farewell, imposter syndrome

farewell, imposter syndrome

When I started taking Computer Science classes in high school, I loved how everything was so logical and fit nicely into my uber-pragmatic way of thinking. But my dad was pretty adamant that girls don’t code and I stupidly believed him and chose not to pursue it in college. Luckily for me, my floormate was taking Intro to Computer Science first semester and I thought oh, she’s a girl and she’s coding! So I joined her the next semester. My mom gave me a copy of Sandberg’s Lean In to “help me”.

In college, I read a lot of articles describing a phenomenon that many women in this industry experience known as “imposter syndrome”, and these articles instructed me on what signs to look for and how I should feel in response. People would look at me with puzzled looks on their faces when I said I was a Computer Science major, so I felt puzzled as well. Whenever an exam was particularly challenging and I should have reacted by studying harder for the next one, I instead wondered if there was just something intrinsically about me, like the lack of a Y chromosome, that rendered me incapable.

Becoming a full-time software engineer, I really started questioning my identity as a female software engineer. Did I hate the House Security team shooting Nerf guns all around me because it was truly annoying or because I was a girl? Could I not figure out Swift closures on my first day because functional programming was a brand new concept to me or because I was a girl? Did I crash half a million sessions of a very large tech company’s app due to a poorly bolded string because it’s an easy mistake to make or because I was a girl?

I tried to sound artificially more assertive in communication and completely overdid it. I sobbed through more than one performance review telling me I was too abrasive, not quite grasping why “leaning in” was having a negative impact on my career. Every single action I took, I hesitated for a split second to consider if I was representing the female gender in the right way. I even debated not going down the management track because it could signal that women weren't technical enough to be staff engineers.

After a lot of painful feedback sessions with patient managers and self-reflection, I eventually stopped trying to stuff myself into the box of what these articles and books dictated for women in the industry. I became less helpless and miserable. Additionally, I actually listened to and accepted the positive feedback for things that I wasn’t explicitly trying to do, i.e. enthusiastically leading projects and asking tough questions. Imposter syndrome was kind of rudely bestowed upon me by society, but my normal self already fit in quite nicely.

I had a pleasant feeling today. I noticed that I haven’t felt in a while the crippling anxiety of barely escaping through each day without being unveiled as a fraud. Sure, I’m still constantly acknowledging my oversights and mistakes, but it no longer makes me existentially question my sense of self in the role. Ironically, I have to intentionally add more smiley faces after my Slack messages because my default is quite curt, and woman or not, no one wants to work with a curmudgeon. After enough successful launches and genuine conversations, I’m really confident in my abilities to turn ambiguity into clarity, have tough conversations and be deeply empathetic. There are enough systems in place that will correct us when we misstep, so we all deserve to be a little bit truer to ourselves.

If you need someone to crush a massive engineering deliverable or make engineers feel genuinely valued, I’m that person. But I will definitely not be scaling your Kubernetes cluster, or whatever it is that our staff engineers do.