The imposter in the room...
4 min read
I still remember back in 2006 when I joined my first job in the tech industry after achieving my University degree. I was only the second C# developer at the company, lacking experience other than dabbling a few times in and out of modules. The other developer was our now Chief Technical Officer. He had single-handedly architected a C# system already in use at Universities across the UK. On top of that, he was the sys ops engineer at the time, provisioning and looking after hardware for hosting, amongst other things.
The feeling of pressure was real, not only to do a good job in the eyes of our CEO's who were in the same room at this point but also to my new role model and mentor. There were many times when I would pester him for help, at least that's how it felt. He'd often reply with a clear concise answer mentioning a term or idea I wasn't fully familiar with. Feeling the pressure and anxiety I'd nod, smile and agree as I was too afraid to ask for clarification. "He'll think I'm stupid, not good enough... I'll lose my job". The next 10 minutes would be spent researching the advice he'd given before it left my mind and then trying to implement it.
At some point in our careers, I think we've probably all felt something similar. It could be when joining a new position, or when a new peer joins the team doing a similar role. Maybe you've had a pull request rejected, or an idea shot down by a peer. The anxiety might kick in, feeling you don't belong or that you're not good enough to do your job. You'll be found out, and dragged into a 121 or worse. You'll be an imposter.
One of our developers was brave enough to bring up this subject during one of our weekly "tech time" development team meetings; an open forum to discuss tech ideas, team processes or show and tell around something you're proud of. He'd only been with us for maybe 6 months, and although we hadn't worked closely together it came as a bit of a shock. It was a brilliant place to bring it up though, as so many of our peers shared stories of the same feelings in the past when it happened to him and offered reassurance that it was normal to feel that way occasionally. As a team, I feel we've since been more focused on praising and giving a healthy dose of good feedback to peers where possible, such as on code reviews and in team meetings.
On several other occasions since then, I've had members of our development team mention that they get the impression I have everything figured out the same way I believed our CTO had when I first started my career. That was a little surprising to me, as from time to time I still get moments of self-doubt. I'm human, I sometimes make mistakes that make me question if I'm good enough. We've also had new, brilliant highly skilled people join our team doing a similar part of my role which has caused me to make a comparison between myself and them, often leading to similar feelings of self-doubt.
I think what's changed for me is how I try to approach this now. You made a mistake, this is the perfect time to reflect and analyse the root cause. Once you have the root cause, make a plan to avoid it happening again and learn. This might be a team activity or something you do yourself. Mistakes are excellent opportunities to develop and grow, don't waste them. Something generally caused that mistake such as a process that's not quite right that can be adjusted.
The second thing is embracing the opportunity to learn from others. Don't be afraid to ask questions or learn from your peer's wins. An example of this is we've recently had some brilliant agile coaches come to join us. It was amazing to arrange a chat and explain our current process, seek advice from a once outside perspective and develop tangible improvements. These meetings are a regular part of the process where we share the good and the bad helping us all improve.
So next time you suffer from feeling like an imposter, remember some of the peers you're working with have probably felt that way before. They may even be feeling it right now and their reaction to something you suggested is part of a way to defend themselves. Try to focus on learning from your mistakes and soak up the knowledge of your peers, they're both great opportunities to develop. Don't be afraid to ask questions for clarity and don't be afraid to ask for feedback from your peers or line manager. One of our colleagues recently sought feedback from several members of the team as part of their onboarding. This helped completely change their perspective on their progress in a positive way.
For me, as aforementioned, I still get moments of self-doubt from time to time... especially when speaking to our brilliant CTO. The difference is now I'm not afraid to ask questions however stupid I think they might be. Over a decade later and we still work closely together, looking after a team of brilliant, bright, dedicated peers.