WWCode Conversations #54: Technology Returnship Programs with The Home Depot
Written by Rachel Modugno
Women Who Code Conversations 54 | Spotify — iTunes — Google — YouTube — Podcast Page
Rachel Mondugno, Director of Technology at The Home Depot, joins Stephanie Rideout, Leadership Fellow at Women Who Code for a Fireside Chat about Technology Returnship Programs with The Home Depot. They discuss Rachel’s path from GED to Director of Technology. They also discuss the importance of having programs to get people back on their career paths after resume gaps, especially after covid.
Would you like to start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about your career journey?
My journey is a good representation of, there being no set way to get to where you want to go. I was not, as a student, drawn to anything in particular. I had a very hard time figuring out what I wanted to do. I got into high school and I realized I did not like it. I did not want to spend every day there, and the thought of spending four years in high school was torture. At the end of my freshman year of high school, I somehow talked my parents into signing a piece of paper, and I left. I quit school after freshman year. I was very lost. I waited tables and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I got my GED because I knew I needed to keep moving forward. I went to a two-year technical college, just taking a basic core curriculum. I moved to a four-year school, Kennesaw State University here in Georgia.
In my first year there, I had a professor in the Math department who I adored. She also taught statistics and talked me into taking an elective in the Stats Department. There, it finally clicked. I finished that four-year degree in Math and Stats. I went straight into a graduate program in data science. That was really where I found a passion. I enjoy taking data and making it information. It felt so powerful to be able to look at a bunch of numbers and pull out something useful. I love trivia and facts, and so data science gave me that opening. That’s how I ended up at Home Depot in business intelligence.
I made the move from the business over to tech. I worked as a business analyst. I was never an engineer, so I always feel a little bit out of place in technology. Every two years or so, I would take on a new challenge. Here we are, 14 years later at Home Depot. I just took over a terrifyingly big space in the store checkout process. I’m excited to learn. I’ve gotten to go into the store, run the register, and do some of the cashier training.
Was there a specific challenge that you faced in your career journey? How did you overcome that?
Two things come to mind. One was this common thread of, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, I don’t know what I like, I don’t know what’s out there. The thing that I learned from constantly being in that spot was just kept moving, just keep going somewhere. Keep moving forward as long as I’m not stagnant, then I’m at least learning something. The other thing for me, personally, I wasn’t really prepared to have to balance my career and my life the way that I ended up doing it. I thought when I started out, I was going to dive in, this was going to be it, my career number one. Life happens, and for me, the realization that it’s more about career integration. It’s sometimes Rachel the mom, sometimes Rachel the youth sports coach, or sometimes Rachel the career woman who takes spot number one. I integrate so that the whole Rachel is a happier, more well-rounded person.
What do you do in your current role at The Home Depot?
I am about a month into this new role, technology director over the store checkout domain. That involves the registers that the cashiers operate and the self-check-out. It also includes all of the returns processes, among other things. A lot of my job is working with operations, working with the business, and setting a strategic vision. Another big part of my job is investing in engineers, making sure that they are supported, challenged, growing, and learning. I can’t stand the idea of someone feeling stale in their job. I insist that we have fun, that the teams are communicating, that it’s a good positive environment, and everyone is getting something out of their time on the team. I also have the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Council. That’s the group that has made our returnship possible.
What tips do you have for effective networking?
Networking is huge. Like most people, I don’t have a ton of free time to sit around and read and learn. I have to talk to people. I have to have folks that I can use as a sounding board, so that I’m spending the time that I do have more wisely. I use my network to find opportunities to give me a better perspective. My very close, long-term, trusted mentors are the ones that are able to say, “No, no, no, no, no, you’re thinking about this all wrong. Hold on a minute. Let’s just calm down. Let’s take a different perspective.” I value that greatly. I look at the network as a savings account. You don’t start to save when you need it, you have to invest on an ongoing basis for that network to be healthy and positive and there for you when you reach out to it.
I picture myself in the center, and the sunburst going out is my network. There are people that I am helping and there are people that are helping me. There are people that are my peers, and we’re just staying connected, making sure we don’t go crazy in our current roles. It’s a little more tactical than it is being career strategic. I think it’s really important to maintain those relationships. I have to do it in a way that’s authentic. I’m way more casual. I think the most important thing is finding a way to make those relationships that feel authentic to you. Be truly who you are and let people know that, instead of trying to fit into some image that you may have of stuffy corporate networking.
What do you recommend as far as addressing a career gap in a job interview that is not explicitly a returnship?
I have a bold approach to it. Don’t be apologetic, life is life, tell your story, tell your journey. You didn’t decide to take a break for no reason, something else happened to be more important. Wear that proudly, explain what it was and show how you’ve done the work to get back in. How have you been educating yourself? How do you learn? How do you consistently grow? Own your journey and explain it proudly. Show how it has made you who you are today.
What are your thoughts overall about returnship programs?
I think it’s timely. Returnship programs in the industry, especially in technology, are probably better late than never. There’s a growing need to have a specialized on-ramp back-into-your-career after covid. There is no path. Everyone comes with different perspectives and different needs in a technology career. Also, it is going to make employers more powerful in the future. Their ability to draw great talent and retain great talent is going to be directly related to how they meet people where they are. We invest in the associates we have now. I think that returnships are the beginning of what I hope are many different types of offerings in the industry that get people from a non-traditional background into technology.
Can you share about The Home Depot’s Technology Returnship Program?
THD team that put this together was a small group. From inception to hiring our first cohort was less than nine months, which is absolutely incredible when you think of how slow large companies can move sometimes. Ours is a six-month program. The first three months are an in-house bootcamp that we already had at Home Depot. We used to skill up our own engineers or folks that were coming from the field to the corporate office. A store associate who has pursued a technology career, we take them through a bootcamp and place them with Home Depot engineering teams. We use that for the first 12 weeks, it’s guided instruction as well as self-study, and they work on a full stack project. There are so many great engineers that just needed this different on-ramp back into technology. Our pilot cohort is running. In the end, we’ll have the opportunity to extend full-time employment to them. That’s game-changing for a family to be able to get back into a technology career that has as many opportunities as Home Depot does.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in launching and executing returnship programs?
The first one right up front was, do these people really exist? Are there these engineers out there who are not working as engineers right now, who are looking to come back? I had to combat that with a lot of market research and data, no one can argue with facts. I learned that not only do these people exist, but these people are really high-caliber associates.
Many in our audience might be wondering whether they should become a data scientist or how to become a data scientist, and what advice do you have for them?
I pursued an academic path. At the time, data science was just emerging in full force. Now, with the amount of information available online, I think I would have done it differently. You don’t have to jump into the deep end. The competencies of data science are so accessible, that you could start small and see if you enjoy it. Anything that you’re passionate about, that you’re interested in, is going to make it so much easier to look at data and pull out those nuggets because you’re curious about it and you want to learn more. Start where your passion is and see what you can learn from what already exists. The world is full of data, every website is happy to give you all of its data. Take it and play with it and see what you can learn. And if it really hooks you, then you think about the certifications.