Whether you call it imposter syndrome or simply your jerkbrain acting up, we all have our moments of feeling like a fake and that, someday, everyone will find out. And at it turns out, one of the professions most prone to imposter syndrome is software development.
Programmer Tommy Refenes, one of the developers behind the hit game Super Meat Boy, spoke earlier this year at the Game Developers Conference on the condition. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said then. “Everything I’ve done in my life I’ve just made up as I went along. That’s what everyone is doing. That’s how life works. That’s how evolution works.”
Part of the issue is that technology changes so fast, there can be so much to learn, programming has become so complex, that it’s easy to feel like you’re behind, says John Sonmez from simpleprogrammer.com, a training site. “Probably 50 percent of the emails I get from people is developers saying, ‘I’m not good enough’ or some way of feeling they’re not good enough,” he says in a video interview. “No one is good enough. Technology moves so fast it’s ridiculous, you have to learn on the fly. You have to be able to learn quickly.”
Another contributor to the problem is overwork, writes Julie Bort in Business Insider. Some companies not only expect programmers to work 50- and 60-hour weeks, but tell them that real programmers love programming so much that they do it in their spare time, too.
“The less I thought of myself and the harder I tried the more I would make the most obvious of mistakes,” writes programmer David Walsh, who felt that as a developer for Mozilla he shouldn’t make any mistakes. “Every comment on my pull requests felt like a HR performance warning for my file.”
Imposter syndrome can be particularly present in the open source community, Bort adds. “Imposter syndrome is common in professions where the work is peer reviewed,” she writes. “Writing software is just such a field, particularly open-source software where anyone can look at the code and change it.”
It’s also common to feel imposter syndrome when you’re learning something new, because you don’t feel competent, writes Microsoft employee Scott Hanselman, on his blog. And in programming, that happens all the time. “We all feel like phonies sometimes,” he writes. “We are all phonies. That’s how we grow. We get into situations that are just a little more than we can handle, or we get in a little over our heads. Then we can handle them, and we aren’t phonies, and we move on to the next challenge.” (Emphasis his.)
Dealing With Imposter Syndrome
While imposter syndrome, first described in 1978, was originally attributed to women, more recent studies have indicated that both men and women are subject to it, writes L.V. Anderson in Slate. And in fact, imposter syndrome is actually really common. As many as 70 percent of people have imposter syndrome, writes Olivia Goldhill in Quartz.
If it’s really that common, then, what’s the point in even talking about it? Because, as in so many other things, it helps a lot to find out you’re not alone. “Simply learning that impostor syndrome is a thing, and that lots of people experience it, can be helpful in lessening impostorism’s intensity (for most people),” Anderson writes. “Maybe we should stop calling people who experience impostor syndrome ‘people who experience impostor syndrome’ and start calling people who don’t experience impostor syndrome ‘overconfident weirdos.’”
“That was my key learning about Impostor Syndrome: that when I actually had it, I had no way of realizing it, because my perception seemed normal to me,” writes software engineer Alicia Liu in Medium. “I thought I just wasn’t meant to be a programmer, despite all evidence to the contrary.”
How to Get Over Imposter Syndrome
So other than accepting that almost everyone has it at one time or another, what are some ways of getting over imposter syndrome? Kyle Eschenroeder has some great suggestions on the entrepreneurial blog StartupBros:
- Focus on providing value.Imposter syndrome can happen when you’re focused primarily on yourself, Eschenroeder writes. “The fastest way to get over feeling like a fraud is to genuinely try to help someone else.”
- Being wrong doesn’t make you a fake. Nobody’s perfect. Even the best athletes miss shots and pitches, and even experts are wrong sometimes, Eschenroeder notes. “Losing is just part of the game. Don’t glorify failure, but don’t let it make you feel like you’re not a real contender either.”
- Realize that nobody knows what they’re doing.For example, keep in mind that most startups—as many as 90 percent—fail. “There are a ton of people who will tell you they know the answers. These people are liars,” Eschenroeder writes. “You’re not an impostor for trying something that might not work.”
What can also be helpful is for everyone to confess the times that they, too, felt like an imposter, writes Chrissie Deist, a programmer for Braintree, a subdsidiary of PayPal. “When working with less experienced developers (male or female), share not only what you know, but also what you once didn’t know,” she writes. “One of the most helpful things I was told in my first few months at Braintree was, ‘Don’t expect to feel like you know what you’re doing for at least six months. Maybe a year.’ Knowing that I was not alone in my confusion allowed me to ask questions and make mistakes, and to do the best I could within the boundaries of what I knew while working to push those boundaries further.”
As it turns out, having imposter syndrome can actually be a good sign. “There is evidence to suggest that imposter syndrome correlates with success—and that those who don’t suffer imposter symptom are more likely to be the real frauds,” Goldhill writes. “People with imposter syndrome tend to be perfectionists, which means they’re likely to spend hours working overtime to make sure they excel in every single field. So if you do suffer from imposter syndrome, chances are you’re doing a pretty good job.”
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