When we were young, we relished the opportunity to pretend to be someone else. Perhaps you were a fan of playing astronaut. Or pretending you were a wizard at Halloween when you were wee. Or later when you pretended to be older and more grown up to sneak into an older rated film. Don’t worry, I won’t judge!
As professionals we lose that joy. In our current roles, being someone we think we are not feels far more stressful. As does striving towards the dream roles that may appear out of reach. Rather than enjoying the escape, we feel like an impostor who will eventually be found to be engaging in a campaign of deception.
Many technologists feel they are hiding in wait of the mask being listed and them being discovered to be inadequate.
Irrespective of whether you have experienced it first hand, or are comfortable stating openly that you have, I’m finding that the majority of people working in tech and finance today have heard of impostor syndrome. A study taken in 2020 by professional community Blind, found that 62% of surveyed tech and finance professionals fear that people will find out they are less intelligent or capable at their job. That’s potentially a lot of people feeling inadequate in their role. If you are unsure if this applies to you, you could try this quiz.
Through my own career journey, including breaks from active software development for maternity leave and roles in Scrum Mastery and tech management, I’ve found there are points where the presence of that lurking impostor feels more prominent. Speaking to others has only reinforced that opinion. Here I discuss the times where impostor syndrome can be particularly hard to manage, using my own and others experiences, and some learning tips to help silence the faker.
Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying
Part of the problem with the tech sector specifically is the high rate of change can make getting started and catching up feel like an impossible task. This amazing piece by Helen Scott presenting the evolution of Java over 20 years shows how intimidating it can be to get back into well established technologies. We must also be mindful that in the Web UI domain where I work, there has been an explosion of frameworks over the last 10 years, which can make your head spin! It is no wonder that any break from being technically hands on can make the idea of getting back out there an exceptionally daunting prospect.
Regardless of whether it’s been two or 20 years away from a technical role, getting your hands dirty feels like an impossible summit to climb.
You may assume from the above that I’m only talking about a traditional career break. However, that is only a drop in the ocean. Through my own experiences, as well as chatting to others, I’ve identified numerous other individual circumstances that could be a potential target for that sneaky impostor demon.
- Transitions between technical, product and people-focused management positions.
- Agility focused roles, including but not limited to Product Ownership, Scrum Mastery and coaching.
- New graduates taking their first steps into the world of technology who may need to use new technologies and techniques not covered in their degree course.
- Interns, placement students or apprentices gaining their first experiences of work while studying at university.
- Long term sickness returners.
- Maternity and parental leave. Not all new parents in the world have the luxury of much time off with their new arrival, so I would also include those trying to balance sleepless nights with a transition back to work in this category.
- Gaps for travel or any other personal voyage of discovery.
- Career transitions to new domains, or even for those starting up their own business.
Managers and leaders, do take note of the above demographics as people to watch out for who may need some support getting back up to speed. As a supporter of these individuals, you can help them find time and space to gain their tech confidence back through learning.
The Sun Will Shine Again
There are many resources out there from experts that look at how to address impostor syndrome. Doing some quick research for this piece, I found there was a common theme to their advice.
- Remind yourself of past successes and achievements.
- Celebrate present wins, irrespective of how small you think they are.
- Adopt a growth mindset, to help you accept setbacks and continue to press for successes.
- Take solace in knowing that you’re not alone. Think of the your role models who openly speak about their own experiences with impostor syndrome.
Celebrate every win, even if it’s as small as finally getting that Gradle build working!
With tech imposter syndrome specifically, it’s also about building the confidence to try again. Just like any learning journey, the road to making piece with this demon is filled with successes and failures. Ultimately you need to remember that your skills that helped you leaning technology X or even how to code the first time around are still relevant. You can try some of these tips to help manage the journey:
- Set some small learning goals and build up. Even something as small as raising your first small pull request, or completing a small problem in challenges such as HackerRank or Advent of Code can give a much needed boost to your confidence. It certainly did for me last December!
- Dedicate a regular time slot to brush up on old concepts or to learn something new that excites you. I received this great tip from a colleague who used a regular evening slot to juggle interview preparation and family life.
- Elicit support from your manager to have dedicated learning time during work hours if you can. Historically as a Scrum Master or Team Lead I found myself repeatedly wondering why people never blocked out time for learning in their calendar. Or why there were no scheduled team knowledge shares. On reflection I could have done more as a manager to adjust capacity to accommodate their training time, therefore giving them the space in their calendar.
- Experiment with different formats to try consuming information in a different way. For me, and some others I have spoken to, listening to a podcast while cradling a sleeping baby or folding clothes is accessible. You can find out more about my own experiences comparing my work and maternity leave learning preferences here.
- Seek feedback from managers and mentors on your progress. This week, as I was banging my head against the wall when something wouldn’t work, I thought I was a complete failure. Chatting to someone you consider knowledgeable on how they think you are doing may highlight a discrepancy between your own performance perceptions and the reality that others see.
- Embrace your non-technical skills as strengths. Many consider coding or designing immensely complex software architectures to be the pinnacle in technical expertise. But the soft skills and other pools of knowledge you still possess are just as important to maintain.
- Be kind to yourself and embrace breaks. Setting aside regular time for practical coding with some circumstances such as illness or a newborn may not be accessible to you right now. That’s ok!
Best of luck with tackling the tech impostor!
This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organisations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated.
Carly Richmond is a Technology Vice President at Morgan Stanley and a Frontend Engineer & Agile Enthusiast. You can read her personal blog here.