Five years ago, I lost my ability to concentrate long-term, and therefore ability to code with professional efficiency.

I know why it happened, I understood how it happened, and on top of being able to re-create my calm and thus relaxed focus, I overcame the original (rooted in childhood) reason why my mind tilted on the overall situation back then; My understanding isn't rooted in words that a psychologist told me, I actually grokked them first-hand. I'm pretty much confident to be able to churn out productivity, possibly even more so than pre-burnout.

I also never lost my interest in code nor did I stray from trying to get my abilities back; I kept my knowledge up to date (I could always relatively painlessly learn things coding-related, just not apply them) and thus can say that I'm a better developer than before, even if my average LOC-count over those years is abysmally low.

On the other hand, now I have a biography that includes more time on the dole than in a job.

What would convince you, as an employer, to give my application a chance? I don't believe I should just keep the whole topic out of it.

EDIT: I think I should add that I didn't start searching my childhood for causes, it was the solution that pointed me to the cause. Alas, not doing my best to fix the company (which was disintegrating as I left, and completely disbanded a year later) is deeply rooted in the fact that in my childhood I, at one point, gave up on fixing my parent's relationship, misattributing it to my own failure at empathy instead of them being an utterly hopeless case, and I don't really see a way to explain that without referring to childhood. I'm perfectly able to say that without breaking out into tears, though.

That said, yes, I'm aware that I'm writing to you guys as friends, not employers, right now, that's the reason why I show my distrust in you by using a one-time account .oO( ... )

Yes, I'm planning to release some OSS code before I apply anywhere.

EDIT 2: I'm German and going to apply at a German company, so "creative truth" is definitely not an option.

As to the chosen answer: I chose Renesis over Pierre because, while the latter did an awesome job at motivating, getting across that I shouldn't give up and giving me points to beef up my social skills section with, Renesis actually answered my question by summing up the involved key factors.

  • 1
    Sympathies, but what has this to do with programming?
    – ozz
    Feb 15, 2011 at 12:45
  • 4
    There's no specific stackexchange site for career and interview questions, and programmers had the most hits on the tags career-development as well as burnout, so I concluded that here is where there's knowledgeable/interested persons. Granted, it's a combination of two fringe topics.
    – user17332
    Feb 15, 2011 at 12:52

12 Answers 12


The best approach is to find a way to describe your situation in a learned-from-my-mistakes, learned-what-not-to-do way.

  • Don't rationalize. No employer is going to be happy to hire an employee who spent five years on the dole if they completely rationalize it away. You may feel like this was necessary — and at some point it did become necessary for you. But, the bottom line is you would have been better off if you hadn't needed it, and realizing what could have saved you is the perspective an employer is going to want to see that you have.

  • Don't be overly emotional about it. Specifically, don't point to childhood, as that will conjure up rationalization red-alarms in the mind of the employer. (What you've told us here, is what you'd say to a friend. Employers are fundamentally different, they have to be.) Employers want employees who are stable, and unfortunately, illustrating the emotional side of it to your employer may make them jump to conclusions that you have a lack of stability.

  • As far as your skills being sharp, just show it. Don't talk about all the research you did or how quickly you learn (that could very easily mean nothing) — simply, ace your tech interview. And make sure to ask them smart questions, to show you are inquisitive and analytical. Don't be discouraged — there are many potential candidates out there interviewing with short histories.

The important thing to remember is potential employers have very little time to get to know you — so in some respects, they have to jump to conclusions. Your job is to help them jump to the best ones.

  • I must say that your combination of "don't rationalise" with "don't be emotional", contradictory as it is, is highly inspirational. I need to mull over the "realising what could have saved you", that is, reduce it to something else than "have had a different childhood" or "have had that burnout before, already".
    – user17332
    Feb 15, 2011 at 9:38
  • Not sure about Germany but in the US employers are not allowed to ask personal or health issues. That said a carefully crafted cover letter that doesn't go into to much detail, hint less than in your question, will allow you to explain on your own terms and then you will likely not get any questions during the interview itself. Feb 15, 2011 at 15:17
  • Employers are, generally, allowed to ask anything, but you're allowed to lie about things that, broadly speaking, don't relate to your fitness for the job. A truck driver with a broken leg is kinda pointless...
    – user17332
    Feb 15, 2011 at 15:25
  • 1
    @Bill Leeper: I agree with the premise of the question, that it's better to clear it up than to find ways to avoid being questioned about it. I would probably dump any candidate who was coming off a 5-year break that went unexplained.
    – Nicole
    Feb 15, 2011 at 19:24
  • @Renesis I wasn't trying to say hide it, but be more smooth about it. The question as worded is TMI (Too Much Information) Feb 19, 2011 at 5:28

Be honest

It will always pay on the long run.

You will fail to get many interviews, and many interviews will fail.

But it's a necessary recovery process to find the first employer that will actually understand what happened. That employer will be in position to give you better working conditions than the one that did not understand.

Having suffered a lot (and recovered) is perceived by some employers as a strong asset. I perceive that as a strong asset, I burnt out myself.

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

  • you probably developed your empathy, necessary skill in high collaborative environment
  • you know yourself better than anyone. You know your limits.
  • you can detect pre-burnout phase of your colleagues and therefore help your boss to save many money.
  • you are now better armed to play a role in very stressful situations.
  • knowing more about the process give you a competitive advantage you are free to use or not.

Be prepared for that difficult part of your life. Each failure will be an opportunity to learn for you.

After some time, the hole in your CV will be minimized by your recent professional activity.

  • 8
    You, sir, could earn millions as a professional motivator.
    – user17332
    Feb 15, 2011 at 9:53
  • Pierre is really a nice guy, indeed :-)
    – Rabskatran
    Feb 15, 2011 at 12:57
  • 2
    "you can detect pre-burnout phase of your colleagues and therefore help your boss to save many money." LOL. pre-burnout detector - that's a job for you! Feb 15, 2011 at 21:02
  • 2
    @lukas: and I'm pretty good at it now.
    – user2567
    Feb 15, 2011 at 21:03

If I were considering hiring you, my biggest concerns would be whether you're truly ready to be coding productively again and whether you've kept your skills up to date. In this profession, five years is a long time. So you were burnt out; it happens to a lot of people. But can you demonstrate that you're ready to be productive again?

  • 2
    What suggestions do you have for the OP to show that he's ready to be productive again?
    – jmort253
    Feb 15, 2011 at 8:05
  • 2
    Making patch contributions to an open-source product could be a really great way to start.
    – PP.
    Feb 15, 2011 at 8:24
  • You wouldn't be interested in the rest of the story, at all?
    – user17332
    Feb 15, 2011 at 9:57
  • @user17332 Past burnout is not an issue to me, partly because I've gone through it myself. But I've moved beyond it and have been programming full time for the past four years. Feb 15, 2011 at 21:16
  • 2
    @jmort253 Any examples of recent work -- a web application, an open source project -- would be a good indicator of current skills and motivation. Feb 15, 2011 at 21:18

I'd be more likely to give your application a chance if you include links to your recent contributions to open source projects.


I took a few years off some years ago for a number of reasons. One thing is that you should realize that you may have to take a step down. You will probably find for the first year or so back you are in effect starting over at zero again. Its annoying but there is nothing you can do about it but get past it and show people you can do the job.

Good Luck to you!


The Be Honest answer is a great answer.

  • Also consider doing some app development for Android Market, which you can do solo. It won't make you money, (unless you have a brilliant idea for a new app), but it will give you something to show an interviewer that you really can do all the things needed around coding.
  • A way to think about what happened is that you spent five years debugging your psyche. Many people after burn-out don't have the debugging skill and tenacity to do that. It's an extraordinary achievement. You might not use that language in your CV, but thinking that way will change the tone of how you present your experience.

I don't think you have to get into the realm of disclosing deeply personal information to a prospective employer if you are uncomfortable doing so. During an interview, I would just explain that "personal circumstances" or "illness" (if you feel you could fairly categorize it as such) kept me out of the workforce. If you get to an interview, the employer's main concern is probably whether you are reliable and whether such a circumstance is likely to affect you again while at this job.

Regarding your resume, if you accomplished enough to (legitimately in your eyes) claim self-employment, then do so. In any case, you can compensate by addressing it briefly in a cover letter, per the interview advice in the last paragraph. Acknowledge you were out of the workforce, but are happy and eager to be back in it, and then move on.


It's important to be honest and forthright, yet professional. As others have mentioned, don't get into the emotional side of things. You are in an interview, not sitting on your therapist's couch.

It's also important to focus on the positives, which coincides with not making excuses. I would also suggest keeping this topic as brief as possible, like it's no big deal. If you make a big deal out of it, the employer will react negatively, no matter what kind of a positive spin you make of this.

If the topic does come up and questions are asked, then briefly provide some explanation: During your time off, what did you learn (that can be applied to your profession)? What new skills did you gain. What did you experience that was positive?

Focus on your long term goals. Make sure you have answers to the oh so popular questions about where you see yourself in 5 to 10 years.

If the employer asks about your past, assert that it's the past, you've learned valuable lessons and gained some fine skills along the way. Tell the employer you are excited to start this next chapter of your life and apply your newfound skills and enthusiasm to the organization. Get back to the business at hand as quickly as possible.

Most importantly, stay in control of the conversation, be confident, and know that it's a numbers game. Interviews tend to go better when the interviewee takes control of the conversation and contributes to its direction.

Also, try try again. If you get knocked down just get back up, dust yourself off, and try try again. Stay positive! Each time you will learn more about what works and what doesn't. Good luck!

  • I'm a bit afraid insisting to keep it short would result in the interviewer smelling denial, and thus questioning whether I really overcame the thing or am merely a good con.
    – user17332
    Feb 15, 2011 at 10:28

One thing I'd add in addition to the things others have said:

Make a realistic appraisal of the companies you're applying to and their approach to work life balance and so on. Finance companies which tend to be high pressure are likely to be less sympathetic and I would personally avoid them, where other industries and companies may see your improved self awareness as of benefit.

Essentially once you've worked out what your approach is, work out who will be most receptive to that and focus your efforts there. I suspect you'll have most luck with smaller companies (a lot of large companies will have Human Resource departments who will just see the sick record and run a mile) and companies with a more forward thinking approach (so avoid IT jobs in finance, law and other similarly conservative industries).

You might also want to consider contract work for a year or two where because the contracts are shorter term, and because you're only paid for the time you work, they'll see it as less of a risk. Once you've been back in work for a couple of years the risk and stigma will have largely fallen away and you should be on a firmer footing for permanent jobs.


From my experience you will have the best luck with a small company. They are more personal and more likely to take a risk. Larger companies have too many policies and too many HR people screening resumes and cover letters.

Also, look at freelance work. They are a lot less likely to look at actual work history, more likely to look at a portfolio of work.

Good Luck


Something else to consider is what kind of jobs are you trying to get. If you are applying for jobs where a few years of experience is required that may be aiming a bit high here as in a way you are trying to re-establish yourself. I'd likely consider if there are any local user groups that may be a way to get your foot in the door somewhere as one option as well as if there are any recruiting firms. I'm not sure getting into personal problems will be that useful unless you can show that they are in the past and some of what you learned there would be useful in your future positions. "Why do you make this seem so important?" may be a question that an employer could see if you make too big a deal out of this.


We all think that the employer will always have a way of finding out what we don't tell them. That's not true. You can also hide a lot, as well as them.
Say that what you did in those years is not relevant for the current job and for the qualifications needed by the current job.
But say that you also kept up to speed with programming in your spare time because you always felt in your heart that this was the path for you. Ask for them to allow you to take the competence test (programming skills test). If you have the skills, you get the job.

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