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Send In the Imposters

Greg Thomas
I write a lot of code. I've also written a book on developers becoming leaders/managers called Code Your Way Up.
・5 min read

I've been following a number of tweets over the past few weeks re Imposter Syndrome in developers. Each time I read a tweet about it, I think back to my own experiences and what I did to work through it. I've hit Imposter Syndrome at every point in my career - junior developer, senior developer, Architect, Manager, Founder, VP - all of them.

Sorry, it doesn't go away...

The Dream Job

My most vivid memory was when I was hired at a startup as a Senior Developer - but I didn't know it. The job offer said developer, I ranked myself as Intermediate and was good to go.

The first few weeks were a whirlwind of activity where I actually started to feel more like a junior than anything else. We were using the latest frameworks and technologies, building high-performant, scalable solutions that not only were fast had a beautiful and slick UI to boot. All in all, it was a fantastic place to work and I was in love with all the learning I was doing.

For the first 2 - 3 weeks, I was already doing some extra learning at night to get up to speed on some of the technologies I didn't know. Everything was going fine until the day the monthly company newsletter went out to EVERYONE in the company. And when I say EVERYONE, I mean all 50 of us. When you are that small, everyone knows your name.

Wait... Who's the Senior Developer?

And there it was on page 2, my picture underneath the title of Senior Developer. Up until that point I'd already made a few mistakes trying to understand things but I still remember where I was sitting, the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end and sweat - lol. I was so overcome, that I went to HR that afternoon and asked them if it was a mistake, they pulled out the paperwork and said - "Nope right here, Senior Developer, have a great day."

I went back to my desk and listened to other devs around me yammer on about things I didn't know while I stared at my screen for what seemed like an eternity wondering how long could I keep the charade up and whether I should start applying to other jobs now.

In my head, I imagined all these Computer Science and Engineering grads staring at the self-taught guy going - "the senior of what now?"

I'm Not Throwing Away My Shot

This was my dream job - working on a shipping product at a startup that went out to real-live customers. I resolved at that moment that if they were going to get rid of me it wouldn't be for my lack of trying.

For the next few months, I came in and worked through anything that was assigned to me. If they said it couldn't be done, I grabbed it and didn't stop until I fixed it or had a really good answer for why and what we needed to do next. Throughout the day, I'd pepper my Gmail account with something someone said that I didn't know to learn that night so I could come in the next day prepared and ready to rock. I was a sponge.

Before going in, I'd listen to some tunes to pump me up while on the drive home, I'd ride in silence trying to analyze where I went right or wrong.

I Know Something You Don't Know

The Imposter was still nipping at my heels each and every day keeping me going but I wasn't letting up.

It wasn't until one day where I had been struggling with a few bugs that our IT guy came to my desk and in front of the whole team said - "Hey, you're the guy who knows about databases right?". In a startup cubicle of five, everyone turned their head to look at me and I looked up to say - "well I've done some performance tuning and scaling work with them?". He turned to my manager and asked if he could borrow me for a while.

Turns out we had some major issues with our in house databases that powered our CRM, source control, purchasing, support, everything (and everything was on-premise at that time) and we were at a standstill. It was a bit of a mess (code and setup) and went into the night to fix, but when all was said and done, we got things working again and fixed some performance issues.

The next morning everyone came in and things were flying. I got a couple of high-fives and congrats. From there I had people lining up at my desk to review their database queries and see if I could tune some issues they were having. A few support guys wanted me to look at some customer sites too. As I said, the word in a startup spreads fast.

Turns out everyone that you believe are experts in everything aren't - it only looks that way from the outside.

The Impostor will Always Be There

I'd like to say that was the day I beat the Imposter, but there were many times during my tenure as a Senior Developer that it still hit me and made me think - "this is the moment, this is the moment they realize I'm a fake."

But they never did.

They never have.

Because what they were desperately looking for in a Senior Developer is someone who...

  • Could be left on their own to figure out the solution.
  • Would be dedicated to their team and the company.
  • Knew the value of growth.
  • Was driven to learn anything thrown at them.
  • Would drop what they are working on to help out someone from a completely different team.

You might feel like you're the imposter at whatever it is you're doing right now and you might be wondering if that feeling will ever go away.

If you're showing up each and every day to give your best for the team, the project, the product you are working on...

If you are putting in the time to help your team and teach others what you know...

If you are putting your hand up when other's have theirs down.

You are not an Imposter!

That feeling never goes away, we only get better at fighting it so when it rears it's ugly head and opens its mouth we're able to shut it down before it says it's the first word. The key is to differentiate between what you think and what the reality of the situation you're in truly is.

I wrote a book Code Your Way Up, you can get it on Amazon. I also tweet stuff on Twitter.

Discussion (2)

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gjack profile image
Gabi Jack

Thanks! I needed this! I've been at a company for almost 5 years now and working as a software engineer since 2013. I've been trying to work my way up to becoming a Senior Engineer, working hard, learning, doing a lot of what you're listing here, but still feeling like I'm always 3 steps behind and my hard work is never enough. My confidence has suffered, to be honest, to the point that I started wondering if I'm really an imposter, if I really have what it takes. Thank you for this post! It really helped!

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Greg Thomas Author

Hi Gabi - Looking back on my experience as a Senior Developer - I was very fortunate working at the company I was at. They valued accomplishments over years as a metric of experience for the evaluation of becoming a Senior Developer. When I think of a Senior Developer, it's that role where you don't necessarily have the answers at your fingertips, BUT you know how to find it and that's what your team needs.

I don't think the Imposter ever goes away, it should finds another way to rise up!