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"Do I Qualify?" And Other Questions Imposters Must Ask Themselves

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A word of caution from a former AP Computer Science teacher who, with zero real-world programming experience, quit her dependable teaching gig to become a software engineer: Imposter Syndrome is never late to class.

When we grow competent in our craft, yet continue to feel unqualified for our role, that feeling is known as "Imposter Syndrome." The syndrome was with me before I started, it’s here with me now, and it will probably be with me for a long time to come.

If you’ve experienced it too, then reading that last sentence may leave you feeling pessimistic, grim even — as if we anticipate a future where we never feel completely worthy of our position in life. But to that, I say: “So what?”

We do not control our feelings and we cannot simply "choose" to feel worthy, but we can control who we partner with and how we speak to ourselves. This is the story of how I found the perfect sidekick to my career-changing journey — a journey that swallows better people whole.

Do you team up?

As a computer science student, and then teacher, my software engineering knowledge operated primarily at one level: high. I knew how to write Java, how to sort lists backwards and forwards, and how to bitwise AND an integer, but my knowledge merely served as an example and never lived in production. Imagine writing vaporware for a living — it was kind of like that.

But I loved to teach, and still do. I learned an incredible amount simply by expressing my knowledge to younger minds. Learning by teaching, however, has its limits. Several times throughout my tenure as CS teacher, I reached the point of no return. This is the dread of every instructor: the moment a pupil asks a valuable question to which you have no valuable answer.

So, unlike many who become software engineers in pursuit of higher earning power, my goal was to pursue a new wealth of wisdom to bring back to my students, wisdom only gained through experience — I needed to walk the walk.

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From teacher to doer

After parting on good terms, I enrolled in a CS master’s program at Georgia Tech, studied for my interviews, and drafted up my resume. To my surprise, things moved too quickly. Despite having just started my transition from teacher to doer, companies clawed at me like I was the last Oreo in the sleeve. However, the enthusiasm was rarely mutual.

One after another, high-intensity interviews left me emotionally and mentally exhausted. Whiteboards were beginning to trigger me and daydreams of returning to my life as a teacher danced around my head. But somehow I knew the right opportunity was out there. Fate rewarded my perseverance when I discovered a curious startup named Panorama Education.

Panorama Education

Panorama provides a specialized data platform for educators. Their tool helps teachers and administrators track metrics of student success, and more importantly, student distress. The product itself was inspiration enough, but a student-focused software company was almost too natural a fit for someone who spent years focusing on her students. I was hooked. However, my limited but emotionally-taxing experience with software interviews prepared me for the worst. I was ready for Panorama to grill me with technical questions, lambast my absent semicolons, and chew me out of the room.

I’m grateful and overjoyed to express that none of these occurred.

Curious things happen at organizations that target the education market. When these companies align themselves with student outcomes, they adopt internally the same practices which deliver those outcomes; they place a focus on education. During my first interview at Panorama, rather than sit there and judge me as I "coded" on a whiteboard, my interviewers joined me on their feet. Two engineers bounced ideas off of me and one another to architect a fictitious web application.

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The application was fake, but the experience was real — for the first time since leaving my students behind, I felt like a peer of the community I swore to join. The team invited me back for a second interview, one which pressed the education issue further.

By this point, I would’ve done three Olympic-worthy backflips to make the cut — and I stretched every night just in case — but in lieu of additional coding exercises or impromptu gymnastics routines, my interviewer expected me to learn.

During the interview, I learned git rebase, a topic which lacked immediate appeal. But I trembled with excitement to learn anything of value from a job interview outside of where they kept the good snacks. I paid close attention to the particulars of rebase, and my interviewer challenged me along the way to apply knowledge immediately. And as if this interview lacked originality, at the conclusion I was asked for my opinion.

Across several scenarios, would a merge have better communicated my work intent? What price was paid by rebasing onto master rather than merging? Should we change our workflows to avoid rebasing in the future? Why or why not?

I was less shocked by the content than I was by the line of questioning. The interviewer absorbed my beliefs on the subject despite me having discovered the technology moments ago. I felt important, needed, and valued.

Later, I realized this interview ensured I was capable of learning, adapting to new perspectives, and applying them in my day-to-day. Educating one another would reveal itself as a tenet of Panorama culture, one that ensured my opinion was valued and reminded me that I belonged.

Do you qualify?

When you’re switching careers to software engineering and you get that first job offer, that “I’ve made it” moment can be a trojan horse of Imposter Syndrome feelings. I stared at my job offer and wondered aloud, “I’m technically not an engineer, don’t they know that?”

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On my first day, as I stood in a circle of the company’s latest recruits and prepared to share my name and role with everyone, anxiety swelled my throat. A high-school teacher was about to call herself a software engineer, and the words she needed had ditched class. The inadequacy and not-enoughness that composes Imposter Syndrome may always be present, but these feelings are strongest in moments when we must present ourselves to others. I wanted to say, “Hi, my name is Meg, and I’m a software engineer,” full-stop. Ten words, nary an error among them, simple and honest. But if you’re intimate with Imposter Syndrome, you’re familiar with qualifying your statements.

“Hi, my name is Meg, I’m a software engineer… but I used to be a high-school computer science teacher and this is my first time working at a place like this, professionally, err, so yeah, I’m here to learn from you guys and do my best!”

I qualify to protect myself, and shock is what I protect myself from.

My good friend Tom from college, several faculty and fellow teachers, and every single person in my yoga certification program shouldn’t have much in common, but they all suffered from the same shock. When I told them what I now did for a living, they cocked an eyebrow and repeated my title back to me as if I were the victim of some Freudian slip: “You’re a software engineer?!” The looks on their faces and tones of their voices combine to what I describe lovingly as the "Patronized Surprise" (PS).

PS is a look of endearing shock that one might express upon seeing a dog walking on its hind legs, a baby forming a sophisticated political opinion, or you know, a woman writing a conditional statement. People generally mean well, for their surprise conveys a sort of unintentional respect — for me having achieved something beyond their imagination — but their imaginations are the source of my, and many a woman’s, pain.

Reactions such as these leave me angry and anxious in anticipation of the next time I’m asked to articulate my role. But rather than confront my patronizers by examining their prejudice, I bury myself further — I qualify, again. I respond in the most sincere way possible with phrases such as, “I can’t believe it either!” or “Yeah, I’m really lucky,” or “Well, I’m still pretty new at it,” and that’s after two years on the job.

The flaw in qualifying ourselves is two-fold.

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First, qualifying yourself reinforces the stereotypes presently entrenched in the other’s mind. The qualification namely seeks to extinguish the explosive brushfire of cognitive dissonance set ablaze by your words. The other hears your job title, your strong opinion, or worse, your objection, and upon processing these statements, your words contort their mind into a mental pretzel; a position they only escape by defying their reality or doubting yours.

The latter of the two is the path of least resistance — I’m right and always right, so you must be wrong. By saying things such as, “Well that’s what I read somewhere,” or “But it’s just a silly idea,” you gently nudge a mind teetering on the precipice of change back into its comfort zone.

Second, and far more critical to you and I, qualifying ourselves is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Phrases such as, “But I just started, so I’m still learning,” don’t come out of someone else’s mouth, we utter that drivel. The way we speak to ourselves and about ourselves (a process known as self-talk) reinforces what we believe about ourselves as well. If we spend entire workdays qualifying our ideas and roles, why wouldn’t we feel the same level of uncertainty as our mouth-character proclaims? Because ultimately, what we say is what we think.

For every qualifying statement I devised, I had to spend equal, if not more brain power undoing the damage and rebuilding my self-image — like having to constantly patch a wall that I insist on karate-punching a hole through.

Do you improve?

When I joined Panorama, education happened everywhere I looked: between team members during pair-programming sessions, between colleagues during our "lunchineering" talks, and more intimately, between fellow female engineers who spotted my self-qualifying speech and wanted to help me put an end to it.

They noticed it in person, but saw it more acutely in my messages on Slack. Someone would catch me pre-qualifying my statements with, “I think…,” “Sorry to bother you…,” “Maybe we might want to possibly consider…,” and a host of other filler phrases that required my colleagues to read more words but gain fewer insights.

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After taking a hard look at this pattern, I came up with a trick that I continue to use today. Before sending off a formal Slack message or an email, I first send it to myself. The sending is key because I need to read my text from the perspective of my recipient, a colleague or peer receiving my message with fresh eyes. After re-reading what I plan to send, I diligently purge all qualifying statements from my paragraphs. Also, keeping in line with self-talk, I re-read it to myself as an affirmation of my skills and confidence before sending it off — no walls to patch here.

If what we say truly reflects what we think, then the extra couple minutes we spend editing ourselves before presenting to the world is a highly valuable two minutes.

Do you fear the imposter?

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Earlier, I wrote of keeping Imposter Syndrome with me as a sort of gaudy souvenir, something that I would cling to for years to come. I can’t say for sure if that statement about Imposter Syndrome is a fact, but in stating it, I’m certain I’ve removed its power. Imposter Syndrome is not something to be feared or conquered, it is a series of natural reactions to new responsibilities and roles in which we do not yet feel comfortable. But as so many great thinkers have already shown us: nothing grows in comfort, pressure creates diamonds, and to gain something you’ve never had, you must do something you’ve never done (me, Patton, and Jefferson, respectively).

I encourage you to look at Imposter Syndrome not as a source of pain, but as a symptom of personal growth and great things to come. When it rears itself, remember that it is merely a reflection of how you perceive you. Keep it calm by teaming up with people who encourage you to learn, make mistakes, and share your thoughts. Then treat your knowledge with the same respect that you treat others’.

I wish you the best of luck on your journey, and may it be as fruitful and life-changing as my own.

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