by John Edwards

7 ways to bounce back from a career setback

Apr 12, 2018

When the roof falls in on your current situation, it's time to roll up your sleeves and dig your way out to brighter prospects.

bouncing back from career setback pogo stick jumping in
Credit: Getty Images

It was the day Victor Olex’s career crashed in flames. At least that’s how it felt to him at the time.

“When the financial crisis hit in the fall of 2008, my software development job with Merrill Lynch’s credit derivative trading group came to an unexpected halt,” he recalls. What was once amazing, intellectually stimulating and challenging work suddenly ended as credit trading imploded all over Wall Street, taking trading desks — and Olex — into the abyss. “With few, if any, immediate prospects for another job, I set out to try something else,” Olex reflects.

Olex’s alternative career path focused on an issue he repeatedly bumped into while on staff at Merrill Lynch. “I began working on a product idea to aid financial firms in data integration — a massive pain point that I had observed first-hand throughout my career,” he says. This insight led to the creation of SlashDB, which offers a middleware platform that can automatically turn a database into a website or API, enabling very old databases to be presented to the outside world.

After a couple of pivots and interim consulting jobs needed to keep the lights on, Olex managed to grow SlashDB into a thriving business with clients located around the globe, including several major enterprises. “So yes, a career setback can truly be a blessing; I can attest to that,” Olex concludes.

Anticipating the inevitable

Career setbacks come in many different forms — you’re passed over for a promotion, a major project implodes, you’re officially reprimanded. For most IT professionals, it’s not a matter of if there will be a setback, but when and how often they will find their careers suddenly shifting into reverse.

Recovering from a serious setback requires insight, resolve, patience, tactical planning and even a certain amount of courage. “Sometimes setbacks feel like they’ve shattered your professional plans,” observes James Stanger, chief technology evangelist at the non-profit CompTIA. The key to re-igniting a professional life after a setback is to search for ways to succeed, he advises. “Then, you can start looking at professional behaviors, knowledge and skills you can obtain so that you can bounce back in style.”

Here are seven proven ways of approaching a professional reversal and moving forward with your career:

1. Understand what went wrong

While Olex’s career setback was caused by an issue he had no direct control over — layoffs spurred by a global financial recession — many career setbacks are the result of inadequate knowledge, poor planning, overly-ambitious goals or some combination of these factors.

To move past the setback and grow from the experience it’s important to think objectively. Was the incident a reflection of your personal performance or a new company direction that was beyond your control? “If you can review the situation and identify your own strengths and weaknesses, you’ll be in a better position professionally and better able to handle a similar situation that might arise in the future,” explains Al Smith, CTO of recruiting software provider iCIMS.

“If you have a setback, find out why it really happened and address it,” suggests Tony Daniello, director of infrastructure services for hybrid IT solutions provider Computer Design & Integration. If the roadblock was set by a bad manager, try to move to a position with a different chief. If you were looked over for a promotion, ask for feedback. “In the end, always address the issue,” Daniello says.

2. Chart a fresh course

A career setback is often a perfect time for internal reflection and professional reassessment. “The best way to bounce back is to continually update and upgrade your skills,” says Jeff Grace, CEO and founder of Las Vegas-based computer support and service provider NetEffect. “By staying current with marketable skills, you’ll always be able to find other options, whether in your current organization or somewhere else.”

A big mistake many IT professionals make when dealing with a setback is believing that there’s only a single viable pathway to reigniting their careers — a comfortable, familiar approach that may actually set them up for future failures. “When they get a setback, they kind of feel trapped,” Stanger observes. He recommends taking some time to process why you feel restricted or why the setback seems so final. “You’ll find that there are many options — you just don’t know them yet,” he notes.

3. View your setback as a possible blessing in disguise

IT professionals often find themselves lost in the weeds or hiking up the wrong mountain. “Career setbacks can drive people to ask themselves bigger questions and re-architect their pathway,” says Justin Renfroe, a business development manager and career counselor at programmer training organization Origin Code Academy. “It can allow a person to pause, take inventory and re-orient themselves for the climb ahead.”

“A career setback can be a blessing in disguise, especially if you handle the setback the right way,” observes Brooks Israel, co-founder and managing partner of The Hiring Group, an IT and engineering recruitment agency. Nobody is perfect and everybody makes mistakes. “Be humble, own your setback and move forward with your career and life,” Israel recommends.

4. Search for suitable new opportunities

Whether you’re staying with your current employer, seeking a fresh job or planning to launch a new business, it’s important to explore a full spectrum of potential career opportunities. Treat reviving your IT career like it’s a career, suggests Choo Kim-Isgitt, CMO of EdgeWave, a web and email security services provider. “That means spending considerable amounts of time prospecting target companies, understanding what their needs/requirements are and networking to meet with the right people.”

As you work to get your career back on track, think about developing your personal brand. “Make it a point to get to know people in other groups or verticals, find opportunities and talk to the hiring managers about those opportunities,” says Jennifer Roddy-Selden, national director of recruiter innovation and performance for staffing and consulting firm Randstad Technologies. “I have always said the best way to hear about a role is when you are on the inside, so embrace contract opportunities because they give you the ability to be on the inside of an organization and get to know the people and the environment.”

5. Seek impartial advice and support

Most people experiencing a career setback instinctively retract from the world. “Understandably, you’re ashamed of what happened and don’t want to talk about it,” Smith notes. “Try to fight this urge, keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to talk about what happened.”

IT pros facing a career crisis should seek direction, insight and support from a coach or mentor. “We all need that person that we can run things by,” Roddy-Selden says. Find colleagues you can connect with and be honest with them. “People that believe in us make us stronger, make us better, help us to learn and … see the light even when we don’t,” she explains. “Most important, pay it forward and be that person to someone else.”

6. Follow your instincts

Call it what you will — “intuition,” “vibes,” “gut feeling” or whatever — your subconscious is alerting you to a potentially disastrous situation. Pay attention to these feelings, since they may be a sign that you should consider gracefully removing yourself from a dicey situation before it can blossom into a full-fledged career blowout.

“If your instincts tell you that your position and/or company are not in alignment with your goals/values, and things are not going to change for the better, begin the process of finding another job,” advises Mickey Mounarath, a software development manager in San Diego. Just be sure to take enough time to fully assess the situation so that it’s not an impulse reaction or an act of impatience. “Otherwise, you become the complainer that just left without trying to solve the problem you were complaining about,” Mounarath says.

7. Put the past behind you and move forward

Things often happen for a reason, and an apparent setback can actually place you on a fresh and exciting career path. “You have to take things as they come and work to overcome challenges,” Roddy-Selden says. “Just make sure you learn from each experience and get better because of it.”

It’s also important to understand that reaching for success always involves a certain amount of risk. Realize that taking risks will result in occasional setbacks that can eventually be overcome through determined, repeated effort. As a 25-year-old Winston Churchill observed, “You must put your head into the lion’s mouth if the performance is to be a success.”