I Am An Impostor

“Impostor Syndrome” is a big buzzword (buzzphrase?) in the developer world. It’s the idea that someone feels they are not qualified for the work they do or do not belong in a development job. For me, it’s more than just the work — yes, I do sometimes feel like I shouldn’t call myself a software developer. But more than that, I also feel like I’m not part of the “software development world,” that magical brotherhood (…which yes, does now allow women, and isn’t exclusively a brotherhood anymore so much as a personhood) of people who play board games, have exciting conversations about their favorite frameworks on twitter, and just generally do what developers do.

Sometimes I feel like I’m wearing a “developer” mask to hide who I really am

Everyone’s impostor syndrome manifests differently. Here are some of the things that make me feel like an impostor:

Things have actually started to change for me at work over the past week or two. After being at this job for about 9 months and after spending most of that time working on straight JavaScript for automated testing, I’m finally starting to do some front-end/React work, which is what I was looking for when I started this job. But when I was exclusively focused on automated testing, I felt like such an impostor because I wasn’t doing feature development, which is what I saw as “real” development. I know that perspective is a little ridiculous, and as long as I’m developing something, I’m a developer, but coming in looking for a job where I could see the impact of my work, not seeing my work anywhere in the product we ship to consumers made me feel “less than” or like I wasn’t really doing development.

And then there’s everything but JavaScript. I like to think that I understand computers because my brain works the way Windows works. That may or may not true. But I do know that I don’t understand hardware specs. I don’t understand how desktop software works under the hood. I don’t understand what makes a good or bad computer/phone/tablet/whatever (I do know that I dislike Apple products, but that may be the “brain working the way Windows works” thing). When people at work talk about anything other than JavaScript, I feel like such an impostor.

Of course, my lack of computer knowledge isn’t the only thing that makes me different from the developers around me. There’s a perception in the “outside world” that developers are all young white guys with glasses who play video games all day. I know that’s not true. But I also know that I don’t feel like I fit in with the culture at my company. We have board game nights … and the only board game I like is Trivial Pursuit (no offense to other board games, but it is the best board game out there). My teammates often go on matcha runs … and I don’t drink matcha (not that I’ve been invited on most of the matcha runs, but I know that if I wanted matcha, I’d be more than welcome to join). I’m a big sports fan, and I figured that one advantage of working in a male-dominated field is that there would always be people around interested in talking sports (it happened in my coding bootcamp), but the only sporting event that has been a big deal in the office was the World Cup, and that’s not my jam. All of this (along with the free food that I can’t eat) has combined to make me feel like I really don’t fit in.

Okay, so maybe I don’t fit in with the other developers as a whole, but here’s the thing … the developer community seems to be just that — a world-wide community. There are meetups. Developer discussions and friendships formed through twitter. These are all things that I wanted to get involved in when I first graduated from my coding bootcamp … but I never did. I used to go to meetups, but stopped when I got busy shortly after starting my job, and haven’t really restarted. I have a twitter account (follow me at @sarahscode), but I really don’t tweet very often or get involved in discussions. I know that personal interaction is not one of my strong suits, but I still feel like an impostor for not really getting involved in the community of developers.

Speaking of the developer community … we’re all excited that it’s Hacktober, right? Who’s doing Hacktoberfest? Oh wait … not me. I have not even tried to make an open source contribution this month. I understand that part of that is just life. I’ve been dealing with some personal stuff this month and that has taken away a decent chunk of my free time. If Hacktoberfest was Novemhackerfest, I might be in better shape. But still … I’ve been saying since my time at Fullstack that I wanted to contribute to open source. I said a few months ago on twitter that I wanted to work on grammar in documentation. And so far … nothing. I definitely feel like an impostor for not getting involved in open source, especially because it’s something I do want to do.

Now that I’ve identified what makes me feel like an impostor, the next step is finding a way to combat those feelings.

If I don’t like the project I’m on, ask to be transferred. This isn’t always going to be an option, but I think that had I told people earlier how unhappy I was with the work I was doing, there would have been more of an effort to see if someone else was interested in taking over my project so that I could be put on something that I would find more interesting. This is somewhat in the works (I’m going to be teaching what I do to a coworker this week), but it likely would have happened sooner had I told someone how I was feeling. If I don’t feel like a developer, my team needs to know that. They can help.

Pick something up on the side. This is hard with time constraints (which is something I’m still trying to deal with), but if I really feel like I’m not “being a developer” at work (and I can’t be transferred to a different project), I can always pick up a side project (whether that’s a personal project, helping a friend with a project, or contributing to open source) to “prove” to myself that I know how to be a developer.

Make time. I’m a medium busy person. I run anywhere from 3–5 mornings a week and cross train twice a week. I try to keep up with my friends and TV shows. I’m currently reading a really interesting book about the history of New York City around the time of consolidation. But by far the time constraint that causes the most problems for me is my commute. My commute to and from work is over an hour each way, and I often run into train delays. Between the length of the commute and the frequency of delays, my commute is very draining and even if I have time to work on things when I get home (which I occasionally do), I don’t have the energy. Many people can’t really change their commute … they have families or school districts to consider … but I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I’m not really tied to one place, so I made the decision to move closer to work. Once I move (hopefully at the end of the month, if all goes well), my commute will be going from over an hour to about 35 minutes. I’m hoping that having the shorter commute will give me more time and energy to get involved in the developer community by attending meetups, working on open source, and learning (and maybe blogging about) new technologies.

Understand that sometimes my problems are just that — problems. Things like board game night can be a fun bonding experience, but they can also be part of a toxic dev culture when people are made to feel excluded if they don’t participate. Thankfully, my company doesn’t do that (board game nights are totally optional and nobody seems to mind that I’m rarely there), but the fact that there aren’t more group activities centered around a broader range of interests is not ideal. I understand that you can never please everyone, but the fact that I don’t enjoy the group activities that my company does doesn’t make me an impostor — it just means that I need to suggest new activities. Like maybe adding a coffee stop to the matcha runs.

Impostor syndrome is very common in developers (new and experienced), and while it can hurt your confidence, it doesn’t have to. For me, sitting down and taking time to think about what makes me feel like an impostor and trying to find solutions is a big step towards feeling like a developer. The more I remind myself that there’s no problem that I can’t solve, the more I know that I’m a developer, not an impostor.