Skip to main content

EP 289: Six promotions in IT over 13 yrs at Discover after a 5 yr career break, with Heather Bannon

Heather bannon

Episode Description

In 2006, Heather left her role as a Senior Programmer Systems Analyst at Discover Financial Services to begin a five year childcare career break. She ultimately relaunched her career by returning to Discover, where she has been promoted six times over the 13 years since she has been back. Heather is currently the Senior Director of Information Technology at Discover. She is a big supporter of relaunchers, which she has posted about on LinkedIn, including her enthusiasm for our Normalizing Career Breaks mission. We will also find out how Heather graduated with a fine arts degree and was able to transition to a technical career both before and after her relaunch at Discover.

Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3 2 1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co founder of iRelaunch and your host. I want to remind our listeners who are actively relaunching to make sure to register and upload your resume to our iRelaunch Job Board. This is where we go to share relaunchers profiles with our employers that are hiring for career re entry programs and jobs, so it's important that your profile and resume are in there.

Today, we welcome Heather Bannon. In 2006, Heather left her role as a Senior Programmer Systems Analyst at Discover Financial Services, beginning a five year childcare career break.

She ultimately relaunched her career by returning to Discover, where she is currently the Senior Director of Information Technology. Heather is a big fan of iRelaunch, which we so appreciate, and she posted about this on LinkedIn, including her enthusiasm for our normalizing career breaks mission, which I have to say is now our trademark, and we're all very excited about that.

And Heather said she was motivated to share her story, if it could be helpful to earlier stage relaunchers. Well, we saw that, and Heather, the answer is a resounding yes, and we're thrilled to welcome you to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Heather Bannon: Thanks for having me, Carol. I'm excited to be here.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Thanks, Heather. Let's begin by talking a little bit about your background and your career before your career break, and then what prompted you to step away from the workforce.

Heather Bannon: Sure. So I started in technology back in 2000. I joined Discover in 2000 as a mainframe programmer. I was a junior developer and I worked my way through varying levels of responsibility up until I left Discover in 2006 to start a family.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Got it. And I had a question for you because when I was looking at your LinkedIn profile, it looks like you were a fine arts major in college and then later got a certificate in information technology, and that's what ultimately led to your work as a systems analyst. But I was wondering what the story was behind that, and what the transition felt like going from fine arts into a technical career area.

Heather Bannon: Sure, and I have to give a lot of credit to my parents who had faith in me that I would be a self sustaining adult, when I changed my major to fine arts in college, I had a more technical focus when I first started and made a change. And I appreciate their faith in me. I'm trying to pay it forward to my twins who are now embarking on their own college education. But I did, I graduated it with a degree in fine arts.

It was a really exciting, an enjoyable major for me. And then I took a few years off after college working kind of just jobs here and there, traveling around the States, figuring out who I was as an adult. I returned to Chicago in the late 90s, 98, 99, and I had been using my degree as a graphic designer for a newspaper for some time.

And I worked with a woman who was getting her master's in UX design. She encouraged me because she thought I might have the aptitude to try out for this program that DePaul University had. So we were in Chicago, DePaul University is there, that would take anyone who had a college degree and train you to become a mainframe engineer, which was in high demand at the end of the 90s, if you remember Y2K.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Y2K, wow.

Heather Bannon: Yeah. So, I went through, it was a boot camp style educational program. It was very difficult. It was really intense, but it was great. I really found that I loved the problem solving, and the puzzling that goes on as an application developer. And I really enjoyed the program. So when I graduated, DePaul, as part of the program, held a career fair and helped introduce graduates to different companies that were looking for mainframe talent, and Discover was one of them.

So I happened to make the connection there and got a job

Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. So that was truly a pathway right into the technical role. And that actually brings me to my next question. So you're in this technical field, technical role. You take a career break, you're out for five years. Did you make any attempt to stay, to reskill or upskill or stay connected to your professional interest during your career break?

Heather Bannon: No, I was primarily focused on being a parent. I had at halfway through my career break, I had three kids under three, so I was very, very busy and very focused on my role as a parent. And I did get, I was, I'm a reader, I'm a voracious reader and so I did start to get into blogging about the books that I was reading and joining a fandom and being part of that kind of a community.

So it was slightly technical, I built my own website but it was a really simple wiziwig tool and I engaged with folks that way but I did not, I didn't do anything mainframe related, application development related, really not at all.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So when you were reading the books, so were you, were these books that had anything to do with your technical field or was it something else?

Heather Bannon: No, pure fiction. It was pure fiction, fantasy and science fiction books. Yeah.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I see. Okay. So you started reading these books, you find this community, you're blogging, you set up a website. And then I know from our prior conversation that you founded a company at the end of your career break and it ended up overlapping with your corporate relaunch.

Can you talk a little bit about what the company was and, and a little bit about the founding of it and then how, what that overlap period was like?

Well, cause we're going to get into your actual relaunch in a minute, but I just want to, have this discussion first.

Heather Bannon: Sure. So, as when I was part of that community, one of the things that myself and one of my friends in the community found was that authors were hungry for a way to connect with people who were excited about the books that they were writing.

And so there was a natural synergy there where we decided that we would leverage the platforms that we had built as bloggers to help authors do book tours, virtual book tours online. And so we sort of gamified that process, made it interesting, made prizes and helped authors really intersect with our community that we had built a following within, and help them use that as a venue to share what their new books were and build excitement around their books.

My partner and I, we continued this, the business for a couple of years, for me it was more of a side hustle than it was like a, an actual dedicated business, but when I returned to work, having three kids, a full time job, and a side hustle just became more than I could handle, so my partner took it forward and I was glad to see that she did.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Got it. Okay. So let's now jump back a little bit to, you have this company running, it's kind of a side gig, but you're focusing on a corporate relaunch. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you decided when it was the right time and what kind of preparation you might have done for your job search in terms of your resume or upskilling or talking to people?

Heather Bannon: Sure. So when I realized that it was time for me to go back, it was primarily a financial driver, as it is for many folks. And I was really concerned that going back into technology was not a viable option, and I had been exploring other opportunities. And so I had been talking with my sister, who's, she's amazing, and she helps keep me honest to myself.

And I told her, I was like, listen, I'm, you know, I'm gonna go, I'm gonna get a job at Target. I'm gonna focus on my family and get a little extra and come in and she was like, Heather, you are a technology person. Why would you not go back into technology? And when I was telling her I was concerned about my skills not being fresh enough, she encouraged me to connect back with my network because she did not believe that was true, just because even though I wasn't coding for five years, that didn't mean I had lost any of the skill sets that were required to do that work, or I hadn't been sharpening all of these critical thinking and leadership skills when I was home that I had honed over time through volunteer work or just really, negotiating with three children can really stretch you as a leader.

So I connected with my network and they agreed. They encouraged me not to stop and refresh my skills. They thought I could do that on the job, if I came back in. I was able to connect with a group within Discover that better suited my needs. I wasn't interested in going right back into application development because I didn't want to be on call in the middle of the night.

So I was able to connect with a group where I could do business analyst work that would leverage my technical background, because I still had to do research within our code base, but also leveraged all of the writing and critical thinking and synthesizing data skills that I had gained from my blogging experience to actually allow me to contribute meaningfully at Discover right away.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay, so let me just ask you about that networking piece. So had you been in touch with people, or were you just kind of randomly reaching out to them after this five year period and, were most of them still at Discover, or what exactly did those interactions look like at the beginning?

Heather Bannon: It was a little awkward on my part, because I, while I had been loosely staying in touch with friends that I had from my old team, they were interested in my life, we shared pictures, things like that, I had not talked to them at all about career aspirational things. So it did feel a little awkward to me at first, but they had been my friends, they had been supportive of my career. So I just ripped the band aid off and said, listen, I'm looking for a job. Do you have any ideas?

And they were amazingly supportive. And I've found this now that I'm on the other side of things and people will sometimes reach out to me. Most people want to help people figure out how to navigate through life, and so I was very blessed that they encouraged me and were willing to help me navigate reentry, because it did make the process so much more smooth for me.

Carol Fishman Cohen: You know, I, I had a similar experience. I used to go to an annual Christmas party where all the people where I used to work would congregate, and every year, because I was out for 11 years, they'd say, what's going on? I'm like, still home with kids, still home. And then I think in year 10, I was like, you know, I'm thinking about going back.

And that group was like my biggest cheerleader. It was like you're saying, I wasn't expecting that piece of it. But sometimes I think it's because we are in the moment and we have, you know, we're professionally disconnected and we have this diminished sense of self and so we, we just carry that with us as we move through our career break, whereas the people that you haven't been in touch with, they don't know anything about that.

They have what we call this actually a frozen in time view of you. So it sounds like you are illustrating that.

Heather Bannon: Yeah, that's a really apt way of describing it because when I started the application process and came back, one of the things that the panel that was interviewing me referred back to was previous reviews I had as an engineer.

They, it was part of our HR system. It was data that they had to refer to, to figure out would I be a good fit for role? And all of that prior work, it was like the five year span of time where I was home didn't exist. For them, that's the worker that I was, and so they wanted to talk to me with that in mind, which was also super beneficial.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That is such a perfect illustration of this concept. Were they helpful in helping you navigate to this new role when you were trying to figure out, well, maybe I don't want to be intensively coding, and so they suggested options or how did that piece work?

Heather Bannon: Yeah, so they really did advocate for me. I was super fortunate in that regard. They had access to the job board that we had internally in Discover, not that it wasn't available to me externally, but they had a sense of, Oh, Heather, you know how to read code. You know how to articulate requirements in a way that is meaningful to our business partners.

You understand the business processes behind them as well. So they suggested a couple of business analyst roles and I applied for them and it worked out.

Carol Fishman Cohen: You know, I have to say, because you can say, yeah, it was really lucky or whatever, but it's the core belief, that's the reality that high performers don't lose their ability to be high performers simply because we take a career break.

So, you know, you had these great reviews. That's what they remember. It was your very good work from before. And that I'm sure was fueling a lot of their enthusiasm and their enabling of your relaunch.

Heather Bannon: And I'll just say, because that's how I was greeted when I was going through the process, it built my confidence up so much so that I could go and present an adequate view of myself, the confident person I am, without second guessing myself, whether or not I was actually qualified, because they believed in me.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yes, that's, it's so important, and, for those of us who are fortunate enough to have that connection, it's extremely meaningful, and I'm really glad that you brought out that point. So, you came back into Discover without being part of a career re entry program, and I wanted to know that, actually, I was the same, but I wanted to know, how was that transition?

So we're talking about how you ended up getting the job, but it's day one, it's week one or month one. What was that transition like both personally and professionally?

Heather Bannon: Again, it felt tough. It was a big change for me and it was my first experiencing juggling different parts of my life this way.

So I had, when I was, originally in my career as a developer, I focused intensely on that. When I moved into my parenting role, I focused intensely on that. And so coming back to work, it was a time where I had to learn how to juggle things and learn how to make space for different parts of my life and have boundaries to protect different parts of my life, which was a new skill for me.

Again, the culture at my company is very supportive, from leadership now, but also within teams, the teams within my company and the team that I was on, very supportive. So we would have, as a group, we would, we were friendly, we would go out to lunches, we learned about each other's lives. And so when I needed help, where I needed to get out of the office by a certain time, because I needed to pick up my kids, from daycare, they were supportive of that. Also, by this point in my career, we were away from using desktops to do our work and into a world where we had laptops. You could bring your laptop home with you. You could start finishing up work in the evening, or you could, you, it might make more sense to do some work in the evening.

I did a lot of analytical research where I was running data intensive queries, and so sometimes it was, made more sense for me to do my work off hours. And having the flexibility of bringing my laptop home and being able to do that and the supportiveness of my team to help me have that flexibility were crucial in my ability to re enter and remain confident.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Right. That part is being fortunate because there are plenty of work teams where you might not have gotten that kind of support. But, you know, again, you had these prior relationships and so there is a strength there in those relationships that carried through. We say when people take career breaks, people take career breaks, as we know, for a whole range of reasons. When people take career breaks for child care reasons, and then they go back and kids are still at home, we say that we're not, the individual is not the only one relaunching.

It's like the whole family is along for the ride. So I wanted to know if you had any comments about, did routines change at home and was life different at home because now you were in this role?

Heather Bannon: Yeah, so the way I think about that time in my life is in two phases. So in the first phase, when I first returned to work, my partner and I, he was working outside of the home.

I was working outside of the home and we had a neighbor who helped provide childcare for us. And we were able to build out a routine that way that worked for us for several years. And then as our kids got older, and you start to reach this phase in their lives where they get really busy. So they're in sports and they're in clubs and there's a lot of things going on.

And as a parent, I didn't want to miss out on all of that, but it started to get harder to juggle all of that, even with the great support that we had from our neighbor. And my partner and I had a conversation and we talked about what was the right next step for us. And he had reached a point in his career where he was interested in taking a break.

And so right now my partner is on a career break. He stepped back from his role. He is the primary caregiver for our kids as they've been through middle school up through high school now, which allowed me to really focus on my career and develop my career and lean into leadership roles.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I love that. I, this idea of turn taking in terms of who's the lead parent, if you're taking, if it's, if there are kids at home and whose career is going to be, you know, more dominant and who's going to be more flexible. You don't always see it work out the way that you're describing it, cause the timing doesn't always work.

You know, everyone's situation is different, but that is awesome to hear how you were able to do that. And you know, when I look at your career trajectory, you've been promoted like six times since you relaunched, you're on this fast track, and it's interesting to hear that when you had this role change, you focus on your career, knowing your husband or your partner was managing things at home.

And before, the opposite was true. Your partner was working and you were managing everything at home. So it'll be interesting in a few more years if he decides that he wants to go back to work. And then, again, you'll be in a different life stage. Kids will be older, maybe you'll both be like super focused on your careers at that point because the kids will, you know, be less labor intensive in the kid department.

Heather Bannon: So, Yeah, I'm super fortunate. I, my husband, I mean, everybody loves their spouse. But my husband is my biggest champion and I am for him. I'm super excited for the things that he's thinking about as he talks about potentially reentering the workforce, and we're each other's cheerleaders. And that's the relationship that I aspire to be.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Oh wow, that, I'm just thinking maybe we should interview both of you just to understand that dynamic and how it works, you know, behind the scenes and all that. So congratulations, it's wonderful that you've been able to manage it in that way. And I love also the comment that you made about confidence and having co workers in there right from the beginning, really like moving in there on your behalf and, and being enthusiastic and believing in you, allowing you to believe in yourself. That also is unusual.

Heather Bannon: I am absolutely fortunate. And I think though that, that for me, the lesson on that, it was twofold.

One, you should always think about leveraging your network, cause you never know how people will show up for you unless you ask. And two, now that I'm in my role and in my position, I am a passionate advocate for others who are in similar situations. That's why I was so excited about the content you guys were sharing on LinkedIn and the mission that you guys share.

Cause, I am passionate about normalizing career breaks. I've had one of my own. It did not stop me from the successes I've had thus far and I want to be there to help others because there's so much value that you can gain internally during your own career break to make you successful coming out of it, that it seems wasteful just as a society for us not to leverage all of this raw talent.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yes. Absolutely. And, I, I was, I've had, you know, many, many conversations about this and some people say, why is it even called a career break, because you're continuing to grow as a person, have these different experiences, so, you can look at it that way also. I'm interested in the idea of when you got back and now you've been back for a number of years into Discover, did you find any other people who you didn't even know had career breaks in the past?

Heather Bannon: I have subsequently found lots of people within my company, not just women or primary parents taking a break to take care of kids, but for all kinds of reasons, people take career breaks. And it's interesting once you open that door up, how people are excited to talk about that time of their lives and what they've learned for it, which I think is a great conversation.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Yes, absolutely. And you know, you're also illustrating this is something that we've thought about for a long time and we see playing out is that the more relaunchers that are inside the organization, just like you're expressing, the more interested they are in including relaunchers in the people who they hire.

Heather Bannon: But then to your point, as a hiring manager, it's not something that I've perceived as a negative. And my hope would be that the majority of other hiring managers feel the same way. If your talent acquisitions folks are bringing you good talent, you're looking at the talent that they bring through the door, not necessarily why they, what they might have been doing during a five year or a three year or a 10 year period of their life one way or another.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Right. And this comment that you're making about, what's the definition of diversity being very broad. And, you know, when you're bringing people in after career breaks, there's age diversity involved, there's different perspectives that people bring having had that life experience. So it's great to hear that there's an awareness of that and that's part of the definition of diversity and how hiring goes on within your HR department. So super interesting. Heather, we're almost out of time now and I really enjoyed this conversation.

I want to ask you the question that we asked earlier. 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 today?

Heather Bannon: My best piece of advice is to believe in yourself and if you find that you're struggling to believe in yourself reach out to those who love you the most.

They can sometimes hold a mirror up for you and show you aspects of yourself that you're missing because you're not feeling confident. But, all folks who are in a career break, ready to relaunch, we've all learned from every experience in our lives. So believe in yourself. You've got a lot to contribute because there's, there's a lot of interesting problems to be solved that need a diversity of viewpoints.

Carol Fishman Cohen: That's great advice. And I love hearing it from you, you know, when our, when our listeners hear it from you, someone who has taken a career break and come back and has not only thrived, but is just on this incredible career trajectory, it's very powerful, to hear you say that.

Heather, thank you so much for joining us.

Heather Bannon: Oh, thanks for having me. I've really enjoyed our conversation.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Me too. And thanks to all of you for listening to 3 2 1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, and CEO and co founder of iRelaunch and your host.

Be sure to visit to access our many tools and resources for your career re entry and to sign up for our mailing list so you can get our weekly Return to Work Report every Friday and hear about the latest career re entry jobs and programs. Thank you for joining us.

Do you enjoy our podcast and want to make sure other relaunchers can find our return to work advice?

Be sure to rate, follow and leave a review of our podcast using our handy guide so we can reach even more relaunchers!

How to Rate and Review the 3, 2, 1 iRelaunch Podcast

New to our podcast?

Find out more about our most popular episodes and content of the 3, 2, 1, iRelaunch podcast!

Don't relaunch alone!

Join our growing relauncher communities on Facebook and LinkedIn. For more great guidance on your relaunch and updates on when return to work programs are accepting applications, events for relaunchers and more, be sure to sign up for our Return to Work Report and follow us on social media to stay informed!

Icon community