Elly Kitoto -

Impostor Syndrome – A Silent Topic Among New Engineers

Starting out as a software engineer is not easy. Tech companies are competitive and keeping up with the ever-evolving technology is challenging. When I started at Ona as an intern, surrounded by smart people and high expectations, I began to have feelings of inadequacy. Which is why I’m sharing my experience with imposter syndrome and the ways I’ve managed my feelings to let others know that, however unpleasant, these feelings are common and surmountable.

My story

My internship started after passing a rigorous interview. I received the opportunity and challenge to work with a bigger engineering team. My initial tasks were to setup the development environment and familiarize myself with tools used at Ona, including: Docker, Ansible, and more — which were all completely new to me. I wondered if the timeline I had for the setup was long enough. I made up my mind not to go the old school way of watching YouTube tutorials, fearing someone would peep at me watching tuts instead of going through documentation.

After the setup, I had to read through existing code and build new features on top of it. Boom! New libraries, APIs and frameworks. Looking through the code base, my brain shutdown for a moment. It was not the normal Android code I was familiar with (using Activities and Intents). Events, sync adapters, rules engines, and Mapbox were bizarre and unfamiliar concepts. I felt pressure to keep up with code standards and write quality code at par with other engineers in the team. I started to feel I was not up to the challenge.

After losing confidence, I discovered what I was going through is known as impostor syndrome and decided to research ways of overcoming it. I’ve concluded it’s a rarely discussed topic among engineers, yet a common phenomenon that many can relate to and have come across. You may be having this persistent feeling of “Oh! I feel like I’m faking it.” Or, thoughts like “I just got lucky”, “I am not worth this job”, ”they did me a favor” etc. are just so familiar to you that they can’t seem to fade away. If you sometimes become anxious, stressed and feel sorry for yourself, read on.

Impostor syndrome is a psychological condition in which a person doubts his or her achievements or accomplishments with an internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”;  despite the external evidence of their competence. You can read more on Wikipedia.

Studies show that impostor syndrome affects both men and women. It occurs in many settings, for instance when in a new environment, in an academic setting, during social interaction, in relationships both platonic and romantic, and, like my case, in the workplace where it is especially prevalent in competitive industries. According to a study in the UK, 68% of the participants from tech companies reported having experienced impostor syndrome within the past year.

What helped me

So how did I navigate through the thoughts of inadequacy and feelings of self-doubt? Since there are different factors contributing to impostor syndrome there is no one-size-fits-all solution for overcoming this experience. But part of the remedy is identifying the pattern of the occurrence and dealing with the underlying issues contributing to it. Some contributors are subtle whereas others are quite obvious. The common causes being: self-generated doubt, the fear of asking for help, being criticized and self-comparison with high-achieving colleagues. Other factors like low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, family expectations and even level of education can also be connected to it. Here are some tips that helped me which you can apply to your situation.

1. I avoided seeking perfection

It is impossible to be perfect in all facets of the job. I became patient with myself and opened up to more opportunities of learning so as to improve not only on my job, but also areas of life outside the office. I reminded myself that failure is part of growth.

2. I stopped comparing myself with the others

Every contribution counts to the overall fulfillment of the organization’s objectives; including mine in their own merit.

3. I learned (or remembered) that I am not alone

I understood that I’m not alone after listening to Mike Cannon-Brookes’ TED talk, the co-founder of the software company Atlassian. The main takeaway: stop criticizing and over-analyzing yourself. Others around you, including the most talented people in your organization, have probably had the same feelings.

4. I sought supportive groups

Ona has an organization-wide culture around mentorship and support for new staff. This has come along way in boosting my confidence and building my competence.

5. I stopped thinking like an impostor

I identified the patterns to the self-defeating thoughts and instead of beating myself up, I started practicing affirmative thinking. My imposter thoughts haven’t completely stopped, but what matters now is my attitude and reactions towards them.

6. I sought support from my organization

Since imposter syndrome is often overlooked, I brought ideas up to my manager. We talked about how organizations can help by being inclusive and ensuring everyone’s feedback is well received without any discrimination or prejudice. Sometimes people just need feedback to validate their thoughts and ideas. It can boost self-confidence and minimize feelings of self-doubt. Organizations should also create a culture that supports team growth and encourages accountability among teams. Having mentorship programs for new recruits can also help minimize the feeling of self doubt and make them feel supported.

It gets better

Impostor syndrome can severely impact your performance at work and affect your career growth. The good news is that it is not a permanent condition, but a reaction to a set of circumstances, stress and unrealistic expectations which can be undone by improving your state of mind and having the willingness to exercise affirmative thinking. This is possible when you pay attention to your thinking process, detecting when impostor syndrome is gaining foothold and replacing the negative thoughts with self-assuring and affirmative ones.

So next time when your CTO or tech lead comes around and finds you browsing Stack Overflow, do not close the tab and switch to another in fear of being exposed as a fraud. I read somewhere, “being a mediocre software engineer is not bad as long as you are learning, growing and contributing back to the community.” This is what I’m striving for every day.