My name is Sarah. I am a rising senior studying informatics with a passion for human-computer interaction. I love tech, but most days I feel like a fraud. Impostor syndrome, known as the idea that one’s accomplishments are “faked” and the fear that they will be exposed as a “fraud”, has a grip on my life.
I didn’t get into tech until college. Other than taking a high school elective on HTML and having an IT guy for a dad, I had never really considered it. However, after taking a general education requirement called “Computer Literacy” during the fall of my freshman year of college, my mind starting churning with the possibilities of a tech career.
I started to code, but I felt like I was years behind everyone else, even in the intro class. I kept telling myself that I wasn’t good enough for computer science, even though I was doing well in the classes. I was afraid to speak up in many classes because I was afraid to be wrong. Job titles like software engineer or data scientist or web developer sound way too out of my league, even though plenty of other people studying the same things as me have gone onto roles like that.
Some of this might have been due to the fact that I’m a woman in computer science classes. If I had to take a guess, I would say that my intro computer science classes were maybe 20% women (out of over 100 people in these lectures).
But it wasn’t just the classes. I was afraid to even attempt to apply for internships because I didn’t think I was good enough. Even though I ended up as an IT Intern the summer after my freshman year, I consistently thought that people were just being nice when I presented my work. Any time something good happened, I felt like I belonged less and less. Impostor syndrome shadowed wherever I went.
How did I start to break this cycle, you may ask?
I go outside of my comfort zone by going to hackathons.
Hackathons are 24- 48 hour “creative sprints” where teams typically create a software or hardware project. They can be intimidating for beginners, but a friend of mine convinced me to join her at a hackathon called SheHacks Boston.
SheHacks Boston was an all-women and non-binary hackathon that took place at Boston University in January 2018. This was my first hackathon, and while I didn’t complete a project, I was able to learn a lot by going to panels and talking to other women in tech!
SheHacks changed my life in many ways. Being surrounded by so many inspirational women really boosted my confidence. Seeing the room filled with women and non-binary students coding gave me a sense of belonging that I vowed to bring back with me.
I also was introduced to areas of tech at SheHacks that I didn’t know existed, such as user experience (UX). I was so relieved to learn that I didn’t have to be a software engineer to be a part of tech since I knew that that role wasn’t for me — I love to code, but I didn’t want my entire day focused around it.
I ended up joining the organizing team for the next event because I loved how much the event emphasized that ANYONE can join tech.
This event also opened me up to events at my own school. In July 2018, I joined HackHer413 as the Head of Operations & Technology. HackHer413 was the first hackathon for women and non-binary students in Western Massachusetts!
One of my favorite memories of HackHer413’s inaugural event was seeing the growth of the groups in just 24 hours. About 14 hours before groups had to submit projects (if they decided to submit), I talked with a group of women that were contemplating giving up because they didn’t know how to code — they were complete beginners. They had a really cool idea, but they didn’t feel like they belonged at the event. Some of the organizers and I spoke with them and convinced them to stay and give their idea a try. The next day at the awards ceremony, they won three prizes. They overcame their impostor syndrome and created something wonderful.
Long story short, going to a hackathon changed my life. I found my confidence, a great community, and a career path that I wanted to pursue. I also found a great love of organizing hackathons!
I was able to start conquering impostor syndrome by taking a risk in going to a hackathon, where I realized that so many others were in the same boat as me — they were all still learning.
I find support from my community.
As a woman pursuing a technical degree, it is all too common to be one of only a handful of women in a class of over one-hundred-to-three-hundred people. I got through these classes by building relationships with some of those other women.
Over the past year or so, I’ve also started to make the effort to expand my network beyond just my university. A friend of mine at Boston University recommended joining Rewriting the Code (RTC), a non-profit dedicated to empowering college women pursuing technical careers. I applied and became a fellow in August 2018. Rewriting the Code has introduced me to hundreds of women across the United States that are passionate about technology.
Rewriting the Code has helped me to combat impostor syndrome in many ways. First, I know that I am not alone in facing it. RTC has a great online presence where members and fellows in the community can chat, ask each other questions, and give each other advice. Impostor syndrome is a popular topic, and knowing that I don’t have to face it alone brings me a lot of comfort.
RTC has also helped me to strengthen my skills so that I can face impostor syndrome on my own. For instance, Rewriting the Code has hosted various industry professionals in webinars where they’ve explained their career path, and they’ve been very candid about their experiences with impostor syndrome.
I also recently found a community in Lesbians Who Tech, an organization of queer women and allies in tech. With the support of my university, I was able to travel to San Francisco in February 2019 for their annual summit. I met various students, industry professionals, and recruiters at the event. Hearing from so many amazing women (and most of them in the LGBTQIA+ community) brought another level of belonging to my life that I didn’t even know was missing.
Communities like Rewriting the Code and Lesbians Who Tech helped me to gain the confidence I was missing in my major and career. Without a doubt, they were an integral part of learning how to combat impostor syndrome.
I practice identifying impostor syndrome in my daily life.
Unfortunately, there isn’t really a “cure” for impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome comes and goes, but it’s easier to keep it at bay with practice.
One such way is to read about impostor syndrome so that you can correctly identify it. There are countless articles out on the Internet about impostor syndrome. If you’re looking for something longer, there are plenty of books out there as well! My favorite is Dr. Valerie Young’s The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It.
Another way to beat back impostor syndrome is surrounding yourself with people who can help be your “voice of reason.” Soon, you’ll be able to be your own “voice of reason” too!
Some days, I tell myself to “fake it ’til I make it.” While the idea can work, I’ve come to realize that sometimes it hurts more than it helps. By telling myself to “fake it,” I’m saying that I really can’t do what I’ve set out to do, when, in fact, the opposite might be true. This only enforces impostor syndrome over time because I’ve associated these skills with being “faked”.
I’ve also started to learn to accept that there will be times that I fail. Failure can be a blessing, however. Failure is a learning experience that I have started to value. The biggest thing to remember, though, is that you may fail, but you have to get up and try again.
Impostor syndrome may knock me down some days, but I’m not going to let it keep me there.
Hopefully, it won’t keep you there too.