Imposter Syndrome

Jul 3, 2020
How I am dealing with imposter syndrome as an engineer.
If you were trying to paint a picture of who was the likely candidate to suffer from low self-esteem, then it would likely be me.
I was a serial under-achiever at school and a chronic worrier. Feedback from teachers was always “he could be doing so much better if he applied himself some more” and really I was lucky to scrape myself through secondary education into sixth-form college. I remember sitting in Computer Science, stuck again on some minor issue that others seemingly were just understanding, and a lad next to me said “people like you and I don’t belong here”. That comment stuck with me for a long time and sapped my confidence to an all time low.
Meanwhile, I was excelling at things I was interested in and things that people had no expectation of me to succeed in. By the time I was 13; I had reached Grade 6 piano, I held the school record for long jump which hadn’t been broken in 16 years, and I had made and sold numerous websites from scratch. I felt I wasn’t recognised for these accomplishments though, I was held accountable for my studies and my studies alone and just accepted the fact that I wasn’t MEANT to be a good student. In that mindset I became a bad student.
I worked numerous technical jobs followed by some manual labour jobs over the years after leaving school and had generally a low view of myself. I had failed as far as I was concerned, I hadn’t gotten a degree and therefore I wasn’t destined to really achieve anything with life.
To cut an extremely long story short I ended up becoming a web developer through self-study and perseverance as well as being encouraged by family. That had many challenges of its own that I would love to dive in to at some point but that is a story for another time…

First Encountering an Imposter

I guess looking back I had always suffered with “imposter syndrome” one way or another in life, which probably explains my low confidence and lack of effort. The first I ever become aware of it though was on seeing another person in the dev community mention it. It clicked at that point, this was EXACTLY what I was experiencing.
My intro to the development world was through freelancing and contracting. I did short term contracts on and off for a couple of years whilst filling the time in between with freelance work for smallish companies and anything I could get my hands on. Sure, I suffered with low confidence during this time, but I got by.
It wasn’t until I landed my first full time job, at a Data Science consultancy, that it hit me like a tonne of bricks. I was working amongstpeople with PhD’s and Masters and I have never felt so in-superior. My best method of attack was to try and ignore it, although in hindsightI should have spoken to someone about the way I was feeling, after all, I did the interview the same as everyone else, I had as much right to be there as anyone else.
Every morning was intensely hard. I thought everyday was going to be the day I was “found out” and sacked from the job. Every PR I submitted would be done so with the expectation that whoever was doing a code review would think “this code is absolutely shit, what is this guy doing here?”.Every issue ticket that was assigned to me was a massive weight pressing down on me. If I didn’t know exactly how to solve it at first glance I would become overwhelmed with panic and I would furiously try and solve it, even if it meant doing extra hours. I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t do something.

How I Am Currently

In July 2019 I applied for what I would consider my dream job as an Engineering Manager at a company that have been voted LinkedIn’s UK Top Startup for several years in a row. I never in a million years thought I would be accepted as it has been documented that only 1% of applicants actually get hired, however I was successful and accepted the job and have been there a few months shy of a year (at time of writing).
My strength has always been that I am able to portray myself well. Really well in fact. I would go as far as saying that this is probably my super power. Behind a wall of fake confidence is someone who is socially awkward and anxious.
You would have thought that at Monzo I would have been really struggling with my anxiety but that actually isn’t the case. I have put this down to three things:
Firstly, the company awareness for mental health is superb, and are therefore able to address it. Any anxieties I have had I openly talk about withmy manager and my team mates and I feel safe to do so. Having people surrounding you who understand what you are going through is massively reassuring and if you are a long time sufferer, maybe ask potential companies about how they address issues like this. If they aren’t understanding, maybe this isn’t the environment or culture you want to be part of.
Secondly, I have openly started talking about my past. I’m proud of the fact I am a second career developer and came from humble beginnings. I tell people the story proudly and focus on the achievement and work I put in to get this far. Trying to hide my past and come across like everyone else is not a good strategy to improve my mental health. I unduly worried that I would be judged about my background but every single response I have had from people has been extremely positive and many people are interested in my story!
Thirdly, I feel more comfortable than ever talking to people about how I am feeling. Anxieties aren’t supposed to be bottled up. Find someone youtrust, whether it is your partner, a family member, a colleague or even a member of the engineering community. Talk about how you are feeling! I promise you it will make you feel much better to share your problems.

To Finish

This is quite a personal (perhaps controversial) reflection, but an important one that is ripe for debate. I would love to discuss this with you if you have your own thoughts…The one caveat to normalising professional anxiety as much as we do in awesome software cultures, is that those who are perhaps more confident in themselves potentially feel as though this is something they should be feeling. This is something I have experienced myself speaking to engineers, joining somewhere like Monzo with such emphasis on dealing with imposter syndrome, that it starts to chip away at your own confidence and you can find yourself thinking “should I be feeling these feelings?”.
It’s certainly a hard balance to get right, and I don’t claim to have the answers to this one. As I said, I would love to discuss with other technical leaders as to what their opinions are on this topic.I just want everyone to know that it is ok to be feeling these feelings, and it is ok NOT to be feeling these feelings. Confidence is not a negative!

© James Bedford 2021