Managing Impostor Syndrome in Tech

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts on diversity and inclusion in tech workplaces, coordinated by Lindsey Martin. Future posts will be able to be found at this link.

She crouched low and pulled her hat over her eyes, afraid that someone would discover she was an impostor. Dressed as a man, she didn’t feel comfortable, but knew it was the only way. She stepped up to the front lines and leveled her gun. Her name was Sarah Edmonds. In order to fight in the US Civil War, she had to pretend she was a man. She must have slept uneasy every night, worried she would be discovered and sent home, but malaria got to her first. After many successful endeavors in the military, she deserted to avoid being discovered as a fraud while being treated for malaria. Sarah Edmonds served in the US Civil War, yet because of societal expectations and gender rules she couldn’t truly be herself as she served. She lived as an impostor every day—yet that didn’t stop her from making a difference.

You’d be surprised by how many people regularly feel like impostors. Research by IJBS estimated that “70 percent of people experience impostor syndrome” at some point in their lives. More specifically, Blind found that 58% of workers in tech feel like impostors.

Impostor syndrome can be paralyzing, but just like Sarah, people who feel like impostors can move forward even when they fear they don’t belong.

I’ve felt impostor syndrome all throughout my schooling and career. Even good grades weren’t enough to persuade myself that I would be successful. For example, in college I was told I only got A’s because of my gender and that I “had it easy” getting a job because I was a woman. That was so frustrating to hear after late nights completing the same projects as my peers, participating in extra coding competitions, and completing countless whiteboarding problems to prepare for interviews.

While I have been able to work through those comments, I still regularly feel like an impostor. At a high-growth company, I’m constantly presented with opportunities to take ownership and have a bigger impact. It’s easy to feel like I’m not enough for the new opportunities that come my way. It’s easy to let my inner impostor run rampant.

In the past, I told myself I needed to overcome impostor syndrome. I expected that one day I would know enough to finally feel like an expert, and truly believe I was one. While some people may eventually overcome impostor syndrome, I’m no longer waiting for that day. I no longer see impostor syndrome as a disease that limits my abilities and holds me back from success.

I now work through my feelings of self-doubt and recognize that when I feel most insecure is when I have the greatest opportunities for growth. I’ve developed techniques to thrive despite impostor syndrome, and hope they can work for you too.

  1. Talk openly with co-workers and mentors about impostor syndrome. You’ll be surprised how many people feel—or have felt—similarly. Having these conversations reminds me that I’m not struggling with these feelings alone. It helps me see that even those who are successful feel similar doubts. It also allows me to develop a support system. 

    As I’ve talked about feeling like an impostor with peers and mentors, I’ve connected with others feeling similarly. It still surprises me to see other successful individuals feeling similar self-doubt. This was my first step towards realizing I could be successful despite feeling like an impostor. At Lucid, I’ve built strong relationships with peers and mentors who help me see my successes, and who build me up when I’m having doubts. 
  2. Take ownership. One of the most meaningful ways I’ve discredited feeling like an impostor is by being absorbed in a project I am passionate about. At Lucid, some of our core values are individual empowerment, initiative, and ownership. I’ve found as I take ownership on projects and drive them to completion, my excitement about work overpowers doubts in my mind.
  3. Record your success, regularly and in a central location. As a manager, I consistently record accomplishments of those on my team. This gives me a holistic view of what they’ve worked on when I’m preparing end-of-year reviews. As I write these reviews, I make sure to use data to prove their successes (such as  number of bugs fixed, performance improvements made, etc). One day, I realized, if I go through all these efforts for those I manage, why am I not doing the same for myself? I now regularly record my successes and back them up with data. I’ve learned that one way to disprove thoughts of self-doubt is with data that actually shows how I have made an impact.
  4. Discover what you need and then communicate your needs to your team and mentors. For instance, I’ve found that when I receive positive feedback, I need specifics to support it. On the other hand, my co-worker prefers positive feedback from their direct reports rather than their manager. The point is to find what you need and then communicate that need to others. 

    People—especially co-workers—don’t know how to best help you if you don’t tell them. I’ve known some individuals who go so far as to create “user manuals” for each member of their team. These manuals include information like how they want to receive feedback, preferred work conditions and forms of communication, and other work preferences.
  5. Be you. Don’t be bashful about your strengths and career goals, and certainly don’t try to be someone else. For years I didn’t want to pursue computer science because I felt like I didn’t fit the stereotype. Over time, however, I’ve realized there is no one-size-fits-all mold of how to be a successful engineer.

    At Lucid, we highly value collaboration and I’m regularly reminded that there would be no need for collaboration if we were all expected to be the same. With different interests, strengths, backgrounds, and goals we can support one another in ways we never could if we all “fit” the stereotype.

A topic I think is just as important, but maybe discussed less than managing personal feelings of impostor syndrome, is helping others cope with their own impostor syndrome. 

This has been an interesting topic for me as I’ve grown into a management position and become more focused on helping my team members succeed. With this position comes the responsibility to help others live with and work through impostor syndrome. Here are some things I’ve learned that can help.

  1. Talk openly about impostor syndrome. By doing so, others on your team can realize they’re not the only one feeling that way. Especially if you’re in a leadership position, be vulnerable and open about what you don’t know. Leaders who can be vulnerable can connect with others in powerful ways. Also, emphasize the importance of collaboration on your team. Give people a safe space to get help and have their questions answered.
  2. Celebrate those who ask questions. I recently attended a talk by Randall Munroe, author of the xkcd webcomic. He talked about one of his biggest frustrations: how people shame others when they don’t know something that seems basic.
    XKCD Ten Thousand by Randall Munroe
    Source: XKCD Ten Thousand by Randall Munroe
    It’s easy to mock others for lack of knowledge. It’s much better to celebrate those who are seeking to learn. Let’s reward curiosity rather than shaming it.
  3. Give specific, actionable feedback. When you come across problems in the workplace, recognize that people are not the problem, behaviors are. My inner impostor tells me I’m not enough. I challenge that thought regularly by focusing on actions that lead to failure and success, both in myself and others. With both positive and negative feedback, make sure to be as specific as possible so others understand how to succeed. 

    I provide feedback following the pattern, “When you did _________ it caused ________.”  Telling someone “good job” is easy, but essentially useless. Specific praise is much more believable and communicates how to be successful in the future. Similarly with negative feedback: detailed communication focusing on an action to change is much easier to believe and gives someone an action plan of how to be successful in the future. It’s important for everyone to understand that actions lead to success or failure, it is not something inherent in who they are. By giving specific, actionable feedback you are helping others learn how to succeed.

Sarah Edmonds was a legitimate impostor in a time when only men could serve in the US civil war. Yet, she didn’t focus on being an impostor. Instead, she focused on what she wanted to accomplish and she did it. She did not let her fear of being discovered as a fraud keep her from being successful. One of my biggest fears is being discovered as an impostor. Sarah’s story inspires me because even joining war knowing she was a fraud, she was able to still contribute and make a difference. While Sarah was an actual imposter, managing imposter syndrome doesn’t suggest you are an imposter, but points to just how easy it is to feel like one—afraid of being thought of as a fraud, or as someone who doesn’t belong—especially in your career, and especially at a high-growth, high-performing company where the stakes and expectations are high.

The truth? Don’t believe your impostor syndrome when it tells you that you are not good enough, that you’re a fraud, or that you don’t belong. Instead, use these tools to drive success while living with impostor syndrome, striving for a mindset and feeling of belonging. 

At Lucid, I work with incredibly talented people. When I joined, I would compare my coworkers’ strengths to my perceived weaknesses. I now deliberately work to counteract that way of thinking. I’ve been given opportunities to excel, which always comes with growing my own abilities and doing more than I used to be comfortable with. There will always be a part of me that feels like an impostor, and now I know it doesn’t have to affect my ability to succeed. I now use these steps to manage my impostor syndrome and continue moving forward when facing doubts.

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