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Programmer Imposter Syndrome: 3 Devs Explain How to Overcome It

Programmers at all stages of their careers deal with imposter syndrome. But that feeling of inadequacy is especially prevalent among aspiring and junior developers, who often question whether they deserve to work alongside senior developers on a project or team. Those new developers may not realize their more experienced colleagues suffered from imposter syndrome when they were starting out and may even continue to feel that way.

Imposter syndrome is often a meritless feeling. But knowing that doesn’t help you dismiss or deal with it. In this post, we’ll learn about three programmers’ experience with imposter syndrome. They’ll share tips on how to overcome it and explain why it’s OK if that feeling doesn’t go away.

This post draws on insights the developers shared during a recent Zoom panel. The talk was hosted at The Room by members of The Room’s software engineering program.

Let’s start by understanding what programmer imposter syndrome is.

What Is Programmer Imposter Syndrome?

“Imposter syndrome is the belief that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be,” Isaac Nyakoi, a developer at Libryo Limited, said during the talk.

Everyone has a different experience with imposter syndrome. Programmers will feel it under different circumstances, such as when they are

When a programmer feels imposter syndrome “depends on what you’re working on, where you’re going, and what you want to achieve,” said Peculiar C. Umeh, an Android developer and open-source enthusiast.

How to Overcome Programmer Imposter Syndrome

For some programmers, imposter syndrome never goes away.

“There isn’t a solution to imposter syndrome. It comes on and off at different stages,” Umeh said.

Even folks who have become more confident in their skills and ability can still experience it. That’s the case for Ferdinand Bada, an Android engineer at Simprints.

“For the most part, I have overcome imposter syndrome. But it’s not 100 percent,” Bada said during the panel. “I’ve seen some people with some impressive skills out there that make me think the code that I write is some sort of joke. But I know it’s not rational completely based on the work I’ve been able to do.”

For the most part, I have overcome imposter syndrome. But it's not 100 percent. I've seen some people with some impressive skills out there that make me think the code that I write is some sort of joke. But I know it's not rational.

Luckily, there are many things you can do to mitigate imposter syndrome. The panel participants recommended doing these things:

  • join a community
  • find mentors
  • ask questions
  • seek constructive criticism
  • put in the time and keep learning

Let’s take a closer look at those tips.

Join a Community

The No. 1 tip that all the panelists stressed was the importance of finding a community to support you.

“We have mentioned this for the thousandth time: community, community, community. People are learning better when they are learning with each other,” said Firdaus Salim, a current participant in the ALX Software Program who moderated The Room’s session.

Nyakoi and Umeh both value the communities they belong to. Nyakoi noted that any time he needs help, he reaches out to members of his community because he knows they are competent within their space.

That community could be your coworkers, an online group, or something else. And if you can’t find an existing community, Salim said, you can always organize one yourself.

Find Mentors

Equally important to having a community of peers is to find mentors.

I like surrounding myself with people who are infinitely better at something than myself in one way or another. It could be in terms of the experience they have in the industry. So, with people like that, it always gives perspective on what you know and what you don't know.“For every community I join, I always look out for the best [people in that group]. I always look out for them and draw close to them and make them my mentors,” Umeh said. She stressed the importance of seeking out those people and developing relationships with them, as your mentors won’t find you unless you make an active effort to engage them.

Who you want to be your mentor will depend on your goals, but it’s essential to find those people.

“I like surrounding myself with people who are infinitely better at something than myself in one way or another,” Bada said. “It could be in terms of the experience they have in the industry. It could be the skill level itself. So, with people like that, it always gives perspective on what you know and what you don’t know.”

In addition to showing you where you have gaps in your knowledge, mentors can also be a powerful source of motivation. Whenever Umeh is struggling with a project or loses her motivation to write code, all it takes is a check-in from her mentors to get her back on track.

Ask Questions

Folks shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions—of mentors, coworkers, or anyone else. Bada noted that junior developers who are suffering from imposter syndrome may think that if they ask questions, the company will discover that they are a fraud and fire them.

“That’s probably not going to happen,” Bada assured listeners.

Rather, asking questions is how you fill in the gaps in your knowledge that are causing your imposter syndrome, he said.

Umeh agreed, noting that asking a question can lead you to do more research and understand something you need to know to contribute to a certain project.

Every criticism, whether good or bad or constructive or not, the way I handle it is I always draw strength from it. Why? Because it gives me that kind of feeling that you need to do more. I actually welcome criticisms because they help me to learn a lot and be better.“I always find strength in this,” she said. “Whenever I try something for the first time and don’t get the answer right, that has always been where I draw my strength from. Because what it does is this: it gets me to be inquisitive and research more until I get the right solution.”

So, programmers should get in the habit of asking questions often.

“Even if it’s something I feel is stupid, I’m going to go ahead and ask questions,” Bada said of the mindset you should have. “And over time, as you get into discourse you start to understand that no one expects you to build something that is going to revolutionize the internet in one day.”

Seek Constructive Criticism

Programmers should be receptive to constructive criticism. And, if no one gives criticism, they should seek input from their senior coworkers on what they could have done better, Umeh said.

“Every criticism, whether good or bad or constructive or not, the way I handle it is I always draw strength from it,” Umeh said. “Why? Because it gives me that kind of feeling that you need to do more. I actually welcome criticisms because they help me to learn a lot and be better.”

“Criticism is a catalyst for learning,” Salim seconded.

Put in the Time and Keep Learning

Once you’ve surrounded yourself with a strong community and mentors whom you can ask questions and get feedback from, the only thing you can do to combat imposter syndrome is keep growing your knowledge and skills.

“If you’ve worked hard, if you’ve put in the time,” you’ll realize that you deserve to have your role, Bada said. “We spent two years in that ALX program, and it is intense. That is not all for nothing.”

How to Stay Motivated Despite Programmer Imposter Syndrome

Putting in the time is often easier said than done, especially when you’re battling programmer imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome can make quitting look attractive, but it’s essential to push past that feeling. The panelists had some tips for how to stay motivated.

Finish What You Started

Nyakoi said you simply have to make sure you finished what you started, noting that many people start something and never finish it.

“To stay motivated, you have to ensure that you practice. And practicing also requires you to have people who support you and encourage you,” Nyakoi said.

We have mentioned this for the thousandth time: community, community, community. People are learning better when they are learning with each other

You also have to avoid the desire to be a perfectionist, he said, as this can cause you to either feel that your work isn’t good enough or prevent you from progressing on a project.

“It’s good to not overly expect much or trying to perfect everything, but just to make sure that whatever you do, make sure that you accomplish it,” he said.

Salim suggested planning out how you plan to accomplish something so you have a roadmap on how you’ll follow through.

“It’s always good to plan your progress,” she said. “I tell myself, if you want to do something, prepare your journey. If you are learning anything, if you have a set goal, make your way to there so that you can actually reach it.”

Look at Job Postings to See What Skills You’re Missing

I'll normally go through [a job's] requirements and I'll check, 'Do I have this?' If I don't have this, then after looking at them I'll see some skills I haven't learned already, and that helps me to know what is obtainable out there and what skills companies are looking for.To stay motivated and challenge yourself to get better, Umeh recommended looking at job postings and requirements for positions you’re interested in.

“I’ll normally go through the requirements and I’ll check, ‘Do I have this? Do I have this?’ ” Umeh said. “If I don’t have this, then after looking at them I’ll see some skills or someplace I haven’t learned already, and that helps me to know what is obtainable out there and what companies are looking for, what skills they are looking for.”

Seeing what positions interest you and knowing what you need to learn and where you want to go helps you define your goals, Bada said. That way, when imposter syndrome strikes, you can remember what you’re working toward.

But Wait to Apply for Jobs Until You’re Ready

But while looking at jobs that you’re interested in can help you define your goals, you shouldn’t apply to them right away. To avoid the myriad rejection letters that will come from applying to jobs you aren’t qualified for, it’s important to know when you’ve learned enough to start submitting applications for certain positions.

“There really is no silver bullet” to knowing when you’re ready to apply for a job, Bada said.

“It has to do with just putting in the time and learning and then getting to a point where you feel ‘What can I do?’ And once you start understanding ‘what can I do?’ I think if I were to answer that question, that would be the time when you can start gauging yourself as to are you ready or not,” he said. “For example, if there are five requirements and maybe you meet four of those or three of those, then it’s a good chance to start gauging yourself.”You may find that many learning programmers say, 'I'm not perfect in this concept. I need a few more months of learning so I can be able to do this job.' But if you have the skills, you can train yourself and the actual [practice] on the ground is what you really need.

But on the other hand, Salim warned that perfectionism can be your enemy when you’re looking to enter the workforce.

“People ask themselves, ‘Am I really ready to transition myself from the code newbie to a new developer, a junior developer?’ ” she said. “You may find that many learning programmers say, ‘I’m not perfect in this concept. I need a few more months of learning and hands-on skills so I can be able to do this job.’ But if you have the skills, you can train yourself and the actual [practice] on the ground is what you really need.”

Don’t Put Too Much Pressure on Yourself

To that end, the last thing you should remember is to take it easy. You won’t master anything overnight, no matter what stage of your career you’re in.

“To this day, I’ve been [at my current job] eight months, and I still don’t understand all that code and I’m still afraid that I would be told to go do something in a particular module,” Bada noted. “It’s still scary, but it gives me confidence because I’ve worked with the little things that I haven’t worked with before. So, that understanding also helps to boost that ‘OK, I can do this’ and just taking it easy and not trying to absorb everything.”

“Just take it easy,” Bada said. “No one is asking you to write the next Google. No one is asking you to write the next Uber.” Then, as you build your skills over time, you’ll also build up your confidence that “you know what, I actually deserve to be here, I have the skills,” he said.

When Imposter Syndrome Strikes, Challenge Yourself to Get Better

At the end of the day, all you can do to combat imposter syndrome is remind yourself that you’ve worked hard to be where you are and that you do deserve to be here. And remember that no programmer is ever done learning.

Development is a career that is marked by the need to learn continuously. Technology is constantly updating, and programmers need to update their knowledge at the same pace.

So, when you start to question your knowledge or ability in relation to your peers, challenge yourself to get better. That internal drive to make yourself more competitive will ensure you stay ahead of imposter syndrome and any doubts it might seed.

Editor’s note: Make Me a Programmer thanks The Room and the panel participants for allowing us to share some of the insights from this talk as an article with our readers.