Fighting Off Impostor Syndrome: Part I

My First Three Weeks as an Apprentice Developer: Part I

Three weeks ago I joined the Cyrus Innovation team as an apprentice developer through their diversity apprenticeship program — an initiative that enables women and people of other underrepresented backgrounds in tech to receive mentorship and gain experience in the field. Cyrus pays its apprentices a generous living wage as they spend several months working with a client under the mentorship of a senior Cyrus developer, and at the end of the apprenticeship the client may choose to hire the apprentice as a long-term salaried employee.

Four days before I began my apprenticeship, I sat in a crowd of people at Google in NYC and watched Tami (Cyrus Innovation CEO) give a talk on “Just Not Sorry”, an app the company designed to help people, especially women, stop qualifying their statements and undermining themselves in emails. At the beginning of the talk, Tami asked how many people experienced impostor syndrome when they first came to work at Google. (The crowd was comprised mainly of female Google employees.) I was shocked to see the number of hands that rose into the air. Even the brilliant women of Google sometimes feel under-qualified?

Over the next several minutes, Tami made a compelling — and frequently humorous — case for why we should stop feeling this way. Reminding us that we’ve each been evaluated and chosen for our positions. Throughout the talk, she also addressed the importance of not being afraid to give our opinions, while knowing full well that we may sometimes be wrong, and of not being afraid to ask questions. No one can know everything, and in order to have a workplace where people can learn and grow, we can’t be afraid to admit that there are things we don’t know.

Hard to imagine a more encouraging or inspiring preamble to a new job, right? I certainly think so. And my time as an apprentice so far has already illuminated the truth in her words.

During my first three weeks as an apprentice at Cyrus, I’ve gotten to work with two senior developers, on two very different sorts of projects — one: remote work with a fairly young start-up based in California; the other: a big, well-established real-estate group in the city. In both cases, I’ve learned new artful approaches to version control and workflow, editor shortcuts and tricks, new language and framework syntax, the purpose of story-boards and stand-ups, and a lot about navigating through a production-level code-base. Both developers fully engaged me in the development process from the start — always explaining the rationale behind the way in which we were approaching every piece of code. In addition to this wide-ranging knowledge, I’d sum up what I’ve learned so far as an apprentice in two general principles that almost seem to mirror Tami’s talk: 1.) If you care and pay close attention, you will have things to contribute. 2.) Question asking is a fruitful art form. I’ll spend the rest of this blog post explaining the first principle in more detail.

If you care and pay close attention, you will have things to contribute.

I might not yet be an expert in any of the technologies that the client’s team is using, but Cyrus has chosen me as an apprentice because they believe in my potential to become a successful developer (and thereby help improve diversity in tech), and because they think I will add value to their clients’ teams/environments.

It’s easy to feel like I’m creeping into impostor syndrome territory when I think about the fact that the senior developer I’m pairing with could do the same thorough work, perhaps even more quickly, if he were working alone. However, he has told me more than once that talking through the code and answering my questions have been useful exercises that require him to question assumptions that he hasn’t necessarily thought about in a while. He encourages me to help make decisions about how we approach various problems, and offers straight-forward and useful evaluations of my ideas. Many times a day I’m able to point out small typos, which add up to not an insignificant amount of time when re-building and running the software in Visual Studio can sometimes be a several-minute task.

In addition to those small things, I also hope that my general attitude of eagerness to learn might have a positive impact on the team. I’ve never been part of a real, professional team of developers before, and I’m really excited about it. I’m eager to learn the technologies that they’re using and about the overall structure and pieces of the software they’ve built. While I might not understand the implications of everything that each person says during stand-up, I pay close attention when everyone talks and I try to ask clarifying questions when they seem like they might be useful. This leads to the second principle — question asking is a fruitful art form. Stay tuned for part II of this blog post in which I’ll explain this idea in detail.