I’m An Impostor, Aren’t I?

When I was watching “Suits”, sometimes my heart rate had been increasing for some moments. The reason was the drama about one of the characters — Mike Ross, young promising lawyer with no diploma. While working in top tier firm, he has to hide the fact he didn’t graduate from Harvard as every lawyer in the company did. Significant time of the show is dedicated to him and his crew trying to hide the fact he is a fraud.

Image courtesy of UKTV

Technically I’m not a fraud, and I’m not similar to Mike at all (he can memoize anything, and I can forget anything even faster). But I understand what is it like — being afraid of professional disclosure.

Here is me-centered part of the post: friend of mine named me a duck once during the work-related jibber-jabber. The metaphor is simple: a duck can swim, fly or walk, but any of these movements are really far from perfect. So do I with my professional skills:

  • I can craft just another web application or a CLI tool (and — surprise-surprise — it will work acceptable enough), but most of my coding fellas will do it more effectively (and probably they will spend less time at StackOverflow). I’m not afraid of my code review anymore, but I still remember this fear of being ridiculed for this or that kludge.
  • I’m fond of data crunching; although my passion can not fight my lack of basic knowledge. OK, I can stack ensembles to fit the data, and reproduce a few basic algorithms like Naive Bayes, CART or Bagging without googling if some evil reptilians will suddenly erase all copies of my favorite libs. Obviously that’s not more than tenacious hobbyist level. A monkey stacking XGBoost might be more powerful than old school Excel-only equipped analyst, although it’s still a monkey.
  • I know online advertising deep enough, and still sure that several readers of this article would make fun of this knowledge (“LOL this poor boy thinks he understand how RTB auctions work”)
  • I was not the worst product manager, but no doubts I was an one-eyed person in the mixed crowd including absolutely blind guys as well.
  • I can manage a small team, but I recommend all my bosses (past, current and future) to avoid this option if possible. There are that many guys with managerial talent and charisma around, so why would allow me make team lives worse?

The list above may be suitable for some companies. If I were an optimist, I’d say it’s a good basement for T-shaped knowledge way. However I’ve been always feeling something like “Today they will understand I’m full of shit and I’ll be ashamed. Ashamed and fired. And then release a public message about my incompetence.” — in other words feeling like a fraud. The main difference between me and Mike Ross here is legal: a person must have a special license to be a lawyer in NYC, which is not required if you’re just another white collar in software development industry.

A month ago I met a gentleman at the conference. We were listening to kind of complicated speech, and I was whining a little: it was too harsh for my mind.

“I feel like an impostor!”, I said.
“It’s OK”, he replied. “So do I during my whole career.”

The man was leading natural language processing group in an enormous worldwide corporation. 20+ years of software engineering experience and a brilliant education are not enough for his mind to check a box “I’m good enough to do my regular job”.

Since that moment I initiated similar discussions with some mature professionals from different countries and companies. The talk above was not an outlier — it was a representative sample.

That’s how I’ve recently faced a Wikipedia article about Impostor syndrome — something opposite to popularized Danning-Kruger effect. If you still reading this post and haven’t found it boring yet, follow the link — most likely you will recognize yourself or someone near you to be a pseudo impostor.

Conclusion and action items are up to you. But personally I’d like you to call for learning and joying, mastering and facing challenges, falling down and standing up with full ignorance to any thoughts about being an impostor because probably you are not. Why would true impostors gnaw themselves with such reflection sessions?..