A gap in your resume isn't something to be ashamed of. Just be sure that you've been doing something useful with your time.

Where Have You Been?

A gap in your resume isn't something to be ashamed of. Just be sure that you've been doing something useful with your time.

I've been out of software development for more than a year. I survived two downsizings after my company was bought out, but not the third. I returned to school to learn Java (and am preparing for the Sun Certified Programmer for Java 2 exam) and also oversaw a remodeling project in our home. I have 15 years in software development, but for Java I will be considered entry-level. I don't think my absence from the field should be viewed as a problem, but a prospective employer may not agree.
—Patrick Friebis
Cranford, New Jersey

Steve Crandall says: Patrick, I want to reinforce the advice that Greg gave you and then address some other issues regarding your situation what will apply to others, I'm sure.

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Never, ever attempt to hide or gloss over periods in your work history that you don't think are relevant—although you don't have to advertise them, either. As I've said before, especially if you're concerned about age discrimination, you can eliminate the dates from your resume. List all of your experiences—just don't use the "starting date-ending date" format. Even with this method, you can convey that you're a stable, long-term employee; use phrases like "During a 10-year stint as senior database architect..." or some similar wording in the description of your duties and accomplishments. Potential employers will ask you about dates and such during the interview stage, but at least you'll get to that stage without being eliminated by red flags.

Longtime readers will also know that I continually encourage folks to explore the relevance of seemingly irrelevant experience. In your case, your absence from the job market has some strength in it. First, as Greg pointed out, you took the initiative to broaden your knowledge and skills with your Java training. Second, you intend to reinforce it with certification—good for you!

But the other part of your "time off" interests me, too. Don't you think the things you learned as a contractor will prove valuable? How about your project-management skills? What about your people skills in coordinating a diverse (and often uncooperative, if my experience with remodeling is any proof) set of subcontractors? Can you abstract your design and drafting skills and apply those principles to IT?

Of course, the reaction of a potential employer to this interval depends upon its length. If you were out for six months, accomplished certified Java status and managed a 5,000-foot addition to your house, the reaction of a company is likely to be "Wow! What can you do for me?" On the other hand, if all this took you three years and the "major remodeling" was building a garage, I'd have some reservations about both your learning capacity and ability to get things done. The point is that you don't necessarily need to apologize for your hiatus—there may be real value in it.

But I'd like to get back to the circumstances that put you in this situation and offer some observations that, although they might not help you, might be of use to other readers. You say you survived two downsizings but were caught in the third—all resulting from the company being purchased. Why were you still around?

I have this theory of the "death spiral" that many technology companies have gone through, and it usually starts with some unexpected event that shakes up the organization. It might be too-fast growth, based upon heady forecasts that suddenly disappear so the company has to "right-size" to match the real business level. Or it might be that the parent company suddenly realizes it doesn't need or can't afford an operating unit and sells it. Granted, many companies have survived and even been reinvigorated by such transformations. For many others, however, this is the beginning of the end.

Two groups in particular have to interpret these moves. The first is customers. Customers tend to value stability in their suppliers and can be pretty skittish when upheaval comes to a company upon which they depend. They start thinking about alternatives and soon move from thinking to buying.

The second group is the employees. Although most companies will deny it, the first wave of layoffs usually involves employees that the company would be better off without, but haven't found a way to get rid of before. How the rest of the employees react at this point is crucial. If they can make sense of the move, not just rationalize it, and can commit to continuing, the company is reinvigorated and has a chance. On the other hand, the best employees may also start to feel skittish; because these are the ones who can find jobs elsewhere easily, they start leaving voluntarily. The company is then left with the "mediocre middle." With that core, it's difficult for the company to make progress—and soon comes another wave of layoffs or another sale. See why I call it a "death spiral"?

This isn't to say, Patrick, that this is what happened to you, or that you were only mediocre. I bring up this point to alert our readers that some of these organizational transactions can be beneficial; but keep your eyes on the wall (to see the writing that may appear) and make your resume a desktop icon.

About the Author

Steve Crandall, MCSE, is a principal of ChangeOverTime, a technology consulting firm in Cleveland, Ohio, that specializes in small business and non-profit organizations. He's also assistant professor of Information Technology at Myers College and a contributing writer for Microsoft Certified Professional Magazine.

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