Starting a career in software engineering can be overwhelming at first, but recognizing and overcoming imposter syndrome helps build confidence. When I started my career in tech, I felt underprepared and overwhelmed despite having studied computer science in college and doing multiple internships at prominent tech companies.
From the beginning, there were new coding languages to learn, huge codebases to navigate, unfamiliar tools for observability to use and the code review process to grasp. Different companies had different requirements and expectations, depending on their size and scale. The combination of learning new skills and moving into unchartered territories was a lot to take on all at once.
Besides the technical challenges, I was learning what it was like to collaborate within a larger team and with cross-functional partners. Overwhelmed by the demands of my new job, I was also dispirited by how easily my teammates seemed to navigate all the tools, languages, codebases and processes. Comparing myself with colleagues hurt my confidence and made me question whether I had what it takes to succeed in this industry.
What I was feeling was the textbook definition of imposter syndrome; the uneasiness caused by feelings of inadequacy had the potential to derail my career before it had even really started.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is described as “feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persist despite your education, experience and accomplishments.” Given the demanding transition from school into the tech industry, it is not hard to see why a majority of tech workers feel imposter syndrome at some point in their career.
The effects of imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome prevents people from performing their best by reducing their confidence in their own abilities. When consistently feeling self-doubt and incompetence, people are less likely to take on the challenges and risks that are necessary to grow their career and subsequently move up the career ladder.
Imposter syndrome can be initiated and compounded by negative treatment within the workplace. Imposter syndrome is externally validated when experiences like the following occur:
- Being interrupted in meetings
- Peers assuming someone is not the lead on a project they do in fact lead
- Being assigned tasks no one else wants to take on, such as taking meeting notes or planning team events
While imposter syndrome affects many types of people, the above situations most commonly arise for women, nonbinary people and underrepresented talent, producing more barriers to their career growth.
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What I learned combatting imposter syndrome
I worked with my mentors on ways to overcome my imposter syndrome. Over time, I became more confident in what I could accomplish. This personal growth led me to not only be successful in my career, but also to help others new to industry in the same way my mentors helped me.
Two tactics that I leveraged and recommend to others are:
- Manage expectations
- Partner with a mentor
Let's take a closer look at each of these and discuss the kinds of resources that new engineers can take advantage of using examples from my experience mentoring junior engineers at DoorDash.
Many aspects of imposter syndrome arise when people have inaccurate or unrealistic expectations about how they are supposed to perform in their job. By managing expectations, people can better frame their performance in a positive way and feel confident that they are doing their best. These expectations tend to fall in the following buckets:
- The journey vs. the progress
- Pacing: a sprint vs. a marathon
- Setting appropriate goals
- Everyone starts somewhere
The journey vs. the progress
For many engineers I work with, a common issue is focusing more on how far they have yet to go instead of how far they have already come. While there are many benefits associated with looking forward, it’s important to appreciate the progress that has already been made to avoid triggering imposter syndrome. Many people I work with discount the headway they have been able to make despite all the obstacles in their path; instead, their eyes are always looking ahead to what is next. Many successfully graduated from top higher education institutions and secured highly coveted jobs in the industry.
Despite these incredible accomplishments, many junior engineers I work with only think about what they have left to accomplish and how long it will take to achieve their goals. Not only does the next goal seem daunting, but the slow pace to reach those goals can also feel like a barrier. It can be beneficial to focus on how far they have already come to remind them of what they have accomplished and the numerous challenges they have already overcome. With the right perspective, it is easier to appreciate prior achievements and use this to fuel the journey ahead.
Pacing: a sprint vs. a marathon
Another important frame of reference I tell my mentees to use is to think of their whole career as a sprint vs. a marathon. In a sprint, runners expend all their energy in a short amount of time, pushing the limits of how fast they can possibly go. In a marathon, on the other hand, runners pace themselves to be able to get to the distant finish line as fast as they reasonably can. Careers are long and the end is often not in sight. By setting a steady pace, like a marathon runner, new engineers will be able to travel far while also picking up interesting information or new skill sets along the way that they might otherwise have zoomed past.
I have seen many new engineers try to ramp up quickly by glossing over important learning steps, such as fully understanding how certain code flows work and the reasons behind the way certain code is structured. This ends up hurting their overall progression because they do not write code that fits into the current structure of the codebase or rewrite existing functionality. If they had taken more time at the beginning to better understand the foundations of the codebase, they would have been able to make progress faster.
Feeling like their current pace of performance is not sufficient, many people sprint in their jobs and burn out when they do not save enough energy for the next task or challenge. This sprint mentality can come from internal pressure on oneself or from pressure within the company to deliver projects – or both. While these quick wins can provide instant gratification, repeatedly exerting too much effort to deliver projects faster can increase the feeling that one is not cut out for the job, amplifying the impression that too much effort is required to be successful.
In reality, it can take many months if not years to build up the proper skillset to reach one’s full potential. While in school, doing an all-nighter or working super hard to solve a challenge may work, it's not sustainable over a multi-decade career. Therefore, planning for the long term rather than focusing on the short term allows junior engineers to sustain an extended career in tech and develop a more realistic perspective about what they can reasonably get done in a given amount of time.
Setting appropriate goals
In my mentoring experience, I see many new engineers enter the industry sprinting because they are chasing a goal they may not have fully thought through, which can have detrimental effects if it is not attained. Setting an audacious goal like getting promoted as fast as possible or becoming a manager in record time may actually negatively impact someone's drive or ambition if the goal is not realistic. Lofty aims can create high expectations that people cannot satisfy. Instead of chasing an unrealistic goal and feeling imposter syndrome when such high expectations do not come to fruition, I tell new engineers to focus on developing their core skills and finding the primary interests that will guide them for the rest of their tech career. After they’ve identified these, they will be able to understand what they are trying to achieve and avoid constantly feeling inadequate.
Everyone starts somewhere
When my mentees feel imposter syndrome because peers seem so much more suited to their jobs, I remind them that everyone started somewhere. Everyone was new to the job at some point and dealt with the steep learning curve involved in entering the workforce. It's important to recognize the value of experience. Over time, experience helps people develop pattern recognition as they solve similar issues, allowing them to come to a resolution faster the next time such an issue comes up. This experience may not always be easy to recognize, which is why people can feel overwhelmed if they compare their performance to others. It's important to understand that their peers started at the beginning just as they are doing now; they overcame challenges and developed strong skill sets over time. Instead of comparing one’s performance to more-experienced colleagues, it is better to acknowledge each personal success as progress toward the experience required to conquer any roadblock.
Partner with a mentor
I believe overcoming imposter syndrome is easier with the help of a mentor who has had similar experiences and seen comparable situations. Because imposter syndrome can be improved with a shift in perspective, a trusted advisor can help a mentee see the larger career picture. My own mentors articulated for me what a new engineer typically experiences, pointing out universal situations versus those that were unique to me; this process allowed me to understand whether what I was experiencing was normal. My mentors also helped me to differentiate areas of growth from actual competence. This showed me where I could work to improve so that I could meet expectations and course correct to get back on my career trajectory.
Mentors can illustrate a successful career path, helping to define growth well beyond the initial phases of a career. For women and underrepresented groups in particular, mentors can serve as role models when there may not be many examples of success to look up to. I personally had mentors who showed me my potential future opportunities in tech simply through the positions in which they excelled.
Taking advantage of company mentorship opportunities
DoorDash offers mentorship and career development programs that help overcome imposter syndrome by creating a supportive work environment. DoorDash has a program called NeoBuddy/FemBuddy that pairs new engineers with seasoned colleagues from a different team. This lets new engineers reach out beyond the team to learn about how others handle problematic situations and grow their network at the company. There is also an Engineering Technical Mentorship program to pair engineers pursuing a new skill, such as machine learning or Android, with a volunteer mentor who has experience in this area within the company. This is a great opportunity for new engineers to work one-on-one with expert engineers in a specific area to improve their skills in a safe learning environment.
DoorDash also offers programs to support underrepresented groups in tech. I participated in WOLF – Women’s Leadership Forum. WOLF is a cohort-style program focused on encouraging emerging women leaders through coaching, mentorship and improved access to senior leadership. I enjoyed meeting with other women in technical roles across the company and learning how to develop my career with sessions covering topics including networking, “Influencing Without Authority” and “Being Strategic.” Programs like WOLF allow participants to find a community of like-minded people who can be a support group.
I have grown my DoorDash support network through the NeoBuddy/FemBuddy, Eng Tech Mentorship and WOLF programs. Any time I need to shift my perspective or manage my expectations, I can reach out to this network for support. These strong support groups provide people I can turn to as I seek to accomplish more goals in my career.
Imposter syndrome is more a symptom of a lack of confidence than anything else. For that reason, I remind new engineers to believe in themselves because without confidence, they cannot make mistakes and grow from these experiences. If instead they believe they can learn from every situation, attain the skills needed to be successful and bounce back from any setback, there is little downside in taking on challenges and risks; in this way, the worst case scenario becomes a learning experience rather than a personal catastrophe. Mistakes are best viewed as learning experiences. I ask new engineers not to let imposter syndrome get in the way of taking risks, freeing them to see their true potential.
It is not easy to overcome imposter syndrome, but acknowledging it frees anyone to create a plan to overcome it step-by-step. By managing expectations and partnering with a mentor, anyone experiencing imposter syndrome can overcome it and achieve their full potential.