It’s time to conquer imposter syndrome

I checked my phone. It was 9:30 in the morning.

I walked into the office of my internship, grabbed a plate of fruit and a hot latte, and plopped into my chair. It was Friday — and I was ready. Thursday had been less than ideal, with the lack of sleep from the week catching up to me, but no, Friday would be different. I logged on, ran the server, and-

Great. An error at 9:30 in the morning.

I sighed and then proceeded to stab an orange slice with my fork. Peering around me, I noticed that neither of my team members were in yet. My eyebrows furrowed. Brian was sitting diagonal to me, but I felt timid. Brian was an extremely knowledgeable engineer, and I didn’t want him to, oh I don’t know, realize that I was simply a lost intern.

A fight broke out in my mind. The Gryffindor part of me roared, accusing me of being a coward. Come on girl, be bold and take the initiative! The Ravenclaw part of me calmly noted that questions are a sign of intellectual curiosity, so I shouldn’t be ashamed. (Note that my dark Ravenclaw side also chastised me for not already knowing the answer.) And the Hufflepuff side of me squeaked in fear and insecurity, reminding me that yes, it is true, I am an imposter.

I sighed. This was getting difficult. After a few minutes, I decided to shut off my brain and just go with my gut — time to let Gryffindor win. Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff started to complain, but I told them to shush. Heck, it was Friday, and I would go for it.

“Hey Brian!” I treaded cautiously. (I tried to stamp the shyness out of my voice, but it seems that I wasn’t quite successful.)

“Hey, what’s up?” He responded kindly.

I swallowed. “Do you know anything about feature switches? I’m on the admin features page, but for some reason the one I’m looking for isn’t showing up.”

He thought for a moment. “Do you know the name of the feature switch?”

“Um….” Drat. I had absolutely no idea, and a pool of dread filled my gut. The other engineers on my team would know, but they weren’t in yet. I tried to stall. “I know it has something to do with certificate settings? Not quite sure…”

Brian patiently gave me a few places to check, and then said, “Why don’t you try asking Max? He has more experience with that.”

Oh, fantastic. Now I had to ask yet another engineer for help and show that I was utterly incompetent. I smiled innocently and hoped he couldn’t tell that I was secretly terrified. “Great idea, thanks!”

I turned around, took a deep breath, and called out, “Hey Max! Are you busy right now? I have a quick question.”

Max immediately stood up and walked over. He patiently listened to my problems and helped me trace through the code. Instead of simply giving me the answer, however, he asked me questions. “So, you tell me. What assumptions are we making right now? How can we test those assumptions?”

I responded timidly and hesitantly, with a dozen “um”s and “uh”s injected into my replies, but after a good ten minutes, we eventually found the root of the problem. In the process, I learned how to access the feature switches using the rails console. I learned how to enable a feature switch in the database seeder. And most importantly, I learned that it is okay to not know everything.

After thanking Max profusely, I turned back to my work and started typing eagerly. I ran into a few more errors, but Max had taught me how to think the right questions, and after playing detective, I confidently and successfully fixed the bugs.

My heart soared. To continue with the Harry Potter references, it felt like I had just taken a bottle of Felix Felicis. Nothing could go wrong, and everything would go right. Adrenaline pulsed through every part of my body, and my mind was 110% focused on the problem at hand. In that moment, I felt freaking badass. In that moment, I became invincible.

The thought of facing a new software engineering problem has always caused me to freeze in fear. People usually think I’m being ridiculous. It doesn’t matter that I do well in my CS classes, it doesn’t matter that I enjoy solving problems, and heck, it doesn’t even matter that I love to code — all these factors have always been overshadowed by the one simple (and dumb) fear that I am an imposter.

And you know what? It sucks. It sucks so much. I pride myself in being a strong and independent woman, but those aspects of my identity disappear into thin air when imposter syndrome grabs me by the gut and paralyzes me. At least once a week, I have doubted my ability to be an engineer. It’s sad, but it’s true.

But let me tell you, my Friday would have turned out so differently if I hadn’t taken the initiative to ask Brian that one question. I would have sat there, frustrated, until the other engineers on my team arrived. And I would have felt dumb then, for having sat so long without figuring anything out.

Don’t get me wrong, I was terrified to show that I was vulnerable. I half-jokingly (and thus half-seriously) thought that they would kick me out after realizing that I’m not a true programmer. But at the end of the day, I am so incredibly glad, and proud of myself, for taking that leap of faith.

I cannot be invincible all the time. Sooner or later, the Felix Felicis will wear off, and the fear of being an imposter will strike again. I won a battle today, but the war is far from being over. I know that I will be terrified to ask the next question, and the next, and the next. But knowing that I have the ability to occasionally be invincible, even if it doesn’t happen often, is good enough.