Combat Imposter Syndrome as a Junior Developer
Reflections on imposter syndrome
Whether you’re 10 months or 10 years into your career, it’s likely that at one point or another, you’ve encountered what is commonly referred to as imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome can be described as feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt surrounding one’s abilities or accomplishments, despite other strong indicators of success.
Individuals with imposter syndrome discount their previous accomplishments — attributing them to luck rather than merit — and fear that others will eventually find out and expose them as a fraud.
In this post, I’ll discuss some of my own experiences with imposter syndrome as a junior developer and share strategies I’ve found to be helpful in combatting it.
I hope that if you’re also struggling, you can leverage these tips to realize your full worth, and know that you’re not alone.
1. Adopt a Growth Mindset
In 2007, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck published the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, outlining two types of mindsets that influence human behavior — a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that traits such as intelligence, character, and creativity are fixed, and therefore can’t be changed in any significant way.
They are more likely to attribute success to innate ability rather than sustained effort, and therefore are likely to engage in behaviors that align with their strengths to avoid potential failure.
However, individuals with a growth mindset believe that these traits are developable, and that the abilities and characteristics of an individual can be improved with time and effort.
They see hard work, not talent, as the biggest determinant of success, and view failure as a motivator to improve rather than an indicator to stop all-together.
Like many others, I initially adopted a fixed mindset, believing that my abilities at a particular point in time permanently defined my potential in a given field.
One example was during my first few weeks as a software engineer, when I was on-boarding, ramping up on our team’s tech stack, and meeting my new co-workers.
I remember feeling overwhelmed by the number of things I didn’t understand, and really alone, despite everyone else’s kindness and willingness to answer questions.
On a couple of occasions, this feeling of inadequacy even brought me to tears— for I feared that the people who had hired me would eventually realize that it was a mistake, and that I didn’t actually have what it took to do the job.
Fast forward eight months, and a lot has changed. Since then, I’ve become a consistent contributor to our team’s codebases and even serve as a reference for other engineers using our tools.
However, the biggest shift has occurred in my mindset towards growth and ability. Now I recognize that even though I only know a small portion of what there is to know, with time and persistence, I can pick up new skills as the need arises.
More so, I finally trust myself, and believe that I can overcome future challenges that come my way.
Adopting a growth mindset is important in recognizing your value and reaching your full potential. Instead of telling yourself: “I’m not good enough,” instead reframe it as: “I might not be good now, but with time, I will be.”
Use weakness as an opportunity to grow, and know that you deserve to be where you are today. Even if you aren’t yet at the level of those around you, know that you’re smart and capable enough to get there.
2. Push Yourself Outside of Your Comfort Zone
Another way to combat imposter syndrome is to take on challenges that push you beyond your comfort zone. This sounds counterintuitive, as it may seem like it’s these experiences that induce feelings of imposter syndrome in the first place.
However, the more you put yourself in situations that stretch you, the more you’ll realize that while the process might be difficult, things will ultimately be alright and you’ll make it through.
Think back to a time where you were faced with a task that you initially felt incapable of doing. More likely than not, the outcome wasn’t completely disastrous.
Even if things didn’t end up exactly as you had hoped, you probably learned a lot in the process.
Conversely, if you had shied away from this challenge because it intimidated you, you’d never truly know you were capable of overcoming it. In the worse case, you might even end up internalizing that it was just something you couldn’t do.
One analogy that has stuck with me is comparing confidence to behavior in a poker game. If you have two players, one with multiple tall stacks of poker chips, and one with just a single, small stack, the player with a greater amount of chips is more likely to take riskier bets and therefore receive much larger returns.
In this analogy, the stacks of chips represent an individual’s confidence, and each chip represents a small win from taking a risk that paid off. Over time, these seemingly small gains add up exponentially, as the player who builds up their reserve of chips by stepping outside of their comfort zone is able to leverage these wins to further expand their pile.
However, the player who is too scared to start in the first place misses out on these opportunities, and is unlikely to grow their chips beyond just a small stack.
When I first started working, I remember frequently debating whether I should stick to development tickets that I felt more comfortable with, or take up ones that I had minimal familiarity with.
On one hand, I wanted to get work out quickly and demonstrate to my team members that I was competent. I would rationalize that the more difficult tickets could be done in half the time by a senior developer, and that it would be a better use of everyone’s energy if I took tickets that I could output quickly.
However, oftentimes I opted for the more challenging tickets, knowing that it would be hard but worth it. These tickets frequently involved a lot of trial and error, digging into documentation, and cross-team collaboration.
At the end of the day, it’s those tickets that really made me a better developer, not the ones that I already felt comfortable doing.
A few ways in which you can continuously challenge yourself
- Volunteer for an assignment or task that utilizes a set of skills you don’t currently have.
- Spend time learning new things or building something new.
- Reach out to someone you’re intimidated by and ask them if they’d like to grab coffee or get lunch together.
- Give a presentation, organize an event, or teach others about a topic you’re excited about.
3. Take Time to Reflect
As part of imposter syndrome, you might attribute your success to luck rather than hard work or merit. You might also believe that you don’t actually deserve what you have achieved, and that soon others will find out as well.
In times where you feel like you’re getting swept up in thoughts of self-doubt, take time to objectively list your accomplishments, as well as highlight qualities that make you good at what you do.
Keep this list somewhere safe and add to it when you achieve something new. Oftentimes, it takes actually thinking about and seeing these points to help you realize that you provide more value than you think.
Another way to reflect is to set measurable goals for yourself and record your progress towards them. It’s easy to feel like there are two opposites — where you are now and where you need to be — and that it’s impossible to get from one to the other.
Writing down what you want to accomplish will help you break down lofty goals into more actionable steps. It will also serve as a means of tracking your wins and documenting your growth in the process.
Reflection looks different for everybody — a few ideas to start with
- What are some obstacles that you have recently faced? How did you overcome them?
- How would your coworkers or peers describe you?
- What are some of the most significant wins you’ve had over the past year?
- In what ways have you grown recently — both personally and professionally?
- What about yourself are you the proudest of and why?
4. Talk to Someone About It
If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome, find someone you trust and talk to them about it. Sharing how you feel is not only freeing, but also it aids you in objectively reflecting upon why you feel this way and your actual performance in a given area.
We often hold ourselves to a higher standard than we would others, and it can really help when a close friend or co-worker offers a different perspective to complement the narrative we’ve created for ourselves.
Never keep feelings bottled up for long, and know that sometimes it just takes a different point of view to help put things into perspective.
When you’re feeling inadequate, it seems even harder to reach out to others. However, oftentimes you’ll be surprised that those around you have been, or are currently going through a similar experience as you are now.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with another engineer about career growth and development. He brought up that when he first started on his current team, he often doubted his abilities and felt like a fraud.
He also mentioned that he similarly struggled with picking up some of the technologies I was learning about at the time.
This came as a big surprise to me. We sat in close proximity to each other, and I’d often hear him confidently contributing to discussions with his team members and answering the questions of other engineers.
In my mind, I had falsely assumed he was someone who was just “technically talented”, and that he likely never had to question whether or not he was good enough.
That conversation really helped me realize that imposter syndrome can affect anyone — regardless of their background, seniority, or apparent confidence. Although it doesn’t feel like it, these feelings of doubt and fraudulence are really a shared experience rather than an individual one.
Regardless of whether you’re just starting out, or have been in your position for many years, there are many ways you can lend a hand to someone who is struggling.
As an employee, openly speak about your past experiences, and find time to get to truly know people beyond the limitations of their role. If you’re a manager, check in with your reports about the non-technical aspects of their work, and ensure they feel supported.
Regardless of your level, be transparent when you don’t know something, and ask questions that encourage others to do so as well. Imposter syndrome can feel very isolating, but if we normalize the feelings around it, together we can work towards a more productive and inclusive workplace.
5. Give Back
A final way to help combat imposter syndrome is to give back to the organizations and communities that helped you get to where you are today.
While it will always feel like there is an infinite number of people ahead of you, there are also an equal number of people who are less far along who could benefit from your advice or knowledge.
Ways to give back
- Serve as a mentor for someone who is earlier on in their career.
- Volunteer to instruct or assist with a class that teaches people a skill you currently have.
- Help others in the job search process through means such as mock interviews, resume reviews, or expanding their network.
- Establish groups within your school, company, or community where people can connect and support one another.
- Share your experiences and the lessons you have learned from them.
At times when I feel like I truly don’t stack up to those around me, I’ve found that mentoring, volunteering, and blogging help remind me of the value I can provide to others.
I hope that these strategies also equip you with ways to realize your own worth, and serve as a reminder that you deserve to be where you are today. You’ve got this!