I was at a local meetup about imposter syndrome this week and it made me remember how far I have come in my own career. The speaker talked about his journey and the times he felt like an imposter, even though he had the sorts of experiences that would make most engineers jealous. I want to talk through my own background and about how I managed to come to grips with my own professional insecurities. Hopefully this will inspire others to have more confidence in themselves.
I remember at my first job how little I felt like I was learning and how little it seemed my coworkers around me knew. When I went to interview for my next job a couple of years later I was highly nervous that I was behind the curve, and I wasn’t sure that I entirely understood how real-world software engineering was meant to work. When I got the job, I told myself that I got lucky that the interview was devised by a bunch of alumni from my college, so it covered the kinds of questions I had seen in school.
At that job the imposter syndrome kicked in immediately. I was afraid that they had certain expectations of me based on my experience level, where I felt like I hadn’t progressed past what I had learned in school. I thought that I was behind the curve on version control practices, and I hadn’t gained any exposure to any sort of real domain modeling or object oriented programming. I knew these skills were going to be important at this job and had assumed that they were things they could expect me to know when I walked in the door. There was all of the domain information that goes with a new job as well, and at this company it was literal rocket science so I couldn’t really slouch on that aspect either. The first few months were definitely rough, I had a couple of days where I spent all day fighting with basic ideas and couldn’t get anything to work, which made me feel like I didn’t deserve to be there. It eventually got better as I gained experience with the domain and the technology. I gained confidence after running down a couple of very gnarly bugs and getting praised for a creative solution to an awkward problem. Ultimately though, my anxiety was misplaced. It turned out that my managers never had expected me to walk in the door with these skills, they had picked me because they were happy with what I knew already.
Sadly the company ran into hard times and I got laid off, but this paradoxically resulted in big confidence boost. When I got back to my desk from hearing the bad news from my boss I had a ringing phone from a former coworker to schedule an interview with his new company. All that time I had thought that I was barely getting by, he’d thought I was doing fantastic work. In the two weeks between then and my last day at that job I got another offer as well which helped boost my confidence.
I took my former colleague’s offer; I’m sorry to say it ended up not being a great culture fit for me. But by now, the increase in confidence meant I was more willing to take a chance and make a move, looking for something that would be more of a challenge. I took a position in the same domain as an expert to help salvage a failing software project. This job was a good fit on paper for me, since I had experience on both the domain and the technical stack. I was confident going in and was initially given a lot of latitude to do what needed to be done, which was great technical experience. But, it had me doing a lot of more management style activities than I wanted to do, which was an area that I also felt I didn’t really have the right skills and experience. Then after getting the software stabilized and finding a order of magnitude performance improvement, the reward was to bog down the entire project in a mountain of process. So, while I’d gained confidence in my own abilities and standing when it came to technical issues, I was circling back to feeling like an imposter in this new process/management role.
My discomfort resulted in me moving to a small startup to help anchor their development team. The environment was very unstructured and goals changed week to week. I was immediately being asked to give expert opinions on technologies I had never worked with before. The situation was stressful because I felt like I wasn’t qualified to give these opinions, but it wasn’t clear whether they had anyone more qualified. On one hand I was faking it in that I didn’t know a lot of what I was talking about, but on the other hand I took the initiative to learn a lot about these new technologies. Really, I learned how to learn about technologies. The few technology decisions I made during my time there all seemed to work out fine, but I don’t know how that compares to having made other choices and I wasn’t there long enough to see the long term outcomes. Even now, I still find myself downplaying the difficulty of the work I did, still feeling like I was just a pretender.
My next job was at a large tech company, and it was an eye opening experience. This was the first ‘normal’ web application I had worked on since my first job and I was worried that I was out of practice. Since I had so many more years of experience than the last time I worked on web applications, I assumed the expectations for me would be higher than I could meet. I was worried that I would show up and not know how to do anything and would be summarily fired. This turned out not to be the case, but the impression I had going in impacted my ability to leverage myself to accomplish anything. My assumption that I wouldn’t be able to contribute right away meant I stayed quiet about areas where I could have made improvements to benefit the company; I let mediocre practices I witnessed linger way too long before trying to change them.
Despite the good work I did there, my inability to change the culture and other improvable development practices really hurt my confidence about what I could achieve in this environment. This, combined with the lack of knowledge around building web applications, pushed me to do anything and everything I could do to try and grow more. I put a concerted effort into getting out into the local development community to try and find a broader sense of inspiration. This was the time period when I started writing this blog as well. I started attending a number of local meetups and listening to various podcasts. Talking to so many new people who shared my struggles helped me understand that others don’t know some magical trick that I don’t. And, it made me realize that learning how to learn was one of the most important things I had achieved. For me, moving on from imposter syndrome has been about accepting that I don’t know everything I wish I did on a topic, but neither does anyone else, it’s all about our willingness and ability to learn and improve.
This all culminates with my current position where I changed tech stacks to stuff I had never used at all before. My specific experiences weren’t immediately relevant to this new technology stack, but I did bring a lot of thoughts on doing unit testing, domain modeling and other good technical practices. Since this was my fourth stack in 12 years as a professional I had a fair idea about how to pick up a new stack and leverage what I did know to learn new things. There are still lots of things I don’t know, but I managed to get enough together to know how to ask reasonable questions and to apply the concepts from other stacks. I am still at points concerned that I don’t know enough about certain topics but I have become become fearless about asking questions and unafraid of looking uninformed. This question asking seems to have helped one of the junior engineers on my team to have the confidence to ask questions in pull requests when he doesn’t understand what’s going on. That sort of safe space amongst the team is the sort of environment that I want to be in and having accepted my own lack of knowledge on some fronts has empowered those around me to find a better way for themselves.