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Doing my bit to tackle imposter syndrome

catmcgeecode profile image Cat McGee Updated on ・3 min read

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Hello fellow geeks! In this article I want to talk about something that I don't think is addressed enough - the serious problem with imposter syndrome in this industry.

Imposter syndrome is horrible. You feel inadequate, like you've got where you are because of chance, and eventually someone is going to find out you're an imposter.

And I don't know a single developer who doesn't feel this way on a weekly basis.

Imposter syndrome was initially thought to be seen in only women, and I can definitely say that a lot of my feelings of fraud stem from there. In every single job I've had I've been the first women hired in the engineering team. One time I was the first woman in the whole company. This comes with its own issues, but one of the most pressing ones is the imposter syndrome. Was I hired because I'm a woman?

However, nowadays we know that everyone, regardless of gender, feels like a fraud sometimes. There isn't enough research to really conclude where or how imposter syndrome came to be, so I like to use this diagram:

It feels like each person you talk to has more knowledge than you, but in actuality they each have a little bit of knowledge that you don't

We have no way to understand the minds of our colleagues and peers. We don't know how much they know. It just seems like they are more skilled than us because we judge our skill in relation to other people. But what we're doing wrong here is we're judging our skill in relation to every person, not just one.

When we ask someone for help, we don't know what happens on their end. Oftentimes, we think they just know the answer. However, a lot of the time, they use the knowledge gained from our question, their own knowledge, and the knowledge of another person to answer our question. Knowledge is shared between these parties.

That's the way teams work. You have a particular skill you bring to the table. Sometimes it doesn't seem that way because everyone else has a skill they bring to the table that is different from yours.

Tackling imposter syndrome is a lot more difficult than it looks. Repeatedly telling yourself you're not an imposter doesn't work. The best way to overcome it is to talk to others about it, share your story, and realize that almost everybody feels the same way as you. Understand that those people who seem infinitely more skilled than you make mistakes too. You just don't see them.

So I'm creating a way to do that. On July 13th (Tuesday), I'll launch a blog called 'Errors Should Never Pass Silently', a place to share mistakes that we've made, how we've tackled our own imposter syndrome, and advice we can offer to others. The name is based on the Zen of Python. It'll be a place to submit your own articles that can be published anonymously or with your name and links to your social media.

Right now, a few awesome developers are writing articles to be published and featured when it's launched. This is what you have to look forward to:

  • 5 Mistakes I Made as a Beginner
  • 13 Years in the Industry and I've Never Overcome my Imposter Syndrome
  • My Biggest Error was Never Leaving my Java Bubble
  • Feelings of Inadequacy

(and more)

If you're interested in joining in and writing an article for launch, leave a comment here or DM me on Twitter.

Let's tackle imposter syndrome together.

Posted on by:

catmcgeecode profile

Cat McGee

@catmcgeecode

I like Javascript and Python and make tutorials so you can like them too.

Discussion

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Weird how imposter syndrome is such a big thing in our industry ... ever heard about a plumber or a construction worker (or a doctor or a nurse) suffering from this? Even CEOs of big companies or the hotshots in the corporate boardrooms, who make big mistakes while earning even bigger salaries, don't suffer from it (while maybe they should, but that's never gonna happen, their egos are too big).

I don't know what it is, maybe it's the level of abstraction of this craft (we don't make "physical" things), maybe we're too modest or too nice and our egos aren't big enough, maybe it's because of the endless technology churn and the fact that what you learn today seems outdated tomorrow? Another contributing factor is that, in IT or development, for any given task there are always a dozen different ways to do it and nobody agrees on what's the "right" way.

I think a big thing is also the fact that many devs are self-educated and there is no requirement for a formal education, leading to the feeling of "anyone could do this, so it's like a glorified hobby", I think that's an important factor.

But mainly this is psychological - it's a mindset. Even though I'm acutely aware that, for every single thing that I know, there are 999 things that I don't know - most of this is impossible to control, so as long as I can achieve the goals that I have in mind I'll gladly accept my limitations or inadequacies. It doesn't really bother me too much, as long as I can do what I set out to do.

 

I think part of the reason it's such a big issue in tech could be that we have to look up so many things every day. We always need help with something, and I'm not sure if that's the same with other industries. Because we ask for so much help, we see all these other amazing developers all the time and we only see the side of that can help us.

I also think tech is so glorified and we feel like we need to be building million dollar software all the time. And we constantly see all these people who do. Tech people are seen as logical coders, but also as creative problem solvers, unlike builders who tend to follow strict blueprints.

It could also be the abstraction like you said. Most of the time, our output isn't something we can physically show people. Maybe that's why people love to go into web development. If I set up a database and an API, it took SO MUCH WORK, but it's not something I can show off to anyone who isn't in tech.

 

Thanks for writing this article. I am a relative newbie to coding, but have jumped with both feet into the deep end. I have almost finished my first app. Honestly I am rather nervous about just showing it to close family and friends first. I mean I was never a computer guy growing up and because of that and that I am now writing code....I totally feel like an imposter. It is so very reassuring that even the most seasoned veterans can feel this way. Again, thanks so much for writing this article. It has given me that little bit extra confidence that if the app works, does what it is supposed to do. Then I am not an imposter but a programmer.

 

That's a good point. Although it has also created a community that welcomes asking others for help and input, and usually without judgement, even if it seems like a pretty basic question coming from someone with experience. See: StackOverflow. You'd think that would be a self-resolving dichotomy.

You've also made me realize that this is also why people in tech are often unafraid to tackle other projects outside tech that they have no experience with. We're used to being able to look up how to do something or ask someone. This is bleeding over into the general population now, of course, but it still seems most prevalent with tech workers. My father was always the same way -- before the Internet was much of a thing -- but back then it was much more uncommon to be a DIYer.

 

Yeah something like that :-) like I said, a plumber or a carpenter know their skill and they're sure about it, however it seems we are rarely completely sure of anything, insights change all the time, etc

 

Yeah to echo Cat's point, I think CEOs may well suffer from it (I've known those that do) - but they have fewer things that they are "supposed to know" and also can still project success through "faking confidence" if it's temporarily lacking.

 

Right, yes CEOs are leaders, they're more like politicians than like craftsmen, exuding confidence is their trade. Apples and oranges comparison for sure ;)

They are also, almost by necessity, almost always sociopaths. If they felt like an impostor, they'd almost certainly never admit it. In fact, they might be an impostor (of sorts). Fake it til you make it, and if you don't, keep faking it is pretty much standard behavior. They also don't relate to other people the same way a "normal" person might.

Note that by saying they are sociopaths, I'm not saying they are bad people. They're just different. But it's almost universally true due the the MacLeod Hierarchy. And since that really applies to any bureaucracy, your comparison to politicians is perfectly accurate.

 

I think a big thing is also the fact that many devs are self-educated and there is no requirement for formal education, leading to the feeling of "anyone could do this, so it's like a glorified hobby", I think that's an essential factor.

Definitely, as I mentioned in another comment, this has been the primary source of impostor syndrome in my case.

Also comparing to the wrong people, if you compare yourself to others, that is.

 

I'd be happy to write something if it would help: been in the business 37 years, sold hundreds of millions of dollars of software I've designed, and still have impostor syndrome. I actually think it's ok to challenge yourself due to feeling like everyone knows more, so long as you aren't paralyzed by it - which is a problem I've struggled with.

 

An excellent way to brag lol, just kidding :P

I agree, I have just been in the business for five years, but worked with quite a few veterans of the industry and almost all of them suffer from it, the difference is what you say, don't get paralyzed and don't let it affect your position too much.

I also suffer from it quite a bit, as I got my job by luck and have not studied Computer science or Software engineering. But after getting to now people who have, I can tell you degrees don't mean much, although they can help.

One thing I ask to myself anytime I have Impostor Syndrome is:

"Who am I comparing myself with?"

Is it somebody with the same background as me, or is it a developer that has been in the business for 30+ years?

Of course, you can't compare to the later. You don't have 30 odd years of experience. Most times, you're comparing pears with apples.

 

It's worked for me! Hope it helps you as well :)

 

That would be great Mike! I'll follow you on DEV so we can message about this

 

It's easy to get lost in impostor syndrome when we look at other people and they are doing very flashy stuff, or are bragging extensively about their work.

What I like to do is keep a record of good things that I've done and have gotten recognition for like:

  • my app winning an award
  • finishing my sprint on time without bugs
  • my colleagues giving me a good review
  • a client saying nice things about me

and so on.

When the syndrome hits, I look at all these things and remember that one bad day doesn't define my career and it doesn't make me a bad developer.

 

This is so true. Imposter syndrome is something that demands more open discussion. I myself is a victim of this like many others. It got me so much so that I was afraid of applying for jobs after graduation.
Over the period of time, I realized that it just another form of insecurity related to inadequacy. Confidence plays a major role here.
The more we talk about our insecurities openly, the more self-acceptance we grow. I believe self-acceptance is the key to dance with imposter syndrome.

 

Well, to paraphrase Aristotle, the more you know, the more you realize what you don't know, and the more you panic over what you don't know you don't know.

 

That just sums up everything. A quote couldn't be more relevant😍 You are pretty wise to come up with it.

 

I've been coding one way or another since I was 10, the last 20 or so years professionally. I studied this at university and yes, I'm a white, middle-aged bloke, so in theory I've won the lottery of life and should never have had imposter syndrome.

But I do, every single day.

Early on in my career I was hoping that one day I'll get rid of it but now I'm not so sure this is even possible, not in general at least.

Weirdly enough, accepting that it is just something I need to deal with has helped. What also helps, again rather counterintuitively is looking at my old code. Even stuff I wrote a year ago I can look at and spot many mistakes I know I wouldn't be making today.

I remember that I was pretty happy with that code when I wrote it, so I must have improved since. And yes, it also means that I'm always aware code I'm writing today and I'm happy with will also look full of tiny holes in a year's time. But that's actually fine.

Another thing that helps is concentrating on the stuff I've done well enough. Fixed a bug? Great! Finished all the expected tasks in a sprint? Great! Was the work perfect? No, of course it wasn't. But it was good enough.

Admitting that you're new to something is another thing I learnt to be useful. By vocalising it you lower your own expectations of yourself.

Of course the jackpot is, as you say, to talk about it to others, and to realise that most if not all people around you suffer from similar bouts of self-doubt from time to time.

Like everyone else, I don't know why this is happening in our industry so much more often than others. But I can make a few guesses:

  1. Often you're expected to solve unique problems. Not entirely unique of course, but with just enough variation to keep you on your toes. That's not something that happens in many other professions.
  2. The cult of the "rockstar developer". It isn't healthy. Stop it.
  3. No universally agreed upon vocabulary. I don't mean dev wise but how every company attaches a slightly different meaning to terms such as "senior developer" or "tech lead".
  4. This might be unfair and I have to stress it's only my observation and could be entirely wrong, but what I see is that people who treat this as "just a job" are far less likely to have imposter syndrome. The ultimate reason you're worried about "being found out" is that you care and you've invested a lot of your self-worth into it. Which raises the mental stakes quite a bit.

Sorry for the rambling comment, I know it's a bit of a brain dump but maybe someone may find titbits in it that are useful for their own mental well-being.

And naturally I'm looking forward to the rest of the series. :)