How To Not Suffer From Imposter Syndrome

It’s been almost a year since my career switch from banking to coding and boy what a ride it was, well, still is. The first time I heard the term impostor syndrome was at Hackbright Academy, where I was learning computer science principles, web and software development. Gulnara Mirzakarimova
Jibe Software Engineer & Hackbright Graduate
Gulnara was an Engineering Fellow at Hackbright Academy, and prior to that, she was working in a bank in Washington DC. Gulnara also leads the DC Nightowls group, the District’s after hours co-working community of self-starters turning big ideas into exciting projects. This is her story of a career pivot from finance to engineering.

By Gulnara Mirzakarimova (Hackbright Academy – spring 2013 class)

The first time I heard the term impostor syndrome was at Hackbright Academy, where I was learning computer science principles, web and software development. In a nut shell, what it means is – when you are not confident in your abilities even though your work says otherwise, you doubt yourself and are constantly afraid of people finding out that in reality you know nothing, which in itself is not true.

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, mentioned it in her book Lean In, where she says that women tend to underestimate themselves. And even though men do it less, I am pretty sure there are plenty of men who have problems with confidence as well.

There is a great talk on TED by Amy Cuddy on how to boost your self-esteem but I want to share what I learned from going though a career switch and making it work.

See, while I was Hackbright I didn’t worry about not performing on the job, because I didn’t have one yet. My goal was to finish my final project where I was writing my own programing language and then prepare for interviews to get the job.

Lesson #1: Do not stress about something that doesn’t exist.

Now, fast forward through the process of interviewing and me landing a job as a software engineer at Jibe. I didn’t have time to worry if I had an impostor syndrome or not, I had a list of things I needed to learn as soon as possible, that included a new programming language, interaction with databases I never worked with and etc … They say you can teach a monkey to read; so, there is no reason why I couldn’t learn all of the things that were needed for the job.

Lesson #2: Make a list of things that you do not know and the things you “think” you don’t know. Just learn them. You will be so busy you will have no time to worry.

When I was picking a job, I was actually picking a team. I can learn new things in any job, but culture fit is not something that is easily found. I was the first female engineer hired at Jibe, and no, it didn’t scare me one bit, because I met the whole team before I made a decision and I knew I wanted to work with them. They are very smart and supportive.

I cannot write this and not mention Brian. Brian is a senior developer and simply put is a genius, but most importantly he is a patient teacher thanks to whom now I do not hesitate to take on huge projects because I know I can deliver them.

Lesson #3: Surround yourself with smart people, from who you can learn.

If you are thrown in a wilderness with no idea how to fend for yourself, what are your chances of survival compared to being in a company of person who knows how to survive.

When I was given my first solo client integration. I was determined not to ask for help, because I wanted to test myself. The project was not easy and was pretty big. So, I broke it down into pieces and made a timeline for myself; i.e. if I do not complete this part by this day, then I ask for help, but I will stay working late nights and on weekends and I will complete them on my own. Again it is nothing to do with ego; this was the final point for me to see what I learned and what I am capable of. I did deliver project on time, on my own and the client loved it.

Lesson #4: When the problem seems big, break it down into small pieces.

Solve one at a time and celebrate your achievements, tell others about your achievements, this way your confidence will be growing with real things to back it up with.

Finally, there is so much I do not know yet, and it is amazing, because otherwise why to live if you know everything.

Lesson #5: Accept the fact that there are thing that you do not know, there are thing that you will never know and there are things that You Can Decide To Learn.

This post was originally posted at Gulnara’s blog.

I’m a really good impostor (AKA my ongoing experience with impostor syndrome)

I often was reluctant to tell people I was in engineering school, because I was expecting to be told that I didn’t belong there – and you know what, it actually happened a couple times…By Ingrid Avendaño (Hackbright Academy – fall 2013 class)

I’m not a typical engineer - the fact I went into engineering was a fluke. My odds of becoming an engineer started out very low. I don’t even remember if I was good at math or science as a child.

I didn’t grow up with any real engineering role models, I graduated from an arts high school, and when I went to college I planned on getting an art degree. Yet, somehow after a strange series of events which stemmed from a $20 bet that I couldn’t learn how to program, I enrolled in engineering school on a whim.

From day one I felt like an impostor. I had no real concept of what engineering was, aside from having heard it was hard. Up to that point in my life I’m fairly confident most people surrounding me thought I was an airhead including myself. Friends and family told me they expected me to drop out.

I often was reluctant to tell people I was in engineering school, because I was expecting to be told that I didn’t belong there – and you know what, it actually happened a couple times.

A professor told me I wasn’t cut out to be an engineer and should go back to doing art. His view was that successful engineering students start with a background showing interest in engineering at a young age. By not having a childhood where I took electronics apart or went to science camp, then by his standards I was already doomed to fail before I began.

Another professor told me that I didn’t have what it takes to be good enough to work for companies like Google, Facebook or Apple. He made me feel like I was being evaluated on a superficial perception of how closely I matched (or didn’t match) the stereotype of an engineer, rather than on my own merits and potential.

Not only did those experiences hurt, I felt more like an impostor and I wanted nothing more than to throw in the towel. But pride can work in funny ways, and at the time I had too much pride to give up when so many people were expecting me to fail.

Whether I wanted to accept it or not, I had to learn to be okay with not everyone believing in me.

So I did what any engineering student does to survive: I pulled all nighters, showed up to study groups, asked loads of questions, got involved in undergrad research, and barely took time off. Even though I studied very hard, I constantly felt behind compared to my peers. I didn’t understand many cultural references, from geeky internet memes to sci-fi shows. I felt like I lacked industry connections and engineering experience compared to my peers, so I embarked on mission to change that.

I started off with immersing myself in nerd culture, from watching movies such as Primer, to reading Neil Stevenson’s sci-fi, to browsing Hacker News. This led into more engineering focused things like spending time at hackerspaces, doing Codecademy, tinkering with 3D printers, or playing with Arduinos. To my surprise I found myself enjoying a lot of things I never thought to try before I entered engineering. The drive to learn as much as I could in my free time was to compensate for feeling like an impostor.

However I still continued to dismiss much of the work I did as trivial that others could do, and viewed as it as not substantial enough to be proud of. During my second year of engineering I took a side job helping teach a high school robotics course. It really took me by surprise how much the students looked up to me and treated me like a smart engineer that knew what she was doing. My opinion of myself was definitely far from that. I considered that experience to be one of the first times in my life I accepted the notion I might be smart. Teaching others not only reinforced my understanding of the material, but it gave me confidence in my own competence.

By the end of my third year of engineering I landed a really good internship. At the time I was convinced it was a mistake — I must be a diversity hire rather than being qualified. I had panic attacks because I was living in constant fear of being discovered as the impostor I believed I was. When I got my performance review I was stunned that other people actually were impressed with me. I still felt like a con artist filled with guilt and pleasure for how well I’d done. That was when I realized I could take other opportunities I didn’t feel qualified for. This lead into more opportunities: another internship, participating in hackathons, and technical fellowships.

In a weird twist of events I actually did end up dropping out of school, not because I failed out, but for financial reasons. Despite the setback, I did not want it to negatively define my future; I still have a hunger to succeed. This fall I decided to join Hackbright Academy, a three-month software engineering fellowship, which will be ending in a week. Very soon I will be looking for a job.

Like many with impostor syndrome, I’ve attributed my success to just a series of lucky breaks and good timing.

I worry that I might forget the skills I’ve learned over the past few years and this will result in people being disappointed with me or telling me that I’m not a real engineer. Just calling myself an engineer used to freak me out. I still find myself waiting for someone to tell me only people with a college degree can call themselves engineers. I’m terrified that when I start interviewing for software engineering roles people will reject me for being an impostor.

Feeling like an impostor is a draining experience, especially when I am both impressed and intimidated by the impostor I have created. I’m coming to terms with the fact that the impostor I feel disconnected from is really just me. In order for me to recognize my own growth it’s become essential to document it through real work.

Tracking my projects on Github has allowed me to be proud of my recent progress as I develop my programming skills. It’s hard to discredit myself when I put my projects out there for others to see, but most importantly visible for me.

While I might still believe I’m an impostor from time to time, at least I know that I am a really good, hard-working impostor.

Pictured: Ingrid Avendaño building a plasma speaker in 2011.

This blog post was originally posted at Ingrid Avendaño’s blog.

Impostor Syndrome and Saying Yes

I was dealing with a good case of impostor syndrome, the mindset where you feel like an impostor or fraud because you think your accomplishments aren’t nearly as good as those around you (which is usually NOT the case). That thing where you get the job or promotion, then immediately feel like you’ve just fooled everyone. But then at the end of the week, this happened:By Kathryn King, Hackbright engineering fellow (Spring 2013)

When I was a student at Hackbright Academy earlier this year, I was at a party with my boyfriend.

Several people asked what it was I did, and I stumbled all over myself to answer accurately and honestly: “I’m… attending a 10-week training program for women who want to be software engineers” was the thing I came up with the most. Most people kind of nodded, some asked a few questions, a few thought it was awesome.

When we left the party, Graham said, “You should be introducing yourself as a developer!”

A really fun debate ensued. I felt like I wasn’t knowledgeable or experienced enough to call myself a developer or software engineer. As a student in training feels similar to some freshman architecture student calling himself an architect. It felt dishonest, and (perhaps the bigger block for me) I dreaded the ‘so where do you work?!’ or ‘what do you develop?’ questions that could follow.

Would I then have to backtrack, revealing myself as a phony?

I discussed this with many of the women at Hackbright Academy, and everyone was split on the issue. I knew deep down that Graham was right, and that I was dealing with a good case of impostor syndrome, the mindset where you feel like an impostor or fraud because you think your accomplishments aren’t nearly as good as those around you (which is usually NOT the case). That thing where you get the job or promotion, then immediately feel like you’ve just fooled everyone.

But then at the end of the week, this happened:

So, there it was. A business card reading “Kathryn King: Software Engineer”.

Graham was right, I was wrong (wow, in print even!).

The next day, I met up with Graham at his office for a happy hour and met a lot of his co-workers. One man came in and introduced himself to me and, of course, asked what I do.

I swallowed and said, “I’m a software engineer!”

It’s so funny how four words can be so hard to say. I mean, really, what’s the worst thing that could have happened? He digs into what I’m doing and says “THAT DOESN’T COUNT!” and I feel silly? Come on, Kat.

He asked what I was developing, and I explained Hackbright to him.

And then, he said…

“That’s great! I have a script I need written to help me draw winners for our season tickets to the Warriors playoffs. What’s your rate?”

To say I was stunned really downplays it. I held myself together, saying I would have to think about it. He handed me his business card and asked me to email him once I had an estimate. I shook his hand and thanked him, then looked at his business card:

CEO of the company.

And this past weekend? I deployed my first app. Monday, I got paid. He’s happy with the product, and thinks it could be a business.

This post isn’t meant to be self-important or egotistical. The whole experience of getting my first paid development job was mostly varying degrees of terrifying. When I told him I would do it, we still hadn’t begun to learn web frameworks (those beautiful tools that actually connect your code to the internet).

I said “yes” even though I didn’t know with complete certainty that I would be able to handle the task, or that I would be able to build and deploy an app on the side while learning at a breakneck speed 40+ hours a week. I only knew that I work hard, learn fast, and had spent the last month learning more information more quickly than I had thought possible.

And the thing is? I think that everyone must, to some extent, feel like an impostor at times. Even when we have mastered one thing, we dive into the challenge beyond it and are no longer certain of our abilities.

I’m quickly learning that the only way to overcome that fear is to dive in, head-first. Say yes to the job that you aren’t 100% sure you can rock, and decide to rock it.

Introduce yourself as who you want to believe yourself to be. Talk to other people who impress you and hear their stories of dealing with the same thing.

Decide to be who you actually are.

This post originally appeared at Kathryn King’s blog.