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Impostor Syndrome in the IT World

Did you ever feel that you’re not skilled enough to do your job?

Were you ever under the impression that everyone around you knows what they’re doing, but you’re getting on thanks to luck, favourable circumstances, or by deceiving others that you’re better than you actually are? (And it’s just a matter of time before people discover you’re an impostor).

If so, you’re not alone. Sources say that even up to 90% of tech industry professionals had experienced the impostor syndrome at some point in their careers. According to studies, over 50% are dealing with it currently to some extent.

In this article, I’m going to look closer at this psychological phenomenon from the perspective of the software development industry. And, most importantly, I’ll explain why it’s destructive and pitch several ideas for dealing with it.


Impostor Syndrome in the IT World


What's The Impostor Syndrome?


This term itself dates back to research conducted in the seventies by Pauline Clance and Suzanna Imes. The phenomenon was initially attributed to high achieving women, but later studies found that men and women are affected by it equally – and at various stages of their careers. Both junior and senior professionals can become victims; especially around some career milestones like changing jobs or finishing big projects.

Technically, the impostor syndrome is a soft personality disfunction. It causes people to doubt their skill, talent, or underplay their accomplishments.

It can strike professionals even if they have extensive (and hard) evidence of their competence. As a result, victims start attributing their success to luck, external factors, or tricking others to think highly about them. And this leads to persistent, internalized fear of being exposed as frauds, which, of course, would supposedly have dire consequences – like losing their job or reputation.


The Impostor Syndrome in Software Development


IT industry professionals are not immune to this phenomenon. On the contrary – people working in software development are especially prone to impostor syndrome.

Software development is evolving rapidly. New technologies, frameworks, libraries, languages, platforms, or tools are emerging regularly. The number of software engineers is also rising. And the industry itself is also a new and unstandardized field.

For instance, engineers have built bridges for millennia. And despite all the advancements in material science and engineering tools, the idea of a bridge has been stable. To design a bridge, a person must acquire well-established knowledge and skills to follow strict regulations.

Software development doesn’t fall under such a regime. It’s a jungle of chaos.

Sure, IT has some science behind how computers work. There are algorithms, data structures, protocols, standards, academic courses, certifications and good practices. However, there are no single “right” ways of building software.

Often, creating software is a set of unique challenges. IT projects need to take many factors into account – like client needs, requirements, the business domain, the current state of technology, existing legacy systems that might need to be integrated, limitations, opportunities, deadlines, the budget, the team’s skillset and even… company politics.

And while an IT professional may have completed multiple projects and accumulated lots of experience, this landscape may push experts into a trap of thinking that they’re, in fact, no experts. And this despite their clear competencies.

Now, let’s talk about how the impostor syndrome looks in practice.



The Vicious Cycle


People with impostor syndrome tend to get stuck in cycles. When presented with a challenge, they experience self-doubt and worries. Next, they usually choose one of two paths.

Path one is over-preparation – they take additional time and effort to ensure the job is done to the best of their abilities and perfect. They read additional materials, review the work multiple times and spend lots of extra time polishing it.

Path two is procrastination – they postpone the job or improvise. For example, if it’s a presentation, they just go with the flow without much preparation and hope it will go well.

As competent people, they objectively succeeded in both cases. Depending on the path, they have different rationale for that. In case of over-preparation – the success was not due to competence, but due to additional work. The person thinks that others wouldn’t have to do that much to succeed. In the case of the second path – procrastination – a person attributes success to pure luck.

In both cases, immediately after the success, the person feels relief. (“I made it this time, but for sure the next time they will discover that I’m a fraud!”).  Positive feedback is ignored or pushed away; the feeling of being an impostor is reinforced.

When another challenge arises, the vicious circle repeats.


The Fallout


Impostor cycles may lead to low self-esteem, unhealthy perfectionism, exhaustion, anxiety, burnout, and depression. They reduce the actual work effectiveness since professionals spend too much time on their tasks (and destroy their work-life balance) or procrastinate.

What’s more, affected people avoid situations where they could be judged by others, are reluctant to pitch new ideas, avoid asking a relevant question since they worry it would reveal their incompetence. They don’t ask for promotions and pay rises. They tend to avoid unknowns and cling to comfort zones – thus missing opportunities for learning new stuff and developing.


Steps to Defeating the Impostor Syndrome


Impostor syndrome intensity might be a personal trait and depends on many factors. It might be difficult to get rid of it fully.  But luckily, if you’re a victim to it, you can still learn to control it to a large extent.

To achieve that, it’s helpful to realise several facts.



Acknowledge the impostor syndrome exists

The first step to realising the problem is knowing it exists. (“You are not a fraud – you are doing just fine. You have impostor syndrome. Now, let’s get rid of it”.)


Acknowledge it's common

You are not the only one experiencing it. It can happen to anyone – man or woman, junior, mid, senior, or C-level.


Learn to be comfortable with uncertainty

It’s fine to not know everything in any non-trivial field. In fact, it’s impossible to know everything. The more you know the more you realise how little you know. IT is so vast that no sane person expects you to be an expert in everything. Getting along with that notion might be easier for some people; it’s actually also heavily connected to local culture – the uncertainty avoidance index is one of the five metrics in Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory.


People around you know much less than you think

When we talk to people in a team, we tend to instinctively assume that all of them know all the pieces of information you got from each individually. As a result, you create an image in your head that you only know very little, while everyone around you knows a lot. It’s not true.


People around you struggle just as you do

Experts with 10 or 20 years of experience still sometimes google “basic” stuff or copy parts of code from previous projects. There was a Twitter thread with a developer confession some time ago started by the creator of Ruby on rails; browsing through it might help you.


What you know is not obvious

We assume that everyone else knows what we know, therefore diminishing the value of this knowledge. In my opinion, a good cure for that is to start doing software development job interviews as a recruiter. You will be surprised by how much stuff you consider obvious is not that common.


Don’t compare others frontend with your backend

No pun intended. What you see is often what people want you to see. Thus, you’re comparing your true self to an image of others you create in your head.


Don’t get fooled by loudmouths

Those most active people in the industry – on social media and at conferences – might make you think that every IT expert should be like that. You don’t have to go to every conference (or any conference), have your own YouTube channel or blog, commit every day to a dozen of open-source projects, write books, etc. Most people don’t do that.


Learn to celebrate your successes

Big ones and little ones. It was not luck or circumstances, it was you who did that, you deserve an inner acknowledgement and a healthy shot of dopamine.


Keep track of your successes

Add a finished project, a public talk, a course, or a certificate to your LinkedIn profile or resume; tell your manager about it, tweet it. If you have a technology guild or community of practice in your company – have a hall of fame there for various achievements.


Be aware of the spotlight effect

It’s a phenomenon where people think they are noticed and observed by everyone to a much bigger extent than in reality. People don’t really care that much about your mistakes and don’t actively look for them – they are more concerned about how good they are themselves.


Utilize your strengths correctly

Developers are different – some are good with algorithms; others can solve low-level problems fast. And it’s all good and needed in a team – sometimes more than the coding itself. If you still don’t feel “talented” enough for what you’re doing, maybe it’s good to take some time to look around and find a slightly different niche just to feel more comfortable.


Talent is overrated

Maybe a slight contradiction to the previous point – but practice is much more important than innate talent. Most of the time when you say you don’t have a talent for something, it just means you don’t like it. As a result, you don’t spend much time doing it and don’t have the opportunity to get good at it. And it's fine – just try to find stuff that you like. You will get good at it naturally as a result of practice.


Try to control your negative thoughts

If upon encountering difficulties you focus on thinking about how bad you are at something and start to fear of consequences, your brain switches to fight or flight mode managed by its reptilian legacy part which deprives you of your cognitive power and triggers a self-fulfilling prophecy. Relax, and take a deep breath.


Talk to someone

Your friend, colleague, your boss – if you have a healthy relation. Get it off your chest!



You Are Not Alone


Confession time: I have the impostor syndrome myself – despite being in the industry for 12 years and wearing the senior badge for 7.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s difficult to get rid of it completely. However, once you get familiar with it, you can dial it down from paralysing fear to mild nuisance.

I used to construct elaborate excuses for all my successes. I was stuck in the impostor cycle exactly as I described. It still happens to me, but it’s much less of a problem than just a few years ago.

I hope this story will help you overcome your inner fears. Remember – you’re not alone.

Also, remember that I’m not a psychiatrist – this is just my experience. If negative thoughts, fears, or depressive feelings are affecting your life, don’t hesitate to consult a health professional.




This is a guest entry first published on Paweł's personal blog – How To Train Your Java.
Make sure to follow him here: How to train your java website

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