How I Overcame Imposter Syndrome as a New Software Engineer
5 Lessons Learned About Self-Confidence, Trust, and Teamwork
On June 5, 2019, I celebrated my two-year “Ude-versary” (Udemy anniversary). Two years prior, I was finishing up my last year at UC Berkeley while working part time at my first engineering internship at Udemy on our data platform. One year ago, I graduated with a degree in Applied Math and transitioned to a full-time software engineer on the data infrastructure team. I’ve written this blog post to share my reflections on my first year as a brand new, entry-level software engineer. This is advice I wish I’d known earlier because it really would have helped relieve some of my own anxieties about starting a new career.
Do more and be better.
The moment I returned to Udemy was a bit surreal. During my internship, I finished a highly visible six-month project. I felt accomplished but nervous. I wondered to myself, “Did I really perform well? Or did I perform well for an intern? Now that I’m an official software engineer, what are the expectations of me? Yes, I’ve been performing well, but can I do better? Where can I even start?”
My team culture allowed me the trust and freedom to set the pace at which I’d ramp up. Six weeks into working full time, during quarterly planning, I volunteered to lead a huge project that involved learning new technologies, communicating with stakeholders, and coordinating cross-functionally with partners on other teams. I had no confidence that I was capable of handling this intimidating of a project, but since I was still new to the job, I felt this was a rare opportunity for me to challenge myself and hopefully exceed expectations. By the end of the quarter, I had driven the project to completion, surprising even myself with the success.
Taking the first risk and crushing it fostered the best attitude for my ongoing success at work. As time went on, I realized that my first project actually wasn’t a “rare” opportunity. Every day, I have the same opportunity to do more and to be better. Great accomplishments don’t exist without ambitious goals. Each time I make an effort to confront my fear of failure, I gain knowledge, experience, and confidence.
Learn to learn.
I remember sometimes questioning if engineering was the right career path for me. I’d noticed that I don’t have the same passion that some of my other colleagues had for learning. They would mention spending their free time reading books, listening to podcasts, and attending conferences. I felt a bit ashamed that I couldn’t learn in the same way. It freaked me out because I knew that if I didn’t learn at a fast enough pace, then it would be hard for me to progress professionally.
I realized that having a different strategy for acquiring knowledge from my colleagues doesn’t mean I’m disinterested in learning. I found that I learn best through doing, which is why I prefer to take on scrum tasks in less familiar domains. I also prefer a concrete learning structure, which is why Udemy courses with projects and quizzes are much better for me.
Everybody has a different learning style. Understanding my own made me better at my job.
Strengths aren’t weaknesses.
I used to be really concerned with my personal brand. Bad experiences from college of being disrespected, condescended, and ultimately underestimated motivated me to be careful in how I presented myself to others. I’d read horror stories online about female engineers in tech that were either pigeonholed to handle “administrative” tasks or penalized for being “overly emotional,” so I tried extra hard to keep that from happening to me. I would hesitate to ask “stupid” questions that might convey that I’m not smart enough to deserve my role as an engineer. I wouldn’t volunteer to do any administrative work to avoid being stereotyped.
I initially tried to hide the parts of me that I thought would make me a bad engineer. Eventually, I realized that the parts of me that made me different were valuable. Skills that I thought originally had nothing to do with my role, like communication, empathy, and organization, ended up being quite helpful to the team. My ability to communicate clearly made me a better on-call engineer. The company appreciated my frequent updates on the status of our core data workflows. My strong sense of empathy made me an advocate for customer-focused development, which strengthened the relationship between our data infrastructure team and our data users. My insights into team processes led to the creation of additional resources that improved team efficiency and cohesiveness, like a sprint dashboard, on-call responsibilities guideline, and updated interviewing rubric.
Now, I try to embrace the parts of me that once made me feel isolated from other engineers. It’s honestly still difficult for me sometimes to refrain from comparing myself to others, but I know I’m giving myself the best chance to succeed by working with my strengths instead of trying to fit into the mold of what I believed a “standard” software engineer should be.
Weaknesses aren’t excuses.
It took a few months for me to fully contribute as an equal member of my team. I didn’t feel technically competent or experienced enough to answer any questions or share ideas. I hesitated to provide any feedback to my fellow team members, so I rarely reviewed pull requests. My team is full of incredibly smart people, and it was hard to imagine myself having anything valuable to say.
Unfortunately, by holding back myself, I was also holding back my team. I was treating my weaknesses as excuses instead of as opportunities to improve. Once I changed my perspective, I was able to better prioritize my areas to develop. Now I take extra time to study and ask questions about pull requests that I don’t fully understand, and I have detailed plans to learn the parts of our data architecture that I’m least familiar with, one step at a time.
I know now that it’s okay to not know everything, but that’s no reason to stop trying.
Opening up was one of the biggest game changers in my first few months as an engineer. Upon starting at Udemy, I was incredibly nervous, unconfident, and overwhelmed by what is commonly described as imposter syndrome. The worst parts of me believed that I got this role by chance and that, within a few weeks, everybody would realize they’d made a mistake in hiring somebody who knew as “little” as I did.
Deciding to be truthful about my insecurities with my manager and the rest of my team was a pivotal decision that shifted the way I felt at work. Other colleagues expressed similar feelings on occasion, building a sense of camaraderie and dispelling my assumption that I was alone in how I felt. I now feel more comfortable asking questions when I don’t understand something, trusting that my team is happy to help. Best of all, I no longer feel like I don’t belong where I am. My team has assured me that we’re in this together.
If I could hop in a time machine and talk to 2018 Lana, I’d say, “Trust yourself. Trust others. You will figure things out.” Learning to trust myself gave me the courage to take risks, including being vulnerably honest with myself and others. Learning to trust that my coworkers have my back has improved the personal connection I have with my work. Finally, accepting and embracing the learning process (including its openness to failure) has ultimately made me a more confident and motivated person.
If you could give advice to yourself one year ago, what would it be? Feel free to comment below so we can all learn together. If you’re looking for a work culture that fosters learning, collaboration, and openness, Udemy is currently hiring!