Dealing With Impostor Syndrome as a Developer

Everyone faces impostor syndrome.

It's the feeling of being a fraud, doubting your abilities, or fear of others discovering all the things you don't know.

The fear of asking questions because others might think you are dumb.

I somehow landed my first job as a software engineer without writing any code in the language the company used. I didn't even know they used it until my first day. You bet I kept my mouth shut and didn't tell anyone that I had no clue how to work with that language. I was a fraud, and when they found out they would fire me.

Or so I kept telling myself.

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We all experience this self-doubt at some point. The voices in our head question good opportunities like asking questions or seeking help from teammates.

Impostor Syndrome sucks. We all have it, and it's slowing us down and holding us back from our potential.

How to Recognize Impostor Syndrome

We all think we're impostors in some way or another.

You should learn to recognize Impostor Syndrome, not just for yourself, but to help others around you.

Afraid of asking questions

Fear of asking questions can stem from the fear that others will judge you. If you ask about something that everyone else already knows, you think they'll look down on you for not knowing such a basic thing.

Odds are if you have a question about something, others might have the same question. Asking will not only help you find your answer but it will help your team learn and understand too.

Plus, you'll be seen as someone who participates and collaborates by asking questions and being more involved. That looks WAY better than not asking questions and barely participating in meetings and discussions.

Not reviewing and commenting on Pull Requests

I used to feel very nervous when I was reviewing another teammate's code. Especially if they were more senior than me.

How could an inexperienced developer like me possible have any feedback or questions about this professional's code?

First, that mindset couldn't be further from reality. Even the most senior, highly experienced developers rely on Google and Stack Overflow for so much of what they do, and your job as a reviewer is to give their approach a second set of eyes and to poke holes and find potential issues in their solution. Being young and inexperienced actually gives you a HUGE advantage here, since you have such a different perspective and won't generally make the same assumptions as the rest of your teammates. You've likely got new ideas and questions that others generally don't consider.

Also, believe it or not, reviewing PRs and asking questions will help you grow and level-up faster since you'll be able to learn about the strategies and decisions made by your teammates. If you just blindly accept pull requests, you're taking the easy way out and missing out on a great opportunity to learn and improve your own code.

Doesn't ask for help

One of the most obvious symptoms of Impostor Syndrome is the fear of asking for help.

Similar to not asking questions, if you feel like you need help with a certain topic you might also feel that it's a basic topic that everyone understands and you are a fraud because you don't.

Identifying teammates that don't ask for help is a good way to recognize those who may be dealing with impostor syndrome. Try to offer help without them asking, and make them feel important and appreciated like they truly are!

Doesn't finish side projects

Another symptom that can be found mostly outside of the work environment, is whether or not they finish projects on their own.

If you are not able to finish a side project, it might be from the fear of others thinking poorly of it.

I failed to launch one of my side projects for multiple years because I thought it was too simple and anyone that needed that functionality could build it themselves so easily.

This logic is so flawed and now that I'm saying it out loud it sounds pretty dumb.

First, more than 99% of the world's population can't even code so in reality creating anything with code is already an amazing feat.

Second, that "simple" functionality that I told myself wasn't good enough actually was the biggest and most impressive accomplishment when I later interviewed for my first job. What I build was not simple at all, not by any means. But having this side project and getting over the fear of others judging me for it had a significant impact on my future.

How to Deal With Impostor Syndrome

Even if we feel like frauds, we can try our best to mentally overcome this feeling.

It's uncomfortable, but that's proof of personal growth and development.

Understand that most people don't know very much

Developer's feel confident early in their careers before they are truly exposed to how much technology is out there. They get to a point later on where they recognize that they maybe have a decent grasp some tiny fraction of all programming knowledge, and that trying to really understand everything is futile.

Instead of feeling like a fraud for not knowing 99% of what's out there, understand that 100% of people also don't know 99% of what's out there.

We all rely on the internet to do our jobs. Using Google and Stack Overflow are critical parts of our jobs, and it's expected of us.

The reality is we can do our best to improve our learning skills and understand theory behind aspects of computer science.

But at the end of the day we need to recognize that we're all just trying our best. We prepare as well as we can, but there will always be more that we don't know and we absolutely should not feel bad about that.

Final Words

Impostor Syndrome is a very real issue that we all face at some point. It really hurts our growth and development too, and learning how to cope and overcome the uncomfortable feeling opens many opportunities.

To quote the great Kobe Bryant:

"Confidence comes from preparation. When the game is on the line, I’m not asking myself to do something I haven’t done a thousand times before"

At the end of the day, we solve problems. We solve thousands of problems. We will encounter problems that we don't know how to solve, but we also know how to ask for help. It's just a little hard to do sometimes.

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Hey, I'm Nick Dill.

I help people become better software developers with daily tips, tricks, and advice.