "Can I do this and do I need to quit?" Does that mean people think that when they look at relaunchers they're not going to succeed?

I remember thinking a little bit of that at the beginning when I went back, but this is very interesting and important for our listeners to hear that there is imposter syndrome. There's something called the learning curve. We have a great podcast on the learning curve with Michelle Friedman. We have a great one on imposter syndrome with Maureen Bern who returned to a technical role after a ten year career break, and had imposter syndrome for the first two years. But when you're learning so much at the beginning, you might have a dip in performance for a little bit until you get your sea legs and then you start to move back up that learning curve again.

And it seems like that's exactly what you're illustrating.

Miriam Berkowitz: Right, that is exactly it.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So I hope everyone is getting this message really clearly and just internalizing it, that when you're back at your relaunch and it's hard at the beginning, if you persevere and stick it out for a while things will ultimately turn around.

We see this a lot, and so it's not just Miriam that is this one unusual case, this is a pattern that we see with relaunchers, it's especially interesting to hear you talk about it in a highly technical role. And it's great to just have that illustration for everyone to know what that progression was.

Miriam, you have a website called MiriamBerkowitz.com and it showcases your technical projects and explains them in some detail. And I'm just going to read some of the details, knowing that I don't even know what some of this means, but our technical relaunchers will, and I want them to hear the type of detail that you include.

So you had, there was an image of something, and then it said, “Bacteria Biodiversity Board, this project used JavaScript, Plotly.JS, Python, HTML, CSS, Bootstrap, and Flask, to explore the biodiversity dataset. I read the data from CSV files using Pandas. I then built three graphs using Plotly and JavaScript.

The pie chart shows the top ten samples for a particular sample ID." And it has pie charts and bubble charts and a gauge chart.

I just wanted to read that because I know some of you technical relaunchers, that will be meaningful to you. But for Miriam, the question I want to ask you is why did you set this up? Why did you set it up in this way? And sometimes we'll hear our technical relaunchers say you need to set up a GitHub portfolio to show projects that you build while you're in class or learning. And I wanted to know your opinion on that and why you didn't set that kind of portfolio up.

Miriam Berkowitz: Sure. I will say the main reason is that my bootcamp required us to make a portfolio website. That was a required part of the work, because they wanted us to be able to have that for the purpose of interviewing and finding jobs. So that particular project, that Bacteria Biodiversity Project, showcases as many of the skills and technologies that I learned in the bootcamp from Python and SQL and Flask, to JavaScript, Plotly and HTML. The visualizations themselves show that I mastered the data retrieval and graphing portions. And I used what I thought was a pleasing color palette. So I thought it looked really pretty. When you talk about GitHub, yes, it's very important to also put code that you've written in GitHub so people can see that.

But I think in this particular case, it's important to be able to explain what technologies you used for the different parts of the project. Most of these projects required multiple languages, different technologies, and they all had to interface and work together. So GitHub can be used to store the actual code, but the actual interaction of these graphs is best experienced by using the portfolio website, selecting different samples and seeing how the graphs change.

So this was a way to have it be interactive, not just to say, "Here's what it looks like," which you can also do on GitHub and you can probably have a link from GitHub to it as well. But I wanted the visual right there.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So Miriam, we're coming to the end of our time. And I want to ask you the question that we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something that we've already talked about?

Miriam Berkowitz: I think it's really important to take the time to figure out what you want to do with the next phase of your career, and then pursue that goal as your full-time job. For me, getting started required some introspection. I took a five week workshop specifically for people getting back into the workforce.

The first session was devoted to self-assessment, followed by how to market yourself and networking and all the usual things. Once I made the decision to apply for the Data Analytics Bootcamp, I made the bootcamp and my job search my full-time job. It's critical to know what you want and to connect with others who can help you achieve your goals.



Carol Fishman Cohen: Wonderful. Wonderful advice. I just want to chime in for relaunchers who are looking at the iRelaunch.com website, that we have something called Roadmap, which is a five stage, thirty step, self-directed guide book and framework for returning. And we also have two of our coaches lead a small group bootcamp using that as the curriculum. So that's an alternative for people who want to go through a process like Miriam's describing. Now Miriam, you've been so generous, I know that you are on several different websites and people connect with you and ask you questions all the time. So if people want to get in touch with you, can they connect with you on LinkedIn?

Miriam Berkowitz: Sure. That would be great. It's Miriam Berkowitz, all one word, I think.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay, and it's B E R K O W I T Z.

Miriam Berkowitz: That's right.

Carol Fishman Cohen: The last name spelling. Okay. Very good, Miriam, thank you so much for joining us today.

Miriam Berkowitz: Well, thank you so much for having me. This was a lot of fun.

Carol Fishman Cohen: It was a lot of fun for me too. And also I've benefited so much from hearing all about your experience and I know our listeners will too. So thank you.

And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch, and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, to sign up for our job board and access our return to work tools and resources, go to iRelaunch.com.

And if you liked this podcast, be sure to rate it on Apple podcasts and your favorite podcast platform, and be sure to share this podcast with a friend on Facebook. Another social media.

Thanks for joining us.


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