I feel like a fraud — and that’s a good thing.

Yesterday I announced that I am starting a new role at Microsoft and the feedback was nothing short of overwhelming. Messages on all kind of platforms came in and my phone didn’t stop vibrating all day. It was tough to keep up with the messages and the congratulations. And here is the best part: there was not a single negative comment.

Here’s kind of how I felt:

Moving from the seminal open source company of the web to its former arch enemy, I’d thought would bring out some hard-liners. But it didn’t. Instead, I got encouraging messages and a few that were downright amazing. Messages wondering what’s wrong with Mozilla that I left. Others saying people trust Microsoft a lot more that I am there and expecting great things to come soon. These left me humbled and also stunned.

Because, and here is the thing: many a time I feel like a fraud.

I am good at some things. I can wrap my head around almost any technical issue with not much effort. I have a knack of finding the obvious flaw and offer a solution. I can switch environments and languages with a certain ease. I made some good predictions in the past and I can be pragmatic about hot topics. I have an OK track record as a developer and I worked on a lot of exciting things. I can present, I know how to turn a phrase.

But these days, I feel often like I am steamrolled by a massive avalanche of cool new stuff and information I should know. Things I find myself incapable of digging into and understanding. I read my feeds, I look at hacker news and other outlets and I find things that look super clever. And I get a weird flurry in my stomach making me wonder if I am losing touch.
Messages like this:

Quickstart
npm install -g sails sane-cli
sane new project —docker creates project with sails-disk and Docker. For production databases see Options.
sane generate resource user name:string age:number to generate a new API on the backend and models on the frontend
sane up to start the sails server on localhost:1337 as well as the ember dev server on localhost:4200.
To work on your frontend-app you work as you would normally do with ember-cli on localhost:4200.
You are now good to go.

That is the Quick Start of a “Sane Stack” — a simple and sane way to start “production ready web-apps”. And here I was thinking it was about HTML, CSS and JavaScript as the stack.

We need people, here’s a set of insane requirements

Looking for a new job scared me. Yes, me, the guy you pay to see on stage and read right now. Scared. What you see in public about tech companies is impressive. Everyone seems to apply the newest, coolest thing. They only hire the most aggressive, competitive and amazing people. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. We got innovation to make, move fast and break things and all that.

I felt old, I felt my knowledge is stale and I felt like a fraud seeing how many people tell me they look up to me. I’ve met so many people lately who were shy talking to me and impressed me with their in-depth understanding of things I keep filing “to learn later” for myself. I’ve had people explain amazing features of JavaScript patterns I discovered to me and I had no clue that this is what that thing can do.

And here’s the thing: this is good!

Feeling like a fraud keeps you humble, it keeps you sane, it keeps you on your toes.

The only thing that is important is this: you need to own this and not let it control you. People deal in different ways with the feeling of not being good enough. Each of them flawed.

  • Overcompensation — if you come across as aggressive and self-assured enough people don’t ask you questions. A “fake it till you make it” approach that works to a degree. Research in faking successful body language until your brain believes you shows that it can. But, when all is said and done and you are back in your own room, you know this isn’t you. You should work on getting there, not leap-frogging there.
  • Aggression — if you critisise something you don’t understand and you manage to find a pain point you can come across as both knowledgeable and “above it”. Damn, you must be cool, you saw through that scam and showed that know-it-all what’s what. This can work for a while, but it leaves everyone on their toes and fighting. A match nobody can win as you start concentrating on disarming one another rather than gaining ground. Aggression comes in many forms. From outright “this is bullshit” to the more arrogant “surely, using $x should be a given these days, it is unprofessional to think differently”
  • Internalisation — don’t believe that voice that keeps telling you that others are better than you all the time. What you do is compare your secret blooper reel with the post-production highlight reel of other people. You know more about yourself than anyone else. That’s why you see the flaws. These are part of you. Work on them, own them. Don’t let the success of others be a reason for you to feel you can never get to that level. Celebrate your little successes, fight your own little battles. Repeatedly telling people they are not good enough is what manipulators do. People who want to take advantage of others. Keep them feeling unhappy about themselves and powerless and you can control them and do your bidding. Don’t be a self-manipulator in that regard. You try, you fail, you learn from failure. Don’t make it personal. We all go through this cycle over and over again.
  • Lethargy — “well, that’s just too much for me, so I’m giving up”. Think about what’s happening here. The amount of published articles, talks, code examples, screencasts and software solutions is too much for anyone to take in. That doesn’t mean you need to throw in the towel. It just means you need to pick your favourites and see how much they help you. Find curators you trust, read the things they like. Things that fail to excite you in the first round may be just that — useful for someone else but not for you. No need to give up on it all. Your voice matters as much as others. Speak up if you’re confused or worried.

A way to cope

So what should we do with the feeling of being a fraud? What if I really am a fraud? Well, the best way I found to deal with this is analyse the reasons why something might be above my head. Sometimes this is my way of thinking. I am a pragmatic person. I don’t get excited about academic thought exercises. I don’t condemn them, I just know that I am not good at them. So I leave them for others to go through.

Amateur advertising

Having worked as a journalist I also recognise advertising when I see it. And hacker news is advertising. Now, before you fly off your handle and point out the obvious that there are no ads on this site hear me out:

Techies are a hot property now. There are not enough of us to fill the demand of the market. This puts us in the spotlight. That’s where the bullshit “Ninja, Rockstar, Maven” and so on comes from.

When a market is massively successful, the media applies the rockstar principles: you show massive successes, of young able-bodied, successful people. Or you show when they do horrible things because they are rockstars. Or because they are past their prime. You polarise. This gets the most replies, catches people’s eyes and sells your magazine or brings in clicks.

You never saw Ozzy Osbourne filling his tax forms in the newspaper. You only saw him biting off the head of a bat, rocking the stage or being incomprehensibly drunk.

The same coverage happens in the tech sector. It is either:

  • the young college drop-out making millions with an app written overnight
  • techies doing horrible anti-social things because they are techies
  • a previously hyped company failing to deliver in the long run

The mainstream media is even worse. It is all about:

  • some tech company challenging the normal way of life (think gentrification)
  • evil genius techies that can hack you by looking at you
  • tech people being amazing rockstars and all your kid should aspire to become

And we start believing this and internalised this artificial competitiveness. And we revel in it. That’s why our solutions come with clever names and a logo. That’s why there is a lack of documentation about what the thing does but no lack of buzzwords in the description. That’s why everything released is much better than the other one instead of just being something. That’s why we don’t fork and fix something we don’t like in an existing solution. Instead we write our own to show the others how to do it the right way.

And that’s advertising. And we don’t even do it for money. We do it for likes. We do it for GitHub stars and we do it for hacker news and reddit upvotes. That’s dumb.

That’s a lot of energy spent trying to impress one another instead of trying to work together on tools that make it better for all. So we can make a living and get the respect of people who don’t understand what we do by solving their problems for them.

In German, there is a distinction: “Werbung” could mean advertising, but also trying to get someone on your side. When you ask someone to marry you, it is “Werbung”. “Reklame” means pure advertising. You show off what’s great about a product. It is without emotion, and with a clear intent of selling the thing. And it is distracting the consumers from their problems and stops them trying to find own answers. The Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann wrote a great poem about this in 1956.

We should do more Werbung and less Reklame. If we release things, they should help other developers, not lock them in to our “opinionated” solution. All we get with this highly competitive way of working and breakneck speed of releases are short-lived victories. Maybe you can make a name for yourself by doing that. But, you could do the same by lending a helping hand and fixing things in existing solutions. This takes more time and effort and you need to deal with people who don’t want help and see your approach as an attack. That’s a different problem to analyse in detail, but nothing that should discourage you.

That’s how I realise that when I feel like a fraud, I just needle myself on to do better.

To jump over my shadow and try out something new I don’t grasp. To challenge my own “best practices” and see if they still apply. Or if I should replace them. To congratulate someone else for making me understand something and find a better way than I did. To get better.

And that can work for you, too. Remember how much around us is phony and realise that there is no way you can reach that. Photoshopped billboards of beautiful people. The news that someone else is making more money than you. The requirements on a job offer after the an over-excited HR writer added all the new things the kids like these days.

It is all fake, it is all Reklame. You can’t compete with that. But you are invited to call it bullshit. And you can work on being better tomorrow than you are today. The most rewarding changes are the ones that make others around you happier. So let’s do some of that.