Why women should always do what we think we are not good at

Maï Akiyoshï
8 min readSep 25, 2021

Women are less confident than men in our early years, which has been proven by research. This may not apply to all women, of course, but it strongly applies to me. I had many early struggles because of lack of confidence, and still do.

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackzenger/2018/04/08/the-confidence-gap-in-men-and-women-why-it-matters-and-how-to-overcome-it/?sh=64b4d3053bfa

I would like to share my personal story of how I quit being a software engineer due to lack of confidence and came back to it after long years and how this whole experience helped building my confidence.

I began my early career out of college as a software engineer in Japan. Starting wasn’t easy, as I didn’t have a computer science degree. How did I end up as a software engineer? I joined a company planning to be on the sales team, but entirely unexpectedly, the company made all 300 new grads undergo programming training, as the majority of new hires were to be programmers. Very bizarre concept, but that’s how I first got into programming.

Turned out, I was the worst — literally. They had a brutal system where they gave us small tests during the training period and all our scores were publicly revealed to everyone and I was ranked the second to last out of 300 new grads for the Java section. When I moved on to the next section, Delphi, it was a lot better, because Delphi is highly visual and I am a visual learner, which made it a lot easier to understand. Thus, I was able to recover somewhat and ranked in the middle of the cohort by the end of the training. But still, my complete failure with Java was enough to make me feel like I was the worst at programming.

Although I did terribly, I liked programming. It was a great feeling to be able to build stuff and I liked the idea of being a cool programmer. Because of that, I applied for the position in the company that looked the most advanced (the department was literally called “Advanced Technology Engineering”), and somehow I got in (turns out one of the managers thought it was interesting that I applied because the department had never had a female team member before).

So I got in, but obviously, it was a thorny path. 3 other new grads who joined the team at the same time as me all had PhDs in Computer Science, and all the existing department members were highly advanced male CS majors as well. When I first stepped in to the department floor, I saw a huge female idol anime poster on the wall, which was very awkward. They were talking in a language that didn’t feel like the language I knew, and I felt like I had just landed on an alien planet.

The first year was especially tough, as my mentor was a huge fan of functional programming, and he tried to teach me how to write JavaScript in a functional programming way. Not only did I not know anything about functional programming, but I didn’t even know anything about JavaScript (because all I learned was Java and Delphi, and I knew nothing about web development). I tried to read books about functional programming, went to Haskell meet ups as my mentor suggested, but that only made me more confused. My first year at work went like this: I would push something and Jenkins, our CD pipeline, would get super angry at me, and then my boss would get angry at me. All the while, I had no idea what I had done wrong, so everything felt immensely overwhelming.

During my last 2 years at the company, I got more into the network/AWS/infra side of things, which made a bit more sense to me, and so I enjoyed writing automation scripts, designing AWS architecture, learning about Docker and so on. That was fun, but still the feeling that I would never be able to do application programming remained, and that was enough reason for me to decide to leave the field of software engineering entirely and begin my career from scratch at a new company.

Luckily, there was a crazy startup that hired me for a biz dev/marketing/do-anything-you-can-do position with a decent salary. I jumped aboard immediately, and learned a lot of important things that being at an early startup really emphasizes — being proactive, being on top of many different things, managing people, and trying bunch of new things.

My work at this startup moved me to the US, the country of dreams. I got an E2 Visa as VP of Marketing of the startup and relocated to San Francisco. Unsurprisingly, it felt like everyone I met in that city was a programmer. I felt like I might want to try my hand at programming again but didn’t have courage to start over once more due to my lack of confidence. But one day, my partner told me something: “If you aren’t confident about it, that’s exactly why you should absolutely do it. Doing something that you lack confidence in is exactly what will help you gain confidence.” I thought about that. Finally, I thought it might be worth a shot. Why not? I have nothing to lose.

I started from scratch all over again. This time, I learned by going through the curriculum of App Academy (one tip, if you join the cohort in person, you will need to pay $30K, but if you just go through online curriculum by yourself, which is what I did, it’s completely free!). I loved it. I loved it so much because I could really understand, for the first time ever, what I was doing because everything was step by step and covered all the basics. It is designed so well that you can just follow the curriculum and complete all the projects and you‘ll end up really understanding concepts.

What I realized over the course of learning this time around is that I didn’t understand programming 7 years ago not because I was dumb and not suited for programming, but because I didn’t have the right resources and didn’t start from the basics. That realization was incredibly helpful for me because I can now apply that same method of learning to any other field, and have more confidence that even if I don’t get something right away, it doesn’t mean that I’m not good at it or that I won’t ever enjoy it. When I first started learning about crypto, it didn’t make any sense and everything sounded hard. But once I found the resources made sense to me, it all started coming together (and now I am starting a crypto startup with my partner :)). Now, I firmly believe there is nothing you can’t learn — all you need to do is find the right path to learn with, which is different for everyone.

With that newfound confidence, a lot of personal project building, working at a friend’s company, and a bunch of Leetcode practice, I got a job at Gusto, a billion dollar startup in San Francisco with a salary I couldn’t even imagine when I was in Japan. Still, when I joined Gusto, my impostor syndrome was at an all-time high and I was so afraid that I would be fired as soon as I got hired. There were a millions reason I gave myself for why I was not suited for the job: I don’t speak perfect English, I don’t have CS degree, and my path is so different from all the other engineers.

But luckily that didn’t happen.

Gusto was such a great company because there was so much diversity. My first manager was female, and was doing incredibly well at the company despite raising two kids at the same time. My second manager was a fellow immigrant, and two of the engineers that I respected the most on my team were also immigrants. My onboarding buddy had also not come from traditional path, and had first joined the company as a designer and became an engineer afterwards — a role in which he was now thriving. That sense of belonging and feeling like I was not the only one coming from a different background really made me much more comfortable and helped me immensely in overcoming my self doubt and negative emotions surrounding programming that I had acquired from my first programming job.

Still, I had a strong sense of imposter syndrome. I was constantly afraid that people were going to find out that I was not actually useful. As a result, I worked twice hard as other people, working long hours during both the weekday and on weekends, turned off my slack status after 5 so that people won’t know I am spending so much time to finish my work. This worked, and I outperformed in my team, and started leading the team of 5 engineers as a tech lead. After exactly one year, I was promoted from an L3 engineer to a senior L4 engineer, and was evaluated as being in the top 5% of engineers in the company.

That experience created a lot of newfound confidence in myself. Achieving something that I never felt like I could do was exactly what I needed. I believe it’s exactly what many other women could benefit from as well. We don’t try things because we lack the confidence to do so. We don’t raise our hands to take harder challenges because we don’t think we can. Trust me, you definitely can. You can definitely do so much more than you think you can if you are just brave enough to take that first leap of faith.

I really want women, especially the younger generation of women out there who still haven’t found their way to confidence yet, to try to do things that they don’t believe they can do. Sure, there are people who are more experienced than you and smarter than you, but that really doesn’t matter — you don’t have to be the smartest or the most experienced person in the room to do great things. What matters is how much you grew from where you were before and how far you’ve come. That’s all. Compare yourself with your past self, and not anyone else. Once you believe in yourself and try something, even if you fail, you’ll learn something, and you’ll feel your growth. That’s what’s most important. Keep that up, and before you know it, you’ll have gone so much farther than you ever imagined possible.

I still have low self-esteem and I still have a lot to work on, but I feel my confidence is growing constantly by the day as I try new things, fail at them, and continue to move forward.

I hope sharing my story will help more women see this perspective and try new things, difficult things, impossible things — and achieve amazing things in doing so.

If you ever feel discouraged, talk to me! I will be your cheerleader until you become your own.

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Maï Akiyoshï

CEO/co-founder of HeyMint (https://heymint.xyz), empowering NFT creators by building a tool to allow them to build NFT collections without any coding skills.