Imposter Syndrome

[ career-growth  reflection  ]

I often write about things I’ve learned, but this blog post is about how I’ve felt. Specifically, it’s about how I was feeling last fall as I was ramping up at my new job.

And how was I feeling, you may ask? In a word: Imposter-y. (We can argue about whether that’s actually a word in the next blog post 😄)

I’ve done lots of new things and scary things throughout my life. I dropped out of college and became a self-supporting adult at the age of 20. I went back to school and got my teaching degree. I’ve gone sky-diving. Moved across the country. Changed careers. Changed careers again.

I’ve had spikes of imposter syndrome before, but none that have hit as hard as this fall. Now that I’ve been able to move past it (we’ll get to this, I promise!), I’ve been thinking about why it hit me so hard.

Existing stress and burnout. Here’s how the past few years have gone for me: New job. Pandemic. Burnout. Layoff. Anxiety. Trying to find a new job as a manager with less than a year of manager experience. New job. Selling our house and leaving the place we’ve called home for eight years to move to Texas. Move back to Portland. Layoff. Anxiety. New job.

You may notice that “recover from burnout” doesn’t show up in that timeline. So I came into my new job with a higher baseline of stress, which made everything else even harder to deal with.

Organizational complexity. This is one of the bigger companies I’ve worked for, with several distinct orgs within the software engineering org. There have been changes and reorgs over time, so there’s also historical complexity. We have code names and historical names. There’s a ton of cross-team and cross-org dependencies, and sometimes it can be hard to figure out who owns what pieces of work.

Technical complexity. A lot of the work we’re doing is new to me. It’s not just new processes and new ways of working, but the actual project work we’re doing is very technical - which is a big part of where imposter syndrome kicks in. I started in tech as a software engineer after completing a bootcamp and dev internship. But my first full-time role in tech was as a QA engineer. I really loved the people and process thinking, and had already been drawn to that type of work during my internship. I also know that between people skills and tech skills, my strength is in the former. And I’ve never felt bad about that! It’s a good strength to have, I enjoy using it, and I know it’s been appreciated by the people I’ve worked with.

But here I’m surrounded by highly technical people, managers included. In part it’s because there’s a history of promoting from within, so highly technical ICs become highly technical managers. It’s also just been a pattern, whether purposeful or incidental, of hiring highly technical managers on the teams. So when I compare myself to many of my peers, I feel like I come up short.

Direct management. In many ways, my previous roles haven’t needed me to be a highly technical manager. My past manager roles have been within a matrixed org structure, meaning I manage SDETs who are embedded on a cross-functional engineering team that’s run by an engineering manager. So while I’ve needed a solid high-level understanding of multiple teams, projects, and priorities, I’ve never been directly responsible for delivery or needed a deep knowledge of the work.

In my current role, I am directly responsible for the team’s delivery. I do need a deep knowledge of the work we’re doing, what our priorities are, and what our inter-team dependencies look like. I need the ability to have meaningful discussions about those things with my team, my manager, and my peers.

Anti-pattern. I’ve always hit the ground running at new jobs. As an IC and as a manager, I start out on a listening tour - meeting peers and people across the org, learning about different projects and goals, understanding pain points, challenges, and complexities. I look for ways to contribute or have a positive impact, and I’ve generally been pretty successful at ramping up quickly. So I have a framework in my head around what success in a new role looks like for me.

But I wasn’t doing that here. I was trying to ramp up on all of the organizational complexity, technical complexity, delivery ownership - and I was floundering. And I knew I was floundering. And this wasn’t matching my framework of success, which meant I felt like I was failing.

Meanwhile, I was also ramping up on people management and team management responsibilities. Because I was flailing on the other stuff, I put all of my focus and energies into these areas. I got to know my people. I started learning how we operated as a team, and where people wanted improvements. I started building the ever-important foundations for trust, psychological safety, and communication. And these things matter! They’re important to focus on - but I was focusing to the point of (and partially in order to) excluding the things that I wasn’t feeling successful at.

The people and team management focus kept me busy, but I started to feel the pressure from my technical gaps more and more as I was hitting the end of my first 90 days. Those gaps felt overwhelming. They felt insurmountable. And I felt like an imposter.

My instinctive response to stress is not fight or flight - it’s freeze. And I froze. I didn’t know how to move forward from those feelings. I didn’t feel like I could ask for help, because it would expose me as an imposter to everyone else. I’d lose the respect of my team, and my manager would realize that he’d made a mistake in hiring me.

In hindsight (and honestly, in real-time if this was happening to anyone else but me), I recognize that those feelings were not rooted in reality. They were rooted in fear.

So how did I un-freeze and move past my imposter syndrome? (I told you we’d get to it! 😄)

Small steps. The initial answer is - a little bit at a time. I talked / vented with my spouse to tell him how I was feeling, and why I had been so stressed. Just saying to someone helped because it was finally out of my head and out in the ether for someone else to look at.

Community support. My next step was posting about it in Rands Leadership Slack (RLS). RLS is full of supportive, empathetic, smart, kind, helpful people. In spite of knowing that, I was still really anxious about asking for help. I’m terrible at asking people for help (I’m working on it). But I took a deep breath, wrote it all out in our #first-90-days channel, and hit enter.

The discussion that ensued was heartwarming, and so supportive and kind, and also a relief to be able to admit all of this. (Mark - if you’re reading this, the experiences you shared were especially wonderful in helping me realize that I wasn’t failing, it was a normal thing to go through, and that I could move past it and succeed!)

Heart-to-heart. And then I worked up the courage to talk with my manager, and to be honest about how I was feeling and why I was feeling those things. And it was a great talk! He reminded me that he knew exactly what he was doing when he hired me - and that he hired me because of my people management strengths. He reminded me that my initial focus on people and team management was important and part of his expectations for success.

And then he gave me the advice to be vulnerable. The things I was telling him? Tell my team. Trust them, and trust in the relationships I’d been building with them. Ask them for help. Let them share their expertise with me so I could be a better manager.

So I did. I set up learning sessions with folks to deep dive on our various services. I talked openly about feeling like an imposter. I chose to be vulnerable, and I asked for help, and I trusted.

And it worked. People were more than supportive - they were genuinely happy to help. They wanted me to succeed. They appreciated that I trusted them, and that I was willing to ask them for help.

First 365 days. I’m now way past my 90 days, and heading into my first year! You might be asking - did my adventure through imposter syndrome change the way I work? What did I learn? Did the lessons stick?

It’s one thing to learn the theory of something, and another to actually experience it in practice. In theory, I knew the importance of being vulnerable. In practice - it was much, much harder. But now that I have experienced it, I know firsthand how important it is and what kind of positive difference it can make.

I learned that I can do the hard things. I can feel terrible and figure out how to get past it. I can ask for help!

I also learned that I am not, and likely will never be, the only person who feels like this. When I admitted to people that I was struggling and feeling like an imposter - everyone else shared that they had also felt like that when they were starting out. They knew that we owned complex systems and services that took more time to ramp up on. Sometimes they had to look things up to answer my questions!

I learned that it’s okay to feel like an imposter, but that it’s not okay to let it stop me in my tracks. I can feel it - and then I can move forward. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I have imposter syndrome, but my experiences here mean that I’m better equipped to handle it successfully next time it happens.

And if you are feeling like an imposter - I hope this blog post is a gentle reminder that you’re not alone in feeling that way. Ask for help. Be vulnerable. Trust the people around you. You’ll make it through, too ❤️

Written on July 7, 2023