The Imposter Syndrome is like the fog of war:
The term seeks to capture the uncertainty regarding one’s own capability, adversary capability, and adversary intent during an engagement, operation, or campaign.
This definition is in regards to military operations. However, the definition can be applied to the imposter syndrome as well. Like most psychological states, it makes us see life without a clear and logical view. It makes us ignorant of our own capabilities, stops us seeing clearly or finishing goals, and overall, provide less business value.
The Imposter Syndrome is prevalent within the software industry. There seems to be many articles discussing the phenomenon. Even with the vast amount of material, I don’t find them personal to my situation. So I thought I would create an article that reveals how I deal with the problem of being an “imposter”.
As a programmer, I feel like an imposter all the time. I think it is very easy to forget past work, always striving for the next problem to solve. The first step to ridding yourself of it is to understand that it is there, and to catch the symptoms.
Reducing the Imposter Syndrome relies on understanding its root cause. Not understanding the cause is like rowing a boat without a paddle, you have no direction, and will fail in removing the problem.
On a daily basis, I am still plagued with perfectionism and low confidence. Perfectionism sounds almost positive, who would not want a pefect solution? Obviosly, perfection is unnattainable, and so you spend long hours on tasks with little business value. Both my perfectionism and low confidence are much less than when I started my career, but it is only with being self-conscious of my thought patterns that I have been able to stop them re-ocurring. The first hurdle is identifying those patterns.
There was a point in my career where I would try and solve problems on my own. I would spend an excessive amount of time on a problem, trying to reach a point where I was satisfied with my solution. I was avoiding failure. Perfectionism will make solving problems time consuming, and will make you feel solutions are never quite complete. This is the definition of perfectionism. You try and solve the problem yourself, but cause problems along with it. Failing is hard, but it is a lesson that people need to go through.
To solve a problem within engineering, you have to believe in your ability to solve it. The quality of code can be affected by your composure. If you are having a bad day, or are suffering from anxiety, then it will affect your ability to think. If you have low confidence in your ability, then it will paralyse you.
No Industry Standards
A big reason why the imposter syndrome is so common in our industry, is the lack of standardisation. Mechanical engineering is one of the oldest of the engineering disciplines. There is a vast amount of regulation and standards for practicing mechanical engineering. Beyond the obvious benefits of the regulations, they are also a fantastic way to help you know when a project is complete.
A bridge’s design can vary wildly from case to case, but every inch of it has to be planned and executed with precision. It is rare to find a software design process that has covered every part of a solution. So why can’t the regulations and standards of mechanical engineering be applied to software?
Explaining the process of building software is always done with metaphors. People explain physical things such as building a house, a bridge, or even carpentry. Unfortunately, software is definitely not like building a physical object. Software is not tangible in this way, and the measurements of success for mechanical engineering do not apply in software.
The infancy of the software industry is to blame. Software development is maturing at a rapid pace, but during this time, there is a lag which opens and causes misunderstanding about our own ability. Our ability to measure success will improve with the maturity of our profession. Without a formal measurement of success, it is impossible to measure our own ability with an international standard.
What You Can Do Now
There are a few techniques that I have found help me tackle the Imposter Syndrome. The first is getting out of my comfort zone. This can involve using a new programming language at work, Using a new development methodology such as Test Driven Development, or even public speaking or a challenging new job. It does not have to be programming to take you out of your comfort zone. The goal of this is not to make you feel uncomfortable, but to improve your perspective on software development as a whole. Having a better perspective on the industry reduces the chance of developing the imposter syndrome (and helps you and your career).
The second point to make, and this is sounds like an obvious one, is that you’re not alone. It is obvious to say that many of us suffer from the Imposter syndrome, but what many people fail to utilise is the team around them. We are not independent workers, that is, trying to win a gold star from superiors makes us forget the big picture. If you are trying to be a guru, a source of knowledge that every person comes to for help, then you are trying to achieve the wrong goal.
A team should take ownership for every ticket in the backlog. A team should have clear goals, and work towards them together to achieve business value. If a goal is owned by multiple people, then it mitigates the fear of the imposter syndrome. One person should not have sole responsibility for a goal. If you start figuring problems out together, then both developers can stop perfectionism, and give a solid view on what needs to be achieved.
The Imposter Syndrome strikes when you can not measure your own ability. Therefore, why not think of past achievements that identify your ability. If I am suffering from low confidence, then clearly defining your past achievements can trigger a positive reaction. We tend to remember the past through filters. We sometimes put emphasis on positives or negatives based on our current mood, and this can lead to a better or worse outlook. If we force ourselves to realise our past achievements, then it can give us a confidence boost, and help us achieve our goals. Reviewing achievements sounds simple, but I implore your to try it, as this takes conscious effort to actually think these thoughts. Eventually, the feelings come with those thoughts, and your low confidence will slowly rise.
The Imposter Syndrome is a big topic to cover in one post. What I have tried to do is give pointers on how I deal with it personally. Unfortunately, only some or none of these things may work for you, as dealing with the problem is personal. All I hope is that if you do suffer from the imposter syndrome, that you at least try these techniques, and hopefully come up with your own.
From someone who has been there, I hope this article helps you know where to start in tackling your imposter. I hope this helps.