Its a given that real programmers start programming at their early teens, code in their spare time and are always up to date with bleeding edge technologies. But these great expectations may lead to great burnouts.

The office is large and empty, everyone has left already. There is just me staring at a screen, eyes glazed over and head totally blank. Last 6 hours I’ve been refactoring bunch of code that functionality-wise could have been ready yesterday. But I thought it could make it look better. Hence I took it to pieces to put it back together again, just to foolproof the darn thing so the next developer who looks at it would not think „What idiot wrote this crap!?“.

Now I’m overdue, tired and frustrated, because I’m still not sure if I have the correct solution. Come to think of it, I’m actually not trying to make the code better, I’m trying to imitate what a real programmer would do. It’s just like in the university where I imitated being a good student by learning what answers the professors wanted to hear, or being a good daughter by doing what was expected from me. All I’m really good at is imitating. I feel like I’m in Philip K. Dick’s short story „The Exit Door Leads In“ where the protagonist loses his only chance to do something amazing with his life, just because he choses to do as he thinks is expected of him.

All in all – I’m an impostor!

It’s Just a Feeling

Then I stumbled on an article in Business Insider about computer programmers suffering something called the „impostor syndrome“.

„That’s when you’re pretty sure that all the other coders you work with are smarter, more talented and more skilled than you are. You live in fear that people will discover that you are really faking your smarts or skills or accomplishments.“

And it hit me – I actually may not be an impostor. Working in IT for ten years, I have to have done something right, because I still have a job, I’m still trusted with writing code and my co-workers ask for my opinion. Somehow the fact that I could put a label on my feelings, that others much more qualified and experienced people felt it too, makes me feel a bit more at ease. And being at other times like a phony at even being an impostor.

The term “impostor syndrome/phenomenon” first appeared in an article written by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in 1978 who observed many high-achieving females tended to believe they were not intelligent, and that they were over-evaluated by others. Psychological research done in the early 1980s estimated that two out of five successful people consider themselves frauds and other studies have found that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another.

The Education Trap

I discussed the topic with few of my close friends, who are the most brilliant and intelligent people I know – one of them an editor and the other a researcher. They both confessed that quite often they feel lost and unworthy doing their job. Mostly because as specialists they have no way to measure how good of a job they are doing or even if the direction they have taken is the correct one. They have to invent it themselves and in the long run, probably will have no feedback how their work has affected other people or the goal they are helping to achive.

It’s not that they or I have a low self-esteem. At times I’m quite sure, that I’m above average in many ways and at rare moments can even be arrogant, but a life long training of trying to please parents, teachers, mentors, professors and so on, it feels quite intimidating to do something without having someone going through your work evaluating it and giving you feedback. Ain’t no one got time for that any more!

No Proof Of Competence

When your work is part of collective effort and your code is part of a project that 10 developers are working on, what do you have as a proof after 7 or 10 years of work? Your code has been rewritten or deleted by someone else. Technologies have changed and you still sometimes can’t understand what others are talking about, what is this new thing you haven’t heard of. You are empty handed and hope that the fact you have been employed all this time is some kind of proof of your skills, because you have never been creating something physical you can point at. Your work never belongs to you. You are just a employee who produces well, nothing more no matter how many hours of work you put into it.

Getting Over It

Some masochistic part of me says it’s good to feel like an imposter. It drives me to try harder, to learn more, to fake more. But on the other hand it’s stressful to be scared, to worry that you will be found out and fired. It burns you out.
The most effective technique to overcome impostor syndrome is to simply recognize that it exists. For me it has helped to discuss my fears and feelings with co-workers and friends, to know, that these great people occasionally feel the same. And when you don’t know something don’t be ashamed to ask questions and to admit your ignorance and never shame someone who does the same.