A friend is doing a talk about “Imposter Syndrome“, which is a fancy term for the feeling that you are totally out of your league in your job, making stuff up and it’s only a matter of time before some official person discovers you and says “Hey, who let you in here?” at which point you will sheepishly apologize and leave before they throw you out.
So she asked a lot of people for their experiences with this, and it reminded me I’ve had this feeling often throughout my career. I meant to write a short note about this, but I seem to have a problem with brevity. Since I wrote it up, figured I might as well put it here as well.
My first experience with “imposter syndrome” was when I was hired at my first real job, which was cleaning a meat room, washing blood off the walls, wiping bone dust off the saws, etc. I was fifteen and at the time I couldn’t figure out why they would trust a kid to this kind of responsibility. Surely this place needed to be professionally cleaned. After all, this was people’s food we were dealing with. I could barely pick up my clothes and comics at home, I couldn’t possibly be trusted to clean and disinfect all the equipment and surfaces properly, enough for this business to keep running.
Each new job after that I experience some of the same feeling, but gradually in lesser amounts. After all, I was now an experienced employee; I knew what made a good worker. Be on time. Work diligently and thoroughly. Do what your boss tells you. Punch in, punch out.
Then I landed my first job in computers. In this case, it was totally true: I was absolutely an imposter.
See, I went to college to study art, hoping to be an illustrator. When I decided I didn’t like the term “starving artist” (I took issue with the first word), I tried a number of different things: biology, criminology, psychology, pretty much anything with an -ology to it. I then dropped out of college when I realized I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Eventually I found myself in Everett, Washington, renting an apartment that offered free cable to its residents. I picked up a cable guide at the local cable company, and saw they were hiring for a “computer operator”. I figured it would be better than the current job I had, which was flipping burgers.
I had briefly lived with my computer programmer friend, and during that time had learned a few things. Like the difference between a hard drive and a floppy drive (oh early 90’s, your 3.5 floppies bring such nostalgia). Also, I learned what a “wildcard” was in DOS terms.
As fate would have it, these are the exact two things they asked me in the interview before concluding I must therefore know enough about computer hardware and operating systems to be entrusted with the position. And just like that, I was responsible for taking care of the Tandem mainframe system that ran the cable systems for millions of customers.
So, yeah. The Imposter Monster loomed up and scared the hell out of me. This time it was so strong it forced me into action. I was definitely unqualified to do this work in any capacity, but I really liked the job and so I wanted to not just keep it, but be great at it. I studied nights and weekends. I read obscure manuals about the TACL command language for running jobs on the mainframe systems. This was pre-internet, so mostly it was borrowing manuals and trying to glean information from strange and esoteric technical jargon.
Over time I got better, then eventually even comfortable with the position. At about that time, the company decided to set up a new-fangled Local Area Network, and as such was hiring for a LAN Administrator. I applied and got the position, again as an imposter. I had read a manual for a Token Ring Adapter the night before and was able to regurgitate the buzz words “Token Ring”, “Ethernet”, and “Packet” during the interview. It probably helped that the guy doing the hiring was the finance administrator and hadn’t read the Token Ring Adapter manual.
Again my knowledge that I was an imposter was strong enough to force me into action. I enrolled in classes at a local community college, eventually earning a certificate in Unix Administration and C programming. On the job I learned everything about Ethernet protocol, Novell Netware, and PCs. I also learned TCP/IP as we made the switch to this new-fangled Internet thingy that might be big someday.
As soon as I had a pretty good handle on all that, a headhunter called me out of the blue and I found myself working at AT&T Wireless, working on their routers and taking care of a country-wide array of devices. Again, I was not in any way qualified, and the feeling that someone would discover my deficiencies at any minute returned in a big way. Now, however, I had the benefit of the Internet to help me learn everything I needed before they found me out.
Next would come Microsoft, and an interview process so grueling that it exposed every weakness I had. After the hour and a half phone screen which ended in “you need to work more on your hardware knowledge”, then seven hours of in-person grilling by about ten people, I felt laid open, exposed for the fraud that I was.
But they hired me anyway.
And this was the first time I didn’t feel like an imposter, because they obviously knew what they were getting. I asked my boss point-blank: “you knew I didn’t know any of this stuff, why did you hire me?”. His response: he needed to know the limits of my knowledge to know what he needed to teach me. Fair enough. I stayed and learned.
Soon I moved positions from Tech Support to Testing, and was then promoted to Test Lead. Along with my promotion I was also visited with a surprise return of my old friend mister Imposter Monster. Now I was managing other people. Surely they would see I was not qualified to direct or review them?
Over time I became a Test Manager, responsible for directing other Test Leads and their teams. I regularly sat in my office and wondered when the men would arrive, give me a baffled and slightly annoyed look and ask “what do you think you are doing? That desk is for a grown up”, and they would then forcibly eject me out the window.
I took a job as a Program Manager, which was a big relief for my Imposter Monster: no longer did I have the lives and careers of others hanging on my unqualified shoulders. However, I soon realized that I was responsible for the software the team was building. I was writing the specs that developers and designers then implemented. Why were they doing that? Didn’t they think I has some sort of expert? Clearly I wasn’t.
Soon I took a job of producer in a game group. I was responsible for creating process solutions that would make the team more efficient, predictable and trackable. I eventually was appointed “Executive Producer”, and given the responsibility of a hugely important game and a team of fifty and growing. My Imposter Monster loomed over me every day, whispering failure at me. I continued on, learning best practices from every post-mortem I could find and pouring through software development theories in Agile, Waterfall, and everything in-between.
It was at this point that I really started mentoring other people. A funny thing happens when you try to teach somebody something: you end up learning a lot yourself. Trying to mentor others made me reflect back on all these challenges, all these times when I felt like I was doing a job I was not ready for, and realize this was a good thing. I eventually succeeded at each challenge I took on, and learned far more along the way that I bargained for.
Now I think of the Imposter Monster as a reminder that I’m pushing myself. It tells me that I’m out of my comfort zone, doing something that grows me and challenges me. If I’m not feeling fear that someone will question why I’m the right person for the job, then I’m playing it too safe, I’m only doing the expected.
My monster is now my friend. I like to think of him like a big, blue, cuddly guy who might snap at any minute and tear your leg off for no reason. Keeps you on your toes.