Imposter syndrome (part 1)

Note: this is a purely personal post. It has no code in. It’s related to the coding side of my world more than the rest of who I am, so it’s in my coding blog, but if you’re looking for code, just move on.

As part of a Twitter exchange, I discovered that Heather Downing (blog, twitter) would be talking about Imposter Syndrome. This is a topic that interests me for reasons I’ll go into below. I figured it would be interesting to jot down some thoughts on it before Heather’s talk, and then again afterwards, comparing my ideas with hers. As such, I expect to publish this post pretty much as I’m sitting down for the talk, for maximum independence. (Ed: it’s not somewhat rushed. Back when I started it on Tuesday, it seemed like I had loads of time. It’s now Friday morning and I’m desperately trying to get it into some kind of coherent state in time to post…)

There are two ways I could write this post: one very abstract, about “people in general”, and one very concrete, about myself. The first approach would probably end in platitudes and ignorance – the second could well feel like a mixture of egocentricity, arrogance and humble-bragging. I’m going for the second approach anyway, so if you suspect you’ll get annoyed by reading about my thoughts about myself, I suggest moving along. (Read Heather’s blog, for example.)

Aspects of Imposter Syndrome

I think about Imposter Syndrome in three different ways. For some people they may be very similar, but in my case there are pretty radical differences. (For some reason I tend to be a corner case in all kinds of ways. Basically, I’m awkward.)

  • What do people say (and think) about your skills?
  • What skills are expected or required for what you do? (e.g. the job you’re in, success in the community, speaking etc)
  • What do you say about your skills?

I think of Imposter Syndrome as believing that your true set of skills or abilities is lower than the evaluations listed above. It’s possible that the third bullet really doesn’t belong there, but it’s sufficiently closely related that I want to talk about it anyway.

What do people say (and think) about my coding ability?

The Jon Skeet facts page is the first thing that comes to mind, followed by the Toggl “Rescue the Princess” comic. While both of those are clearly meant to be comedy rather than taken seriously, I suspect some of the hyperbole has rubbed off.

I get attention at conferences and on Twitter as if I really showed exceptional coding ability. There’s an assumption that I really can answer anything. People talk about being inspired by me. People still show up to my talks. People ask how I “get so much done” – when I see plenty of people achieving much more than I do. (I slump in front of the TV at night with Holly far more than the question would suggest…)

What skills are expected of me?

Back in 2012, I talked with Scott Hanselman about Imposter Syndrome and “being a phony”. Back then, I still felt like an imposter at Google – and knew that plenty of my colleagues felt the same way.

In my job, I’m expected to be a proficient coder and leader in the area that I’m working on. I was briefly a manager too, but I’m not any more – so my role is fairly purely technical… but that still includes so-called “soft skills” in terms of communication and persuasion. (I hate the term “soft skills” as it implies those skills are less important or difficult. They’re critical, and sadly underdeveloped!)

In the community, I’m expected to be prolific and accurate online, and interesting/engaging in person, particularly while presenting.

What do I say and think about myself?

I try to make the “say” and “think” match. For some definitions of Imposter Syndrome, I don’t think I actually suffer from it at all. In particular:

  • The hyperbole is clearly incorrect. It’s not just fake humility that suggests I’m not really the world’s top programmer… the idea that I could possibly believe that is laughable.
  • These days I’m pretty comfortable with what I do at work. I work hard, I’m working in an area where I feel I have expertise (C# API design) and I get things done. The work I do doesn’t involve the same degree of computer science brilliance as designing Spanner or implementing a self-driving car, but it’s far from trivial.
  • There are thing I’ve done that I’m genuinely proud of beyond my day job – in particular, Noda Time and C# in Depth. I take pride in my Stack Overflow answers too, but they’re slightly different in a way that’s hard to explain. I’m certainly pleased that they’re helpful.
  • I’m confident in my boundaries: I know that I know C# very well and Java pretty well. I know that I have more awareness of date/time issues than the vast majority of developers. I know that I can express ideas clearly, and that that’s important. I’m also well aware of my limitations: if you see any code I write outside Java and C# (e.g. Bash, Python, Javascript) then it’s horrible, and I make no claims otherwise.

Talking about being an “imposter” or “phony” suggests making a claim to competence which is untrue. I don’t think that’s the case here – and that applies to the vast majority of other “famous” developers I know. They’re generally well aware of their limitations too, and their presentations are always about the technology rather than about themselves. There are exceptions to this, and I know my “Abusing C#” talk has sometimes been seen as a self-promotion vehicle instead of the gleeful exploration of C# corner cases it’s intended to be… but in general, I haven’t interacted with many big egos in the tech space. (This may be a matter of the conferences I’ve chosen to go to. I’m aware there are plenty of big-ego jerks around, but I haven’t spoken with many of them…)

Conclusion

I still believe there is a disconnect between even people’s genuine expectations (as opposed to the hyperbole) and the reality of my competence, even though I don’t cultivate those expectations. As a mark of this, I believe my talks are more popular in anticipation than in experience – it’s often a full house, but in the green/yellow/red appraisal afterwards there’s usually a bunch of yellows and even some reds.

Obviously the disconnect gives an ego boost which I try to dampen, but it has genuinely positive aspects too: one of the things people say to or about me is that I inspire them. That’s fantastic. It really doesn’t matter whether they’re buying into a myth: if something they see in me inspires them to “do better” (whatever that may mean for them) then that’s a net benefit to the world, right?

I’m going to keep making it perfectly clear to people that a lot of what is said about me is massively overblown, while keeping confidence in myself as a really pretty decent developer. Am I over-recognized/over-hyped? Yes. Am I an imposter? I don’t think so.

Postscript

Since finishing the above conclusion, I’ve just watched Felienne‘s talk on “Programming is writing is programming” which was the best talk I’ve seen at any conference. Now I feel like an imposter…

6 thoughts on “Imposter syndrome (part 1)”

  1. Very interesting. It makes me feel better that you seem more “down to earth” and don’t see yourself as a God in the programming world. I agree with what you’re saying and have felt the same some times, but never really thought about it until now. Thank you for writing your personal thoughts.

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  2. You’ve written a little about something called the Imposter Syndrome.
    What is the Imposter Syndrome ?
    And how can students overcome it ?

    Okay.
    The Imposter Syndrome is like a tape
    that plays inside people’s heads.
    Not just students, a lot of people.
    And, the tape,
    let’s do it in a student context, though.
    The tape is like this.
    So the student is sitting in a class,
    looking around and thinking, boy,
    these people are really good.
    They get this stuff.
    They can ask, answer the teacher’s questions
    They can do the homework
    You know, they can do fine on the test
    But I, the tape inside the head continues,
    I’m really not.
    I, they all,
    I managed to fool them all over the years,
    the tape goes,
    my friends, my family, my teachers,
    into thinking that I’m this real hotshot
    who belongs at this class university,
    taking engineering, taking science, taking economics,
    whatever i’m taking.
    But I know better, and the tape continues.
    The very next tough question I get in class,
    the very next hard test that I have to take,
    that’s what’s going to finally, once and for all,
    reveal me as a the fraud, the phone, the imposter,
    that I know I am.
    And then, and then, what happens then,
    is usually too horrifying to contemplate.
    And so, at that point, the imposter
    usually stops the tape, rewinds it.
    Gets it going again.
    And the interesting thing about that
    phenomenon is how utterly common it is.
    But every student playing that tape imagines
    that he or she is the only one who’s doing it.
    And the idea that a lot of people
    are doing it,
    and that hot shot in the front row with the 4.0 average,
    the tape is playing louder than it is in anyone else’s head.
    It comes as a surprise to them.
    And the reason I’m so sure about how common this phenomenon is,
    is that I’ve given this talk many times to students.
    So I’m in an auditorium full of students that I’m giving this talk to.
    And when I get to the part about,
    they all think “I belong here
    but I know better”,
    it’s like I plucked a guitar string.
    There’s a quiver that goes over the entire audience,
    you know, and,
    and eyes dilated and jaws go slack.
    you know,
    and then they start checking each others out.
    And there’s this tangible relaxation that goes over the entire room,
    as they realise,
    that this is just a scam I’m playing on myself.
    And it is a scam, you know ?
    If a student managed to do everything needed to get into this college,
    to pass all of the entrance requirements,
    maybe to get through that difficult first year
    they have the ability to do it because they did it.
    And so when i make that speech,
    as I say,
    it relaxes a lot of students.
    And once you’re familiar with that phenomenon,
    what happens is,
    imposters keep showing up.
    I, in my office not a week goes by that I don’t see two or three
    imposters coming into my office.
    And soon as they start talking about the problems that they’re having
    I,
    okay, here’s another imposter.
    And I reach into the left middle draw of my desk in,
    in a file folder there.
    I pull out a little copy of a little column
    that I wrote on the imposter phenomenon,
    and I say “here check this out,
    you might find it intriguing”.
    And so this imposter in my office reads his or her biography.
    And it’s high drama, you know ?
    I get tears from male and female imposters.
    I get, you know, practically screaming.
    I had one one woman student
    accuse me of stealing her diary.
    And so, it,
    it’s a really good thing for teachers to know about,
    and it’s a very, very good thing for students to know about,
    because we’re all playing it.

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  3. You have a bug in one of your Markdown (I assume) links. You need to replace all ” ” with “+” when you have links in Markdown syntax that contains spaces …
    Besides from that, gr8 writeup :)

    .t

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    1. Assuming you mean the one for the Toggl cartoon, the problem was a space between the square brackets and the parentheses. No need for escaping. If that wasn’t the link you meant, please be more specific.

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