Slapping Back Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome used to rule my life. After all, I was an engineer (hah!) with a film degree, and everyone I worked with was much more intelligent and experienced than I’d ever be. I would never get to their level, everything I said was stupid, and if I ever received a promotion it was due to diversity quotas or a one-time fluke.

My fixation was so bad that it was brought up in my yearly performance review. I was told by my manager to get it under control, or she would have to write it down in my file.

So I worked on it.

And I got better.

This isn’t a magical antidote that will make you good as new. My Imposter Syndrome is like Lyme disease; it never fully goes away. But I have gone from bathroom panic attacks and Sunday night tears to a more balanced view of myself and others. I still have bad days, sure, but the depths are not as deep.

I hope it helps you as well.

Filing down the pedestals

Imposter Syndrome distorts how you see yourself as compared to others. Everyone else is on a pedestal marked Knows Everything and you’re in a dark pit that doesn’t even deserve a sign.

So, the first step is take those people off their pedestals.

Please note: this advice sounds mean because you are focusing on less-than-flattering things in others. However, we are not trying to put others down. We are simply trying to see them as human.

Whenever you’re around people you admire, pay attention to when they say the following phrases:

  1. “I don’t know.”
  2. “Let me check the docs.”
  3. “Let me look that up.”
  4. “Oops.”
  5. “I asked so-and-so and they think ___”
  6. “I tried this but it didn’t work.”
  7. “Can you take a look?”
  8. “I need to rollback.”
  9. “I’m sorry.”
  10. “I broke prod.”

They will say them. They say them right now, but you don’t notice. They say them in standups, in meetings, in post-mortems. They say them to coworkers and managers. They say them to you. And each of these phrases is them admitting they aren’t perfect.

I had to train myself to listen for these phrases. I found that the engineers I respected the most say them all the time. If you’re an experienced engineer, you’re probably working on complex systems or trying something new. That means you’re more likely to make mistakes. Good engineers admit mistakes and move on.

Noting when my heroes admitted fault didn’t make me respect them any less; it just made it easier to talk to them. It was much easier to learn from someone when I wasn’t terrified they would see me for the fake that I am.

So, keep track of your coworkers’ mistakes. That time they broke the build, or didn’t test thoroughly enough, or had to make major revisions to a PR. They might know more than you in some areas, but they don’t know everything.

Climbing out of the pit

This part makes the assumption that you are a being impacted by a linear expression of time. That is to say, you move forward and change.

Climbing out of the pit involves recognizing progress within yourself.

Pay attention to when you do the following:

  1. Skip a section in the docs or an online forum answer. You don’t need to read how to install a gem, you know that already. Wait, did you always know how to install a gem? No, you learned that.
  2. Pass on a meeting or meetup because you already know the material. You know how to setup your Python environment. You know how to use Docker. Even if it’s an internal project brief, if you already know it, then you are ahead of the people RSVPing to that meeting.
  3. Teach someone something. This doesn’t have to be a big formal talk or mentor relationship. Teaching the person next to you how to use the VPN, where to find that block of code, or even how to create a new color scheme for their IDE all count. You are imparting knowledge that this person does not have. You are the expert in this exchange.

In addition to the above passive observations, here are some more active things to do:

  1. Keep a logbook of your projects and accomplishments. When you’re working on a project, record your contributions in this logbook with a date. Include things like technical books you’ve read, workshops you’ve attended, talks you’ve seen. They all indicate growth.
  2. Go look at job openings at other companies and note how your skillset compares. You might not have qualified a year ago, but you are probably closer to qualifying now. Understand where your value lies in the industry.
  3. Look at the resume you used to get your current job and update it to reflect what you know now.

Basically, compare yourself today to yourself 3 years ago. Is Past You intimidated by Present You? Good. You’re doing it right.

Recognizing you’ve grown is beneficial in many ways. It helps you understand the gap between yourself and those you admire, because they most likely had a head start. It helps you realize opportunities where you can help people who don’t know as much as you do. And it helps you prepare for performance reviews and promotion cycles (which you deserve and should pursue).

You know more today than you did yesterday and a ton more than you did a year ago. It takes a while to notice you’ve improved, but I promise you have.

Finally

I’ve been using these techniques for over a year. They haven’t made me cocky or eliminated all doubt. But I do feel like more of an equal to my coworkers, and I spend less time burning the midnight oil trying to catch up on the sum of all technical knowledge before people catch on.

So, give them a try. Adjust the imbalance between your perception and reality.

You’re right where you need to be.

Alice Goldfuss

Alice Goldfuss
Alice Goldfuss is a systems sorceress. She’s consulted on some books (Docker: Up & Running, Effective DevOps), presented at some conferences (SREcon, Velocity, Container Summit), and runs some others (LISA17, DevOps Days Portland). You can follow her on Twitter (@alicegoldfuss), but you’ll probably regret it.

Tea and Tech Culture

Social shortcuts and tech interviews Continue reading

Making FlameGraphs with Containerized Java

Published on January 29, 2017

'Ladies' Is Gender Neutral

Published on September 15, 2016