Updated: Jan 29, 2021
Eileen Mackey Downing had a successful career in education and training, with stints across the U.S., South Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Her family life changed radically when her son was diagnosed with leukemia while they were living in South Africa and Eileen stepped away from life as she knew it to oversee her son’s care. As his condition stabilized, and she looked to return to the US and to the workforce, Eileen wanted to leverage her global training background and also keep her family’s on-going care needs in mind. She recently started a contract job at Microsoft working in a support role in the Intelligent Cloud Technical Readiness team.
Congratulations on your first job back! How did you land this assignment? How did you position your background and skills?
As all the statistics predicted, I found my job through a personal contact - someone who had worked at the same college that I had in the UAE, but who had relocated to Seattle in the time since we had both left there. She had a similar education and professional background to me and she really felt confident that I would be a good fit on the diverse international team that I now work on.
Did you talk much about your time away? Were you anxious about the prospect of talking about your family’s unique health situation?
My personal contact knew all the details about my personal history, but I was a bit anxious about the topic surfacing during my interview. My time away didn’t actually come up, but I did feel it was necessary and fair to let my hopefully-future employer know about my potential obligations stemming from my children’s health. Apart from having a son with leukemia, I also have two sons with developmental disabilities. I really wanted these experiences to surface as a strength rather than a liability, so I brought it to the table on my own terms, and briefly inserted it into a conversation about AI, which is a facet of the Intelligent Cloud platform. I really feel that AI is going to level the playing field for people with disabilities and make the workplace more accessible in the future. It’s something that I am excited about, and I wanted my experience with disability and difference to come across as a facet of how I could eventually contribute to the team’s work. It also gave me the opportunity to paraphrase the fact that I am not really intimidated by much!
You came through the Spring 2019 Career Catalyst. What elements of the program helped propel your move forward?
Instead of just hanging on to a blurred image of what I was before kids, before autism, before cancer, The Career Catalyst gave me the time, the place, and the framework to examine who I am now, what I want out of this next chapter of my professional life, and how I can get that message out in a way that is most likely going to end in a j-o-b. I sort of feel like all of the activities (like re-working my resume and LinkedIn profile, collecting feedback from former colleagues, and learning about personal branding) was really like one big assignment on getting to know myself again in an articulate manner. I am really grateful for the partial scholarship that I received from The Swing Shift, because it really made the decision to attend the course easier to make from the financial perspective. I also got to know an amazing group of ladies and build an accountability network; being new to Seattle, that was a really important aspect for me. And it may seem silly, but being able to hang out at the Riveter one morning a week made me feel like I was already stepping out into the world of work – the cool world of work that is!
You’ve elected to try a contract job as you get back into the workforce. Was this deliberate or opportunistic? What do you see as the pros and cons?
I had originally hoped to land a permanent job with those all-important health care benefits as I am now the only source of income in my family - my husband had to leave his job when we moved from South Africa last year. I do, however, definitely see the advantages of working on a contractual basis in terms of flexibility for time off between contracts. It is also more of a bite-size risk for the employer. For whatever crazy logic, employers believe that hiring someone who has been out of the formal workplace is a risk; having the option to hire someone on a somewhat temporary basis relieves them from some of that burden of risk. It also gives me the clear option to change my mind, or my rates!
Do you have any advice for folks who have been away to care for their family’s health?
Weathering hardship makes you a stronger person, and as a result you are a valuable addition to any workplace. Don’t be afraid to let your potential employers know about crises that you have gone through, but frame it in a tangible way so that it can be regarded as a strength, not a liability.