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Debbie O'Brien
Debbie O'Brien

Posted on • Originally published at

Being an Imposter

If you ever look at the home page of my site or the intro slide of my talks you will probably think I am the biggest show off in the world.

I am, and I tell everyone, I am a GitHub Star, a Microsoft Most Valuable Profession, a Google Developer Expert, a Media Developer Expert, a Nuxt ambassador and an Auth0 Ambassador.

However really this is for my benefit, to remind me that I am good enough because for some reason I seem to not see my own achievements and feel like I am not doing enough. I am an imposter. I doubt my abilities and find it difficult to accept my accomplishments and wonder if I deserve them.

Invincible at 21

At 21 years of age I was invincible. I was in Mallorca working as a kids entertainer earning €120 a week. Yes a week. I had free accommodation and I was having fun so I didn't care. My dream was to be a hollywood star and although I did get to star (be an extra in 2 scenes) alongside Jared Leto, I never actually made it as an actress.

So when I saw a TV series being filmed on the beach I went up to the producer and said I would love to be a runner(someone who runs whatever tasks given to them) for free and help. And so I did. I loved it. And when it finished I asked the producer how can I work in TV. He gave me his business card and said come to London and I will give you work experience in the London Weekend TV Studios.

And so at 21 with no money and no job I moved to London. I got a job in a bar to pay the rent and then worked for free in the TV studios learning as much as I could. I then walked from door to door handing my CV to as many companies as possible. My CV now had London Weekend TV Studios on it. I am not exaggerating when I tell you I handed at least 100 CVs out. But all I needed was one yes and eventually I got it.

Working in the TV Studios

I had the most amazing job in the world and I got up every morning excited to go to work. Some of my tasks were simply asking producers and directors what they wanted for lunch and going to restaurants to collect it or making them tea or coffee. I was a runner but we all have to start somewhere. But I was ambitious and I got promoted. I got to work in post production.

Some of my tasks were watching Britney Spears MTV videos to make sure there were no digital flaws before it got released on TV, or working the rack to record 50 copies of a movie to be sent to a airlines and my favourite of all was the Cannes Advertising Awards where I got to create one recording from the many video tapes and manually record a few seconds of black between each Add as well as record the name of the Add and the country. This is how we did things before the digital world existed.

I had an amazing year living in London, earning £7,000 a year, working 80-90 hours a week and on top of that training and flying to Scotland to get my black belt in Taekwondo. Back then to grade for black belt the entry requirement was to break a brick before the 2 day grading began. Crazy to think that I flew on a plane with a brick in my hand so that I could break it and get a black belt.

However I was struggling to survive financially and I was doing too much, and I knew I couldn't keep it up. Making it as an editor in post production was no easy task and I could not survive another year of working so many hours. And so I left London and the TV world behind. But I don't consider it a failure, I consider it as the best year of my life. I achieved so much. I was amazing.

Seeing failure rather than Success

Now 21 years later and I have achieved so much in tech and yet for some reason I look at the failures more than success. What on earth happened? Sometimes I put it down to life experiences. Things that didn't work out for me then made me less invincible. Who knows.

I had been let go of many companies, I had failed to get a job that lasted more than a year. I really believed that I was bad luck and that any start up that hired me was going to be a failure because of me. My CV was full of companies that did not exist anymore. No trace of them. Was I just making it up? Sure looked that way to potential employers.

me launching site at a festival

My freelance work started with knocking on restaurant doors asking for work to create their website, their menus, whatever. And I created some amazing sites in Flash, a technology that now no longer exists, can't put that on the CV.

At the point of giving up

I was at the point of just giving up in tech. And so I signed up with a University to get a degree online studying Spanish language so I could work in the Spanish schools as a real teacher rather than giving classes on Sunday mornings and working in language schools for €1,000 a month. The uni degree actually taught me a lot. It was during this degree that I learnt how to prepare and give presentations among other things. I had never been to Uni before. But during my first year I knew that this wasn't the path I wanted to go down and I wasn't happy in life in general. Everything was going wrong and I felt like I was just in a big deep dark hole.

Give Tech one more chance

Exactly 5 years ago today I decided to give tech one more go. I had plan B to be a teacher already in motion so now it was time to aim for plan A. I gave up my job in the language school and used up all my savings to pay for my online Uni fees, my online frontend tech degree and my online fullstack tech degree.

I studied and struggled to pay the bills for about 8 months. I had no idea if it would be worth it. If I would get a job or be successful. I just knew I had to give it one more go before I threw in the towel. It was hard. Learning JavaScript was hard, is hard. I had failed at it many times before and had convinced myself that I was not good enough to be a real programmer.

But I really wanted to make it. As much as it was hard I really enjoyed it. I was studying 12 hours a day, even while running on the running machine at the gym. I needed to succeed. I didn't want to go back to the life I had. I didn't want to struggle anymore and have to work weekends to pay the bills. I wanted to love my job and be challenged each day and coding gave me that. If only I could learn JavaScript.

me studying while running at gym

Both tech degrees I did were extremely challenging and come with real life projects. I was building things constantly. I was pair programming with others to solve problems together. And I had a mentor who not just went over my code and showed me how I could improve it, but was there for me to remind me of how well I was doing and that I was good enough, that it isn't easy but that I can do it and I was going to learn JavaScript.

The No's are always hard

I got many no's from interviews including one where I just wanted the ground to swallow me up. I panicked. The process was horrible and I was just terrified and my brain didn't work that day at all. I couldn't even use the mouse and when they asked me to go to the white board to do a coding challenge, I just refused. Obviously I did not get that job. But I walked out of there and said I am never going to be in that position again where I am given code that I have not seen before and panic. And so I started peer reviewing other peoples code. At least one peer review a day and became the student with the most peer reviews ever.

I got the job

Then in late October 2017, I got a job. I had to do a coding challenge and I found the challenge pretty easy. I had done very similar stuff in my tech degree so basically I was prepared. I was ready. And they were super impressed with how fast and well I did the challenge and how clean my code was. And so I got my job as a real frontend programmer. I was in shock. I called my husband and said "I think I just got a job".

Afraid I was going to get sacked

And that is where the imposter syndrome began. I went to work every day hoping not to get sacked. I didn't know everything. People kept asking me for help with JavaScript stuff. This was my first JavaScript job. I was freaking out. I got moved into the architectural part of the company and tasked with solving frontend scaling problems which ended up with us creating a custom framework, design system and component library.

At one point I sent a message to my boss asking him to please give me a warning before he sacked me so I could work harder and try to improve cause I really loved my job and didn't want to lose it. My boss was amazing. He told me why on earth would we even consider sacking you. You are incredible, he said and everyone is so impressed with you. And then he sent me some articles on imposter syndrome and every now and again he would send me interviews or short videos to help me overcome it and to show me I was not alone.

Feeling the Imposter

You would think that it just goes away, but it doesn't. When I got awarded Google Developer Expert I really thought that they had made a mistake. I was waiting for the email to say it was a mistake. Seriously. I was no expert. That's a big word that carries a lot of weight. I now mentor for the Google Developer Expert program and remind other women that the word expert does not mean you have to be an expert in everything. You are an expert in one area, perhaps it's CSS animations, perhaps it's performance but not everything. None of us are experts in everything.

I then got my MVP Award and again I thought, wow, is this for real. I had been referred by others for both of these award programs and in the space of a a few months I was a GDE and an MVP and it was just insane. I never thought to look back on all the work I had been doing in the community. All the posts I had written, talks I had given, projects I had created that were open source, mentoring I was doing for both programs I had graduated from. All I saw was what I had not yet learnt and there was so much.

When I got my GitHub star I was in shock. People had voted for me. They thought I was a star. They knew I existed. Wow. Now I was freaking out even more. I am not a star. I know way less than anyone else. Everyone else is way more clever than me. They are going to soon find out and kick me out of the program. I am sure of it.

my and my awards

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

The best way to get over imposter syndrome is to talk about it. And so I did. But the feelings are had to control. When it came to the GitHub Nova conference I reached out and said, I really want to give a talk but I am terrified of giving a talk in front of so many GitHub stars. To me they were the stars. I was the imposter. But I got reminded of all the work I had done for the community, how skilled I am and why I was in the program and that yes I was a star.

I have all my awards behind me in my office. They are my reminder that I got this. I am amazing. Sometimes I need more reminders. I wear my GitHub stars t-shirt way too often. It's my favourite. In the entrance of my apartment I have two walls full of signs that remind me I am awesome, to not give up, to keep dreaming, to do more of what makes me happy and to believe in myself.

Sometimes before an interview or a talk I literally read through them all, some of them twice, and then I say come on Debbie, you can do this. And the best thing I ever did was program Alexa to tell me I am amazing. She never fails.

signs in my entrance with positive messages

Comparing yourself to others

As we get more successful in tech we become even more imposters. If I compare myself to my family I am an expert, a star, everything. If I compare myself to my tech idols, I am no where near an expert. But this is such an unfair comparison. It is like comparing a Taekwondo black belt to a white belt. The black belt is the expert here. But anyone who does martial arts will know that once you get your black belt you then start comparing yourself to the 2nd degrees, 3rd degrees, masters, and all of a sudden you start to feel almost like a white belt again.

This is the great thing about martial arts, and the great thing about tech. There is so much to learn that you will never know it all, never perfect it all. You can't get your black belt just by training for a year, no matter how good you are at your kicks for example. It takes time. A lot of hard work and time.

me doing a spinning kick in front of Cathedral

To go from 3rd degree to 4th degree I had to wait 4 years. I had to train hard, study, practice and then grade. My grading was 7 hours long. I flew to London to grade with one of the Grand Masters, a 9th degree and one of the best in the world. He told us that we would go through everything from patterns, to breaking with flying kicks, sparring, theory etc and that he was going to push us so hard that we will want to give up. That, he said, is when the grading really begins. And he was not joking.

The last half hour after almost 7 hours of grading we had sparring and not just 1 on 1 but 2 against 1. The goal here was not to win, not to show off your amazing spinning kicks, it was to show that you could continue when your body wanted to give up. It was to show that if you put your mind to it you really can achieve anything. And I did. I got my 4th degree 3 years ago. But more importantly was the lesson I learnt that day. Never give up no matter how hard it gets. You really can do anything if you put your mind to it. And if you fail it doesn't mean you are a failure, it just means you lack preparation. It means work on your weak areas, improve and then try again.

The Journey takes time

When it comes to tech it's the same. It's a journey and it takes time. It takes time to learn, it takes time to master and it takes time to get to the next stage, whatever that stage might be. And above all it takes a lot of hard work and determination. But just like anyone can get a black belt in Taekwondo, if they work hard enough, anyone can learn to code and get a job in tech, if they work hard enough.

And remember the majority of us in tech suffer from imposter syndrome so you are not alone. The best advice I can give you is to talk about it. Be open and honest with others about it, especially your boss or colleagues at work. My DM's are always open if you ever need someone to talk to.

You got this!

me running up a mountain

Top comments (18)

silvesterwali profile image

This is really amazing, great experience.

debs_obrien profile image
Debbie O'Brien

Thank you

inmetadev profile image
Inma Sánchez Casabán

Thank you so much for sharing this. Tomorrow I start my first job in IT after more than 10 years working in communication, and the imposter syndrome force is strong with me 😅. But I'll remember your advice: work, improve and try again 😊

debs_obrien profile image
Debbie O'Brien

best of luck. and remember its ok to tell people at work how you feel.

melanie12 profile image
Melanie Almeida

Thank you for sharing your journey Debbie.
And so impressed by your sport achievements as well :-)

sambitsahoojs profile image
sambit sahoo

So amazing. I consider myself an imposter. Reading this definitely gave me a lot of confidence ❤️

debs_obrien profile image
Debbie O'Brien

I'm glad it helped :)

svgatorapp profile image

You're on an amazing path :) Thanks for sharing!

debs_obrien profile image
Debbie O'Brien

Thanks so much :)

oizaweb profile image
Mary Olorunfemi

Thank you for sharing Debbie 💕. You inspire me alot

debs_obrien profile image
Debbie O'Brien

Thanks Mary

renanfranca profile image
Renan Franca

Thank you for sharing your experience. I didn't know that I am a little impostor too 😅🤭😊

yink profile image

This is so inspiring, well done!

roakoth profile image

Thanks for sharing this Debbie, it is very inspiring 🔥 yes, sometimes we feel like impostors, just like you said, we should talk about it and we are not alone. Major take-aways 🙌

andrade1379 profile image

I'm so glad I came across your post.

carlcod_es profile image
Carl Sargunar

Love your story - thank you for sharing

adam_cyclones profile image
Adam Crockett 🌀

Your 21, that's so young in the grand scheme, wait until your old like me,
After many years, imposters turned into 😂:

debs_obrien profile image
Debbie O'Brien

I know. I still look 21. Maybe I’ll be 21 forever. But yeh curious that the numbers are the same. At 21 in London working in Tv and 21 years later working in tech. Hopefully will still be in tech in next 21 years