Why Do Software Developers Suffer From Imposter Syndrome ?

Recently, I gave a rather impulsive flash talk about “Imposter Syndrome” at an Android conference.

UPDATE: You can watch the video here, if you’re OK with a bit of stammering and rambling thoughts :)

I was initially skeptical whether the audience would connect with the topic and if not, whether I would be able to send across the message in the short 5 minute talk.

It was very surprising and reassuring to see the number of hands in the air when I asked how many had already heard about it.

What was even more surprising was after I finished my talk and the session opened up for networking dinner, a bunch of people came to thank me for bringing up the topic, some of them opened up to me one-one about the hardship they faced and many others gave me feedback about what more I could include in the talk.

Some even went on to say this should be taken up as a keynote. Interestingly, I got to know about the terminology (even though I was feeling it often times without knowing what it is) after watching Jacob Kaplan-Moss’ keynote speech at Pycon 2015.

There are others too who had wrote about this. For instance Dan Kim wrote this wonderful article called “I’m a boring programmer” which brings up interesting points related to this.

I still feel there is a need for more conversation around this topic and awareness brought amongst the developer community.

Hari Vignesh Jayapalan, who was a speaker at the conference, gave a feedback to me saying I should publish an article on Medium about this.

So, instead of writing up an entirely new article, I’m going to share a cleaned up (removing the stuttering and shivering) transcript version of my talk.

“My name is Rajeef
I’m not a Kick-ass or Ninja developer.
I’m a mediocre Android Developer.

This flash talk is based on
Jacob Kaplan’s keynote at PyCon 2015

In this extremely short talk, I thought
I would talk to you all about Imposter Syndrome.”

Q. How many of you have heard about it before ?

Let me throw in some situations to help you relate.

  • You’re at a new job and is asked to write a totally new feature.
    You start believing that you should be writing code which will make Jake Wharton proud and then beat yourself up when you fail to do that.
  • You’re reading a code written by someone else— you suddenly see sync adapter / content provider / Dagger and your brain just switches off with fear because you’re unable to understand any of it.
  • You’re checking stack overflow for getting “inspired” (nope, not to copy-paste code. Just inspiration) and your CTO/Team lead walks by and you suddenly switch tabs to developer documentation to look like making intelligent inferences.
  • The latest Google I/O just got over or you just came back after attending a tech meetup. Lots of discussion happened about tonnes of new shiny tools. You wanted to try them all out. But you don’t have the time or bandwidth. Which makes you think you’re getting incompetent in your career.

Q. What’s common between all of these ?

The answer is that tiny voice that starts talking inside your head in these situations, telling things like -

  • “I don’t deserve/belong to be here”
  • “I just got lucky and people are going to find out soon !”

Q. Why is this an Issue ?

While there are many issues related to this, let me list out a few

  • Many people who are interested to enter the software industry have had to either quit after starting or has never even started because of the high barrier created by this.
  • It creates unnecessary stress and your productivity goes down. Instead of spending time on what really matters (which is writing clean, maintainable code), you tend to worry about skill perceptions and other things which doesn’t add value — either to you or your organization!
  • This industry is one of the many unique ones where while you’re in the middle of learning/implementing a new piece of tech, it could potentially get outdated, requiring you to start from scratch again resulting in a sense of despair, if not handled properly.

When speaking one-one, many developers admitted they experience this at various levels (Even senior devs).
But nobody admits this openly and comes out to talk about it. Everybody wears this mask of perfection and calm.

Q. I see your point. How do we solve this now ?

While I don’t have a silver bullet to solve this problem in one shot or a magic wand to wave and make this disappear, we as a community could start taking baby steps to help the next (and current) generation of developers.

Here are a few ways:

  • Minimize the bar of entry. How ? When creating a job description, try avoiding keywords like Ninja or Rockstar developer. HasJob (The job board created by HasGeek team does a wonderful job to prevent this from happening).
  • Those who are fairly senior in their career, look around for that new member in team whom you just gave your unorganized code. Talk to them about how it’s OK to feel overwhelmed and let them know you’re there to support.

“Tell them if Gradle builds take forever to get done, it’s alright. Come let’s go have a coffee and get back to it :)”

  • Provide a psychological safety net in your team for making mistakes, learning from them and to take feedback in a healthy manner.
  • Tell them It’s Ok. Dependency Injection ? — its a beast. We can tackle it together.

To Conclude

The point I’m trying to make is — Its OK to embrace where you’re right now in your career as a developer and keep growing.

The point I’m trying to make is— It’s OK to not know about every latest shiny tool that just came out as long as you have a willing mindset to pick it up as and when needed.

Donn Felker said something profound about this

This talk in no way means that I’ve come out of this completely, even though I’ve been part of the developer community for quite a long time now.
Eg: Everytime I see a Call For Proposal for a talk, I back out thinking, what I might have to say might be something which everyone already knows.
One way I get out of it is just like this — Giving flash talks :)

The point is — its OK to feel mediocre as long as you’re learning, growing and contributing back to the community.

I’m also thankful to Wm Leler who came up on the stage after my talk to reassure the audience that this happens to the best and the most experienced amongst us, including him!

Do you relate to this article and the different situations shared in here ? Please feel free to add your own experience below in the comments.

Android Dev | Volunteer | PotterHead | Remote work | Declutterism

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