I’ve written quite a bit about Impostor Syndrome over the years, but I’ve been hesitant to give talks about it. Not because I don’t think it’s an important topic on which I can provide a valuable perspective—I do, and I can—but because the advice below was even more relevant to me six years ago, when I first moved to San Francisco. That was when I started analyzing my experience as a woman in tech, and developed a growing awareness of the deep cultural issues of the tech industry that harm both the insiders, and the world—which tech plays an increasingly larger role in shaping.
However, now that I’m more established, all I really want to talk about are diversity and inclusion, engineering culture, and so-called “soft” skills that are actually the most important and valuable. Because it doesn’t matter if you can build the most sophisticated rocket ship, if the rocket is heading towards destroying humanity.
My friend, Tess Rinearson, is not only an industry-leading engineer, she also finds in her spare time the wherewithal to organize a yearly gathering for like-minded women in tech that feel excluded from the Grace Hopper conference. I was honored to give the first talk at the very first Grace Hopper alternative: !GHC (now called Grace Notes). At the time, I was feeling very frustrated with how Impostor Syndrome had been co-opted to mean the same thing as a lack of confidence. This is a short talk about the differences between Impostor Syndrome and normal feelings of doubt, and how feelings of doubt is totally normal and should not be covered up with fake confidence, or overconfidence. One of the slides is on fire… literally.
Overcoming Impostor Syndrome
This is my original lightning talk that prompted me to write about overcoming Impostor Syndrome, my very first Medium post, and still one of the most popular things I’ve ever written, many years later.
Video YouTube (33:04)
Below is the follow up post I wrote on my personal blog at the time, June 14, 2013, about the Impostor Syndrome I experienced writing about Impostor Syndrome.
I never expected the overwhelming response to my Medium post “Overcoming Impostor Syndrome”. I’ve received so many positive comments from people of all different backgrounds who have experienced similar feelings that the article resonated with them. It has been incredibly rewarding. I still can’t believe so many people read it!
One thing I want to address is that I never meant to imply only women get impostor syndrome. I needed a concise definition of impostor syndrome and decided to quote the first academic study that used the term, and that study happened to only study women. It is inconclusive whether women are more likely to experience impostor syndrome. It could even be that men experience it more, but they talk about it even less. I’ve witnessed very smart men leave the field also, because they didn’t feel they belonged either, and didn’t see themselves advancing down this career path. However, being a very small minority does tend to compound impostor feelings in women, as I imagine it would for men who are not white or east asian, too. I consciously tried not to over-emphasize the gender aspect, but since I’m speaking from my personal perspective, gender is an omnipresent force that shapes my experience.
Now I’m going to let you in on a small secret: I didn’t think I was ever going to publish that article. I had this topic in my spark file for over a year, started writing the first sentence in December 2012, and took another 6 months to write. I had trouble writing this article because of its personal nature, but most of all, due to experiencing Impostor Syndrome about writing about Impostor Syndrome.
I kept worrying: Do I have any authority to be talking about this? Do I really want people to know I was a façade all these years? How will people react? The process of writing about it forced me to really examine my own perceptions about my coding abilities and programming in general, across progressive stages of my career.
The trigger that prompted me to get my act together and finally finish writing the damn thing was a stroke of luck by past Alicia who had decided spur-of-the-moment to sign up future Alicia for a 5 minute talk about Impostor Syndrome in a friendly environment: the Women Who Code Lightning Talks. I had to scramble to prepare the talk the night before giving it, because I misremembered the event date. Nonetheless, I received great feedback and encouragement after the talk, which is what spurred me to finally finish writing and publish the article.