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How to overcome imposter syndrome as a developer

Published at: October 05, 2020
Reading time: 7min

I was in a comfortable position at a previous job. I was working as a frontend developer and after two years in this job, I knew my way around. I knew about every feature our product contained. I knew the code. I could tell which component was responsible for what.

I knew where most of the questions at me where headed before someone finished them asking. This felt like home. This felt like the absolute comfort zone.

After switching jobs imposter syndrome hit me hard. At first I felt like a fraud. Everything was new to me. The code, the tools, the workflow, the people, the team. I felt like I had to relearn everything. And like I did not know anything at all.

I always thought that sooner or later somebody would come to me and say: "You know, we've watched you long enough and now you've been caught. You don't know anything about software developing." handcuffs click.

Did you ask yourself questions like am I good enough? Do you often have thoughts like do I know enough to be a good developer? Can I help make this product better? My skills are way to bad. I should quit. I know nothing.

This kind of thoughts are bad and not helpful at all you could say. But still a lot of people have them.

Chances are you've felt the same at some point in your career. Chances are you will feel like that everytime you start a new job. This all sounds very negative. But the good news is: you are not alone!

A colleague of mine once told me that they should take two weeks off to learn a specific technology. Because they feel like they "know nothing about it". And they are developers, I learn the most of and look up to. In my eyes they know their stuff pretty well.

If anything of this above sounds familiar to you, let me tell you about the imposter syndrome.

What is imposter syndrome?

Wikipedia gives a very good definition of imposter syndrome:

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments or talents and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud".

If this sounds familiar to you, chances are you also feel like you do not deserve certain things. You think your achievements are not you own and your success is attributed to luck.

For some people it gets even worse. Often anxiety, stress or depression go along side with imposter syndrome.

Why you feel like an imposter

So the questions is why do we feel this way? What causes imposter syndrome? It does not sound like something that could benefit our work, our life or anything between. It sounds harmful and could also hold as back.

A lot of developers are self taught. Often they suffer from imposter syndrome because they do not have a CS degree. And this is still required by a lot of companies. Thus they think, they are not "real" developers, if they haven't learned their stuff at a university.

Another reason why we feel this way is that the web industry is one of the fastest changing industries. Every week or so this new technology gets popular. A new JavaScript framework will replace the most popular one right now and you need to know about it and have learned about it yesterday. Which is obviously not possible.

So we get the feeling we need no know everything but we can't. And we don't accept the obvious reasons, we think we as developers, as humans are the problem.

There is always something new to learn in this industry. This is on the one hand a really nice thing and motivates me but but it's hard to stay on top.

Every programming task you do at work is like a small challenge. If you succeed everything is fine. But if you don't find a solution right away you question yourself. You question your knowledge and if you've even capable of this job.

We compare ourselves to others. This new kid just joined the company and already build this super complex feature. Because they are programming since they are 12 years old. I will never be as good as them. Sounds familiar?

Why you aren't an imposter

Let's take a quick break and a deep breath.

Let me tell you that you took the first step. We analyzed the problem and we saw the situation for what it really is. There are a lot of ways to grow out of it and change. From here on the positive takes over.

You are not an imposter because you do not need a CS degree to be a good developer. It can help in some ways but the knowledge to be a good developer is not only trapped inside a CS degree.

You are not an imposter because take a look. See how far you've come. What you've achieved in your past, all you've done. Even if you're a beginner remember all the things you've learned so far, even the smallest.

My incredibly talented girlfriend draw this beautiful picture about this topic.

I take a look at it as often as I can because it's always a good reminder.

You are not an imposter because you've got the job right? You convinced someone to hire you as a developer. That's a big achievement you can't fake.

You are not an imposter because remember this one little crazy bug you solved which seemed like "a hell no we will never solve this bug at all". But you did.

You are not an imposter because you don't know everything. And that's totally fine. You can't know everything. And even if you could, that would be really boring, right? One of the greatest things in life is that there is always something new to learn.

Overcoming imposter syndrome

Now as we have set the clear picture why you are not an imposter, here are more tips on how to deal with imposter syndrome and eventually overcome it.

Set yourself realistic goals

Set yourself some realistic goals! Telling yourself that in three weeks you will know the entire codebase by heart is an impossible goal. Rather set up smaller goals which are clear and measurable.

Keep track of your accomplishments

Write down everything you achieved. Even the smallest things. Everytime you struggle, you doubt yourself, take a look at that list. Be proud of what you've learned and achieved. This helps a lot.

Don't compare yourself to others

Comparing yourself to others is never a good idea. It always leaves you feel bad about yourself. You don't know the history of others, how they learn and how they think. Everyone is different and has their own strengths and weaknesses.

The next time you compare yourself to the new team member, who already seems to know everything - stop right there. Be happy for the new colleague because they settled so quickly.

Than compare yourself to you from last week or last month. There are definitely things you've learned, features you built and bugs you crushed.

Your teammates and colleagues may feel the same

Talk to your colleagues about it. Chances are they feel exactly they same as you do. Help to build a culture in your company where it's easy and desired to share knowledge. Where you help each other and not knowing everything is considered normal. Do more pair programming and knowledge sharing sessions.

Learn to be brave and answer questions with: "I don't know an answer to your question right away. I need to think about it first." I know this seems very hard, but in the end everyone benefits from that.

Finally be aware of the fact that the work and achievements as a team is, what counts.

Ask for Feedback

If you're feeling like an imposter remember that the only person you get feedback from right now is yourself. To stop this cycle and get a more realistic view of what is really happening, don't hesitate to ask your teammates and colleagues for feedback! They can give you valuable answers on how you're really doing and where you can improve.

Even the experts in our industry feel this way

When I came across this blog post by David Walsh, I was astonished. He writes a lot of blog posts about the JavaScript ecosystems. He worked for Mozilla for over 8 years. Developers go to his blog to get help, read his tutorials and learn stuff. And even he feels this way. This shows a whole new perspective. Take your time and head over there to read this. I'll wait here.

And than you'll see that you're absolutely not alone feeling like this. You're fine.

Conclusion

Dealing with imposter syndrome can be hard and your are not alone in this. The first step is to realize that you suffer from it. From there on you can grow into a more healthy relationship with yourself. There are a lot of tools you can use to cope and deal with imposter syndrome.

I hope I could explain this topic a little better and you can use my tips to overcome imposter syndrome.

Did you ever suffer from imposter syndrome? Do you know friends who feel that way? Make sure to send them this blog post and let me know what you think about this topic.

Greetings Marco

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