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Ben Halpern
Ben Halpern

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Don't Worry, They Haven't Figured it Out Either

This is a story about imposter syndrome, my 13 year-old self, and programming.

I had not thought about it in years, but I was recently reminded of the very first website I ever built. Like most of my coding projects, it was both a website and a business venture. I cannot remember exactly why I ultimately stopped working on it. This was 2001 and I was 13 years old.

The venture was It was a news and analysis website for fantasy sports. I had, perhaps, a dozen of my friends submitting content to the website and they did so without being paid (sorry guys). I had a great SEO strategy, which mostly included exchanging links with other fantasy sports websites (2001 amirite?) and writing good content people wanted to link to, mostly from fantasy sports forums. The site, though horrendously ugly in hindsight, was well designed and up to par with the standards of the time. I had a great content self-rolled management system so that the necessary HTML could be reused across pages and so my friends could submit plain text content and have it render formatted automagically to the pages. I had numerous display ad accounts and was making a bit of money. My best revenue-generators by far were online gambling sites. Looking back, I am proud of all of this. But at the time, I could never get past the idea that eventually somebody would find out that me and all my writers were 13 years old and the whole thing was a giant sham.

Some of my concerns, like driving traffic to online casinos and getting checks in the mail, were valid, but this never really bothered me. What really held me back was feeling like everyone else must be able to see right through my facade and recognize how thin my operation was. They must recognize that .tk was a free domain service and that my site was hosted on Geocities and that I had no business telling adults to learn about what my friends thought about what round Allen Iverson should be taken in 12-team head-to-head fantasy basketball drafts. Only in hindsight now, hearing stories about how nutty internet businesses were at the time and how many startups run on taped together software to this day, do I realize that my operation was no more “illegitimate” than any of my competitors in the space, than any of the adult-run businesses. Even though I still think the name “Fantasy Emporium” was awful, I do not remember meeting a single person who were at all concerned about the legitimacy of a .tk domain or that had any idea or any care about how I was hosting the website or had the slightest clue that me and my team were in junior high school. They saw a reasonably professional looking website that was exemplary of most independently run content websites of the time.

On the internet, nobody knows your a dog

I find myself experiencing some of those same concerns to this day, concerns that I must be doing something wrong, concerns that other programmers or entrepreneurs know what they’re doing and they can see right through my facade, concerns that I rely too much on frameworks that abstract away the problems I should know a lot more about, concerns that if I were a “real” professional programmer I would be doing things differently. When I get out of my head and examine the situation, it seems like people have yet to uncover my fraud and I have yet to uncover theirs. I seem to be playing the same game as everyone else. Growing up really does mean finding out that everybody is just winging it in some way and there is no shame in figuring things out as you go.

They call this feeling that I describe imposter syndrome. It characterizes pretty well the fear I had when I was 13 and it describes pretty well how I have sometimes feel these days. But the hindsight of seeing my past undertakings as surprisingly legitimate, given the context of the time, is a cathartic one. If you’re in this digital technology space, you really are standing on remarkably unstable ground, where established best practices are just band aids for what is to come and even the best in the field are merely standing on the shoulders of giants who came before them. There is eternally no right path. There is no best practice that will not later be displaced by a bester practice. There are a few really smart and experienced people who have a grand understanding of the craft and there are many more who are able to fork off just enough expertise to do some really cool stuff. It is incredibly exciting to keep learning and continuously surprise yourself with your newfound ability to do something you thought was for “others” a few months ago or a few years ago.

Nobody has figured it out. Nobody knows what the technical future holds and very few even have a good understanding of the current landscape beyond their narrow experiences. Nobody out there knows or cares that you are a 13 year old kid in Canada hosting your website for free. Nobody cares that you have not quite wrapped your head around websockets or NoSQL databases or metaprogramming or whatever you are struggling to learn, because you will eventually figure it out if you absolutely need to, just like you have figured out so much just to get to this point. Nobody cares that you feel like you have no idea what you are doing because they feel the same way a lot of the time.

In a decade you will look back and realize 99% percent of other programmers were as clueless as you you were, even if you do not feel clueless right now. Relish the relative immaturity of the internet and build some funky applications and websites and and take the time to make them great.

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