10 min. read

March 22, 2020

career development

Imposter Monster

My first month as a developer.

syk-houdeib

Syk Houdeib, Front-end developer

The worst thing about the imposter syndrome is that it manages to convince you it's real even when you know it's not. Here's how the imposter syndrome affected me in my first month as a developer.

I want to share this with juniors in the same situation, as well as seniors who have to work with them. 

But it's also for people of every level because the imposter syndrome affects everyone. Bringing this to light allows all of us to deal better with this ugly imposter monster.

Intro

When I walked into the small office with a creaky wooden floor in the centre of Madrid for my first day as a front-end developer I was very excited and very nervous.

It was the culmination of a lot of hard work and lots of hopes and dreams. But I had no idea what to expect. I was 40 years old. I had spent the last decade teaching English, and had no real qualifications in computer science. These were the perfect ingredients to feel like an imposter.

Yet over the previous 10 months since I took up coding, I had come to be aware and understand the imposter syndrome. And I thought I was ready for it once I started working. But I wasn't.

In this article, I would like to share with you how the imposter syndrome manifested itself, and some of the tips I learnt to deal with it.

The first days

My first day as a front-end developer was easy. Warm welcomes. Handbook reading. Meetings about the company and its objectives. All easy to understand and handle.

The next couple of days is when the reality of it came crashing down and left me dizzy.

I started to struggle as I got set up and had the codebase explained to me. There were so many new and unrecognisable terms and technologies. Nothing that I had done in my courses had prepared me for that level of complexity. It was easy to get overwhelmed.

After that, it was on with the real work. I got assigned my first task. I had to build an internal tool from scratch. I got a hand to get it started. But pretty much was left to it.

Monster in your head

Throughout these first few days and over the following weeks, the imposter syndrome made itself very present.

At some points I felt that I didn't belong there, that I was way in over my head, and that I knew nothing.

There were moments of calm, and moments of excitement when things worked and I advanced. But there were other moments of total fear

Here are some of those things that would trigger the imposter feeling:

Needing help for everything

I couldn't work autonomously. I couldn't advance on my own. I needed help to know how to do most things. I didn't even have enough skills to debug my own mistakes sometimes.

Annoying others with questions, wasting their time

To get answers I depended on the help of more senior members of the team. And it always felt like I'm wasting their time. Like I'm a chore to them. It wasn't anything they said. It's just the feeling you get.

Not being able to advance

By far the biggest trigger was getting stuck while doing a task and not having any idea how to advance. At that moment you feel useless and the imposter's voice becomes a thundering roar.

All this lead me to develop an unhealthy feeling. At times I believed that the rest of the team thinks that I don't belong there. That I'm bad at this. Even, that my supervisors were wondering why they hired me.

All of which are the classic symptoms of the imposter syndrome. I knew this, and still, I felt it. No amount of knowledge about the imposter syndrome helped me stop it.

That's because that voice is so cunning, it knows your fears and plays on them. It tells you that in your case you are actually a real imposter.

Slayer of monsters

Let's start from the end. I've been working with this same team for almost two years and I couldn't be happier and more satisfied.

So the monster wasn't real. That first month had plenty of good moments too.

And another thing, I did not become immune to the imposter syndrome. It doesn't simply disappear with time and experience. It still shows up every now and then.

You can have a bad day or two, then you deal with it, pick yourself up and carry on. It's part of life in this field. It's a mentally taxing job. It's very easy to feel that the reason you can't do something is because of your own brain's limitations. And that can start a cascade of negative thoughts that lead to the imposter feelings.

So here are some of the tips I learnt from that first month to deal with this monster.

Remember the imposter monster exists

This might be obvious, but we need to remember it. In the moments of sheer panic, I felt in the first days, what calmed me down was often remembering that this is the imposter syndrome talking. Being aware of it doesn't protect us from it. But gives us a weapon to use against it.

Mentors

Having a mentor who understands and is willing to help is by far the most important factor in dealing with it. This is especially true for a junior.

I cannot stress the importance of this. If you are a junior looking for your first job, make that your number one criteria for taking a job if you can.

And if it's you who is hiring juniors, make sure you have someone who is patient and helpful to be there for them.

Mentors become the safety net that allows juniors to hone their skills without fear of breaking everything and wiping the entire internet out!

Ask questions. Ask for help

You are a junior. It's ok to ask lots of questions. Even if you aren't a junior, you need to ask lots of questions. You might feel that you are interrupting your coworkers, but it is inevitable.

Hopefully, you'll be lucky and find people who are accommodating. Because it is totally normal to need guidance and help.

The important thing is not to become stuck for hours because you are too embarrassed to say that you don't know something.

One thing that helped me in my first month was when I realised that all the seniors were regularly asking each other for help. And that they were comfortable saying "I don't know". Knowing everything is not a requirement in this field. Being open to learning is.

Break down problems

You get a new task, you look at the sheer scale of it and the massive number of things that need to be done to accomplish it. And you get terribly overwhelmed!

That's not how this works. No code is born perfect and complete in its final form and no one can envision tons of lines of code in their head.

Spend time in the beginning understanding the totality of the task. Think about it in general terms. But when you get started, break it down to the smallest pieces possible.

This helped me out at times when I felt frozen and couldn't advance. What is the smallest tiniest thing that I know I can do? I would start there, and that would help put me on the right track and in the right frame of mind.

Get started, it's better to have to go back and fix something than not moving forward at all.

You can't learn everything at once

Any typical project will have many layers of complexity. It will use a myriad of different technologies and tools. There's no course that prepares you for that.

It's not just understanding the code, but how the project is setup, it's architecture, and the different tools and environments you need to develop. And plenty of other things like the strategies and tools used for deployment, pull requests, and code reviews to mention a few.

You simply can't learn all this at once. There is so much of it. So accept that this is a process, and it will take time. You can't expect to know how to do something if you 've never done it before.

A great strategy is to find your favourite way to document and use it.

I use the humble Keep notes to create checklists of step by step instructions and useful commands. Others use more detailed documentation tools. But whatever it is, take the time to write down complex things that you will need to do again. You'll be glad the next time you have to do it. It'll be one less thing you'll need help with.

Eat well. Exercise. Sleep

This is just good advice in any context. But in this case, it can make a big difference. Our job is sedentary and mentally challenging. You need to move to release stress and have clearer thoughts. You need to eat well to have the right energy. And you need to rest and sleep to disconnect and come back at your problems with a fresh mind.

This is easier said than done especially when starting a new job, or facing a new challenge. Whether you are experienced or a junior, the temptation in the first months is to think that you don't have time for this. That you had better use your time to learn as much as possible.

That's what I did too in my first month, but I wish I knew better. The truth is, if you are not eating well, and not exercising, you are less productive and less efficient. Even if you dedicate half an hour to exercise, it will relieve stress, and fill you with energy. This will make you more productive and facilitate learning.

Eating, exercising, and sleeping well are not a nice extra to have when things are better organised, they should be the base on which you build a good day and better learning.

Understand that they hired you

The people who hired you know your level. They have made the decision that you are a suitable fit for their team. They believe that you can learn the skills they expect. Remind yourself of this as the doubt kicks in.

The nastiest manifestation of the imposter syndrome was the paranoid voice in my head that told me my managers were thinking they made a mistake in hiring me.

Usually they know exactly what they hired and they are fine with it. It was their decision all along. All you need to do is be honest in the hiring process. don't pretend you know what you don't.

Feedback

Feedback is as important as mentorship.

If you are working with juniors or new members of the team, find the time to give them honest feedback. If you are the new member, with some luck you'll have scheduled feedback meetings with your supervisors. If not, ask for it.

It might be the scariest thing to do when you are already feeling like an imposter. But it might be the best thing you can do to defeat the monster.

Hearing honest feedback from the people you are working with will give you a clear idea of what you need to improve, and what you are doing well. And in all actuality, what they tell you will turn out to be much milder and more pleasant than the imposter voice in your head.

The turning point for me in my battle with the imposter syndrome was my first-month review with my manager.

We went for a walk around the block. I was dreading it, I had a list of negative things that I believed about my performance over the past month. I was expecting the worst.

But I couldn't have been more wrong. I already gave you a spoiler at the beginning of this section. He wasn't simply happy with my performance, he thought I exceeded expectations for someone who had only been coding for a few months!! The exact opposite of what the imposter syndrome had me believe.

Outro

That day I went back home feeling over the moon. My confidence shot up. That was the moment I started paying less attention to this nasty voice. I started believing in my capacity to learn all the many complexities I had to deal with.

If you are in a position to help newcomers, remember that your generosity with your time and meaningful feedback can have a real effect on them and their wellbeing. And boost their progress. 

And if it's you in this situation remember the imposter syndrome is real, and everyone at every level suffers from it. But also know that we can all find strategies to deal with it and not let it get the better of us.

We find programming difficult not because there's something wrong with us, but because it's complex.