What am I doing here? A story of imposter syndrome by a junior developer…

“Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

Apparently around 70% of people have experienced imposter syndrome, and it seems to be even more common in software development.  ‘Its normal!’ they all say.  ‘Everyone feels like this at first! You’ll be fine!’.  Well it certainly doesn’t feel like that on day 1.  Or even day 10 or day 100.  Don’t get me wrong, my colleagues and managers are amazing, and have been patient, and helpful, and genuinely lovely from the start.  I am in awe of the people around me and their knowledge and skill – to me they are true geniuses, and I can only dream to get to that level someday.  But in those early days, my dreams turned to thoughts of ‘what the heck am I doing here?!’, ‘Why did I think I would be able to pull this off?!’ and wondering why, after 34 years of actually feeling pretty clever, my brain seems to have just suddenly dissolved to nothing.

My story

Throughout my life, I never struggled academically.  I just seemed to grasp things and had a good memory which helps, especially in a school system where exams are essentially memory tests.  However, I was good at Maths too so figured I must have some kind of logical brain.  I did well at school, went onto Uni to do a degree and then an MA while working full time.  Although I felt time pressures, I didn’t struggle with the work and enjoyed studying.  Even throughout my working life, I constantly took up exams, qualifications and any learning opportunities that were thrown at me.  I guess I have always been a bit of a ‘swot’ as they were called at school, a bit of a ‘Hermione Granger’ type.  I always got good grades – not that they came naturally to me, I always had to study mega hard. It sounds as though I am bragging slightly, but I am just trying to set a scene for things to come…

I worked for the Council for 9 years in all kinds of jobs ranging from call centre work, to apprentice recruitment, to Trading Standards.  That was interesting – I had no idea about consumer law and was handed a stab vest on my first day in the job.  Still, I studied the law and worked there for 3 years, never really feeling like an imposter strangely, considering the circumstances. However, after 9 years in the public sector, I needed a change and had my sights set on ao.com.  I really, really wanted to work here, and secured a job in the contact centre where I worked for 3 years.

I wasn’t completing any qualifications, for the first time in my life so around 2 years ago I decided I needed to learn something new.  My little brother had been home from uni that weekend and he had been dabbling in a bit of coding for one of his modules.  He showed me his work and I had no clue what he was on about! But that left me intrigued.  I mentioned it to a friend who told me about that good old classic Codecademy! So, along with many others around the globe, this was my way in! It was a hobby, something to do – but I was hooked! I made a little pretend website, pure HTML, looked like it was from the early 90s. But I was so proud of it! I went on a workshop at work – an introduction to coding, and it spiraled from there.  Soon I was on an apprenticeship and I am forever grateful to the people involved in helping me with this opportunity.  It all happened so quick!

Fast forward to my first day at the Code Nation Bootcamp, all excited like the first day of school, but with more coffee, armed with my hoody and my ‘Talk Nerdy To Me’ mug. Second day, introduction to JavaScript – luckily I had managed to do a tiny bit on FreeCodeCamp so I was still feeling confident.  End of the first week – first project, to make a cash machine app.  To say I crumbled was an understatement.  From then on, not a day passed by without me thinking ‘What have I done? I really cannot do this’, ‘What if all I had was a good memory?’ –  and there were tears, lots of them.  Me and one other girl on the course were known as the cry-babies! I can’t explain why I felt the pressure so much and it seems silly now, I was only learning after all, but I felt like everyone around me was getting it and I just couldn’t.  I felt pure frustration – I had never in my life felt like I struggled with learning something.  I was emotional because I desperately wanted this.    

Then came plenty of that other classic line ‘One day it will just click’.  How many times has any junior dev heard that? I was praying for that day to come. 

In week 8 of the 12 week course, I went back to my cash machine app. And I just did it! I don’t know how, but things had finally started to click! Anyone in this job knows that feeling of pure elation when something works, when you ‘did a thing!’.  Even a year on, that feeling is still the best in the world! After this I felt much happier and was chosen to do the end of year presentation at leavers graduation, to show off our final project website.

Feeling excited at the prospect of building a real website and finishing my training

And so I went into the workplace pretty confident.  Haha, little did I realise it was right back to square one, in fact, square minus one, if that’s a thing.  I knew nothing!  Imposter syndrome really comes back with a vengeance.  I genuinely started to google things like ‘What if I just can’t learn Javascript’.  I stood in stand-ups, went to meetings, and was involved in pairing sessions not understanding half the words – it’s a cliché but it really was another language. It was funny because I even felt silly saying some of these words – they sounded strange coming out of my mouth, and I felt sooo embarrassed whenever anyone was watching me do anything.  But I felt fully supported at the same time, by my colleagues and managers and funnily enough, there were no meltdowns. I felt much calmer, as all the things I had learned at BootCamp started falling into place in the workplace.  I realised this fear was all internalised.  I grew more confident every day, and a year down the line, I feel like I have come so far and my knowledge has expanded rapidly, even though every day is a still learning curve.  But that’s what I love, and that’s why I love this job.  I feel happy to spend weekends and evenings learning more, but when you get stuck into something in this world it’s addictive!

And the funny thing is, even senior devs, people who have been doing this job for 10, 20 years tell me they don’t know everything – they struggle sometimes, everyone has their specialties .  As languages multiply, and frameworks and libraries grow, we can’t all know everything, so I guess we all feel like imposters at some time or another in some way?

Tips for anyone feeling like this

  • First is trust in yourself and your own ability. It WILL happen! Don’t compare yourself to others around you – everyone learns at a different pace.
  • When you want to learn something new, try mini-projects that are interesting to you – try and make them as personal and useful as you can, as that will pique your interest.  Whether it is a game, making a website for a friend, or an app you think would do well.  I have found that if I find it interesting and relevant, I learn quicker.  The turning point for me was at BootCamp making a site that would be used by a real business.
  • Make use of all the resources around you.  Again everyone has different learning styles.  Online tutorials are great, and you will often find YouTubers that explain things better than others (my favourites are Net Ninja and Mosh at the moment).  But then I have also just bought a really good book so you can’t underestimate the power of good old fashioned paper, and a pack of highlighters: many people think this is strange as we are living and breathing tech, but I have found it a nice change.   Pair-programme as much as you can.  Learn from those around you.