This year, software engineer Dan Horne gave a presentation on Imposter Syndrome that hit a nerve on our team. During the rest of the weekly engineering meeting, coworkers shared advice on handling this uncomfortable, sometimes debilitating psychological phenomenon. Here are ten takeaways from our conversation.
1. Know you’re not alone
Even though many devs on the team have decades of experience in our field, everyone admitted to still struggling at times with feeling unqualified for their job.
“You’ll pretty much always be mortified by code that you wrote six months ago, and that’s okay. That’s just the way it goes. You’ll never know everything, and we’re all continually getting better.” – Nick Schello, CTO
2. Be the Subject Matter Expert of one thing
“I think one of the most empowering things, when you’re just getting started, is latching into some feature, some bit of a work of something and becoming the Subject Matter Expert on it.
Then you can answer questions about that feature to other people and prove to yourself, ‘I actually have the knowledge enough about something that I took part in to answer to people that I might normally feel like I’m always asking them the questions.'” – Jackson Oberkirch, software engineer
3. Don’t think you need to know everything
“It’s easy to feel like you were hired for your knowledge, but that is not why any of us were hired. We were hired for the skills that we have. And part of that skill is being able to learn whatever we need to learn and to tackle whatever problems come to us. That’s a skill; that’s not knowledge.
Every programmer encounters problems they don’t know the answer to, and good programmers don’t let that problem fester for long. They immediately tackle it and say, ‘Hey, who knows the answer to this? Because I don’t.'” – Dan Horne, software engineer & coach
4. Ask for help early and often
“I think fear is the mind-killer is kind of a perfect core value at Revelry. That’s the value that I think many people resonate with the most, myself included. When I came on with two other apprentices, I didn’t want to post a simple question to the entire engineering team in the #Implementation channel on Slack like, ‘How do I start my server?” So first, I would DM my fellow apprentices to ask for help, and the three of us would slowly try to figure it out.
When I finally asked a question to everyone in #Implementation, it was definitely scary the first time, but it gets easier each time.” – PJ Dilorio, software engineer
5. Fail huge and learn from it
“I’ve always used the word perfectionist to describe this. Imposter syndrome came to me when I started the engineering route. These two terms are probably still very different in a lot of ways in terms of how people struggle with them, but I think they have a lot of overlap.
I started calling myself a recovering perfectionist in the last five years of my life when I started seeing my children exhibit those characteristics. I felt like I needed to fail and fail huge in front of them and show them that we can rebound and we can learn and we can grow and it is awesome to fail.” – Sarah Herren, software engineer
6. Remember everyone brings something to the table
“I find when I pair with anyone, even an apprentice coming into the field, there have been so many times that I’m trying to do something my way, and then an apprentice will say, ‘Well, have you thought about this?’ I’ll think, ‘Oh my God, that’s so much better.’ See, everyone brings things to the table, and so even if you feel you may not have anything to contribute, you have another set of eyes, another way of looking at something that might be able to bring something new. If you don’t express your thoughts, then we won’t know.
And maybe we don’t go with that solution, but it might spark a discussion where we all learn something. I think it’s important to keep an open mind and know that each contribution has value.” – Robert Weilbaecher, software engineer
7. Focus on getting the job done and enjoying life outside of work
“In my opinion, Imposter syndrome comes in two stages: there’s the person just getting started in the career kind of imposter syndrome, which can last very long into the career, depending on just the whole variety of conditions of where you feel like you can’t do the work, but then you just have to realize that you can because the work is more about working rather than knowledge.
But then there’s also the toxic senior kind of person who is defensive and puts off these airs like they know everything. They never want to let anyone know they’re not a complete engineer because that’s what the expectation is for when you’re further on in your career path.
And so I think that the solution, often to the senior engineer level of imposter syndrome or toxic behaviors, is recognizing that we’re all in the trenches together. Everybody’s skill sets are appreciated because we’re all just working the job, we’re all just trying to get the product out, get everything done, and enjoy life after that.” – Brandon Bennett, software engineer
8. Be collaborative, not condescending
“In a past role, for the most part, I found my teammates to be very helpful and understanding, but the worst moments of imposter syndrome I’d get was when I would deal with a senior engineer who acted like he knew everything. Someone with an attitude like, ‘I’m at the top of the heap; this is my domain; this is my knowledge.’ And after walking away from conversations with them, I would think, ‘I don’t even think I can do this anymore.’
But when I reflect on that now, I wonder if they were suffering from imposter syndrome and if that attitude was their coping mechanism. I think we can assume that when we’re working with an engineer, they probably have some imposter syndrome. So how do we help alleviate that and set limits on that behavior, so they don’t hurt others? What can we do to help others grow in this field?
We need to reject the trope of the engineer hiding in the cave, dictating upon high, and instead, use a collaborative process. Be honest about where you’re at and what you and what you don’t know. Then be willing to offer your support. It’s a huge cultural change that I think is great.” – Quinn McCourt, software engineer & coach
9. Find a better workplace
Several Revelers shared stories from past jobs where they were severely underpaid for years, expected to work extra hours, answer requests around the clock, learn additional skills without additional compensation, or regularly interacted with coworkers who treated them poorly. In Rachel Fairbank’s aptly titled article, “Is It Imposter Syndrome, or Does Your Company Suck?(1)” she points out that your “imposter syndrome” might be a normal response to a toxic workplace.
Don’t let your company gaslight you into blaming yourself for their poor management. If you consistently feel like you’re not good enough professionally and think your job might be mistreating you, talk to a friend or reach out to a trusted mentor or professional organization for advice. Use online tools to check if your job description matches your job title, your salary matches industry standards, and if better benefits are available at other companies. Be prepared to negotiate for changes in your current role or begin job hunting. You may find that the feeling of being an imposter lessens once you are in a supportive environment with a salary to match.
10. Take care of your health
Constantly feeling like a failure or that you aren’t good enough is not just a sign of imposter syndrome; it can be a sign of a serious health condition like depression. One Revelry developer explained how much mental healthcare helped him: “I’m not saying my depression is cured. If I skip my pills for a few days, I still go off the rails. But I’m happy most days.” You don’t need to feel miserable every day of your work life. A healthcare professional can help advise you on healthcare options and lifestyle changes that could help you feel better physically and mentally.
The next time you feel the familiar sting of self-doubt creep in, remember that you aren’t alone. Everyone at our company has experienced imposter syndrome. Take a deep breath and ask for help. Your work matters.