I am a month into my career as a developer, which is pretty much as new as you can get. I was reminded of this when I received a very direct comment on my last post: "The term "imposter syndrome" doesn't really apply if you are actually an imposter."
While on one hand, I wanted to dismiss this as just another internet troll out to make me question my worth, I realized that I did slightly feel the need to defend my opinions based on my newness to the field. Part of me wanted to be proud and confident, and the other part wanted to hide so that no one would see me for the imposter I was. Either way, I knew that someone would be there to try and talk me out of how I felt.
So how do you balance being new and knowing you have a ton to learn with the confidence that will help you succeed? I'm not sure, but I'm gonna work through my thoughts right here.
Being new to the developer world is humbling. You walk into your office on day one and see the massive amount of knowledge, technical ability and years of experience you are suddenly surrounded by. That feeling was awe-inspiring for me. I felt proud to have landed the job, but also keenly aware that I was likely the least knowledgable person in the engineering department. Instead of letting this make me feel like an imposter, like I didn't belong, I felt humbled to have been invited to learn from all of these people. It's actually kind of a great spot to be in, where you can only learn more and move up the ranks as you grow. I won't be the least knowledgeable person forever!
“Perhaps most striking of all, we found that success correlates more closely with confidence than it does with competence.”
― Katty Kay, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance
I read a fantastic book last year on how confidence plays into personal success, and was not surprised, although a little bummed, to hear their findings on confidence playing a larger role in success than competence (guess which gender generally shows higher confidence - a topic for another day). I've kept this idea in the back of my head ever since, knowing that just focusing on mastering a skill won't necessarily be enough to reach my goals in life. It's played into my current job when I push even the smallest bit of code into production, I confidently celebrate the win and fight my instincts to tell everybody the details of how it took way longer than I expected or that I basically copy and pasted to get it to work. Projecting confidence makes me feel stronger about taking on my next task, and ultimately makes me feel more competent.
It seems obvious to ask questions when you don't know what someone is talking about, but that action can come with a lot of feelings. I have sometimes felt like I might be exposing myself for the imposter that I am if I admit to not knowing something that should be obvious or fundamental. But when I have spoken up, I have never been met with any kind of negativity, and have even been applauded on my questions a few times. Once I asked what DLQ was (a dead letter queue as it turns out) and someone else in the room breathed a huge sigh of relief that I had asked because they had been wondering the same thing for a while. For me, there are a couple of stages to contributing in certain meetings that right now feel over my head:
- Observe and absorb, taking in as much information as possible
- Ask questions about what you don't understand
- Actually being able to contribute to the conversation
The the moment, I am focusing on stages one and two. I don't have enough knowledge or experience to be able to add my opinions to an architectural design meeting, but I also know I am not going to get any closer if I don't ask about the bits and pieces that don't yet make sense.
Right now it seems unlikely that I could come to a meeting and point out something that no one else has seen. Everybody is far more experienced and versed with our code, how could my few weeks of work find something they didn't? This, like asking questions, can sometimes feel like a super fast way to expose the fact that you're an imposter to the world. Recently I spoke up about a part of a ticket I disagreed with, and although it was quickly decided I should complete the ticket as written, a senior engineer later approached me to thank me for speaking up and to say I made a good point. Although I might be overruled, I want to start creating good habits. I want to be the kind of person that feels confident enough to speak up when I see something that could use improving, and that confidence will ultimately lead me to be a more valuable member of my team.
"Don't pretend to be anything or anyone - simply take action. Do one small brave thing, and then next one will be easier, and soon confidence will flow. We know - fake it till you make it sounds catchier - but this actually works.”
-Katty Kay, The Confidence Code (again)
I love this quote, because it gives an actual path to building confidence. It can sound great in theory to get over imposter syndrome and be more confident, but how does one actually do that. The first time I submitted a PR it was pretty scary, but the next time was easier. The first time I took on a 2 point ticket, it felt scary (and took WAY longer than it seems like it should have), but next time I will know it can be done. But, I still don't feel like I have taken any huge chances yet. I have only taken on front-end tickets that have issues that seem remotely in the realm of resolution to me. Heading into month two, it's time to start scaring myself a little. Scary C# back-end tickets here I come!
To me, imposter syndrome feels similar to fear of failure. Building confidence is a great way to fight that fear. Every time I take on a task that feels scary or seems like I can fail, when I succeed I am proving a little part of my imposter syndrome wrong while building my confidence to take on a larger task next time. If all else fails, just remember you're in good company - FreeCodeCamp quoted a study that says up to 70% of people have felt imposter syndrome at some point in their career. It's not just you trying to find this balance.