Executive Overcomes Gaps in Her Resume

Joann Starke details how she overcame HR prejudices and explained how sometimes your personal life needs more attention than your work life


Being unemployed for more than two years didn’t change Joann Starke’s assessment of her ability to do her job. But it left a big question mark for a lot of potential employers.

“Being out of the workplace for so long was an issue,” she said. “Although I have a strong tech and marketing background, people would look at my resume and say, ‘It’s an impressive resume. But are you up to date?’ In several of the jobs I interviewed for, I made it to the final round, but I think the reason I wasn’t getting the final offer was because they were afraid to take a chance on me.”

Starke was laid off from her job as a senior product manager at Hewlett-Packard in October 2005. And although she started looking for a job right away, she said a “perfect storm of events” hit her life at that moment, forcing her to put her personal life above her work life. One of her parents was diagnosed with bone cancer, and Starke stepped up to take charge of medical care. Along the way, she said, her marriage fell apart. By January 2008, “with my head screwed on straight, it was time to go back to work,” she said.

At that point, she hit the ground running, applying for jobs that she found on various job boards. “I wasted four to six months,” Starke said. “I didn’t realize what I was up against. There are millions of people on these sites. I got some interviews, but not many. I was really disappointed.”

By June, she learned about Ladders. Although she was skeptical at first, she did sign up for MktgLadder and started using the service. In August, a newsletter on Ladders talked about how a resume should be focused on a person’s unique value. “I did the free resume critique,” she said. “I didn’t feel I could spend the money for a professional to rewrite it, so I took their feedback, used the information in the newsletter, and then tore my resume apart. I completely re-did it, and I got much better response after that.

“The resources on the site are great,” Starke continued. “There are sample cover letters; I used them a lot. I especially liked the personal-branding information. It helped me to start thinking about what it is that I bring to the table above everyone else. When I started to put that into my phone interviews, I started getting a better response.”

Reviewing past performance

One way Starke prepared for initial phone interviews was to go through past performance evaluations looking for all the positives that were mentioned. “It gave me a more powerful set of strengths that I could leverage and change by the key skills mentioned by the interviewer,” she said. “For example, ‘strong leadership skills,’ ‘first to get involved to resolve issues,’ ‘take-charge nature.’ These were much stronger statements than simply saying that I work well in a matrixed organization.”

Something else that Starke said she learned from Ladders site was to get feedback during the interview that she could immediately use. “Near the end of the interview I would ask, ‘What concerns about my background do you have at this point?’ I discovered that it allowed me to hear their perception about me; and if it wasn’t accurate, I could counter them right then and there, rather than letting those perceptions become opinions that could be used against my candidacy,” she said.

Starke realized early in her search that she would most likely need to move from her home north of Sacramento. “Companies had closed, and I knew I would have to move,” she said. “I targeted all the key tech areas: Austin, Houston, Silicon Valley, the Pacific Northwest; I started looking at the Golden Triangle in North Carolina, but then that area dried up. But I knew I would be moving.”

By September and October, with a new resume and a practiced interview patter, she was getting a lot of response to her resume. In November, she said, everything came to a halt. “The venture capitalists pulled money, Microsoft announced layoffs, everything just stopped. I actually did a part-time job in retail, the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

But it didn’t stop her from moving forward. Around Christmas, she had a good lead with a major company; separately, a profitable startup in the virtualization-technology sector came calling. She pursued both jobs through the winter; by April, after four rounds of phone interviews and a face-to-face interview, she was hired by the start-up, Parallels, as the senior product marketing manager.

For now she is working out of her Roseville, Calif., home. She will move to Seattle in June.

While it was a long road to her new job, she said that in some ways, it’s fortunate that she left HP when she did. “I do keep up on what’s happening there,” Starke said. “HP is still laying off; it’s nowhere near the company it used to be. I’m not beaten down because I was in a tough working environment.

“I have a new vigor and energy level, I’m learning a lot, and I’m happy to be working,” she continued. “It’s like having a brand-new life in front of you.”