Confronting Impostor Syndrome

Tagged as careers, personal, programming

Written on 2015-03-10 19:57:00

For the bulk of my professional career as a software developer, I've felt like a fraud. To some extent, I think various aspects of tech hiring practices and tool fads/fetishes in the software industry create or exacerbate this feeling in most of us.

I read Joel Spolsky's Java Schools article way back when, before I was really programming. I looked down on Web Dev for a long time. I played with lisp, played with emulation. ... But I've been a professional web dev. Why am I fighting it and being hard on myself for not being a systems programmer?

I flogged myself for some time, a little voice in my head saying that web devlopment "isn't real programming". I would flog myself for not being good at web development when I hadn't embraced it. I would flog myself for not being knowing systems programming when I haven't put any time into it.

Sure, there's plenty I still don't know. But "I don't know but I can figure it out" is the right instinct to have. Trying a bunch of stuff and not finishing is vastly better than paralysis. Exploring any ecosystem and building better apps is better than misguided elitism.

I'm a hacker, through and through. I want to learn, want to improve, want to synthesize new things from my understanding, grow, share, and change. I looked up to the hackers of lisp lore and AI Labs. But that hero worship has become negative, is distracting me from just building things.

Part of the reason that little voice is in my head (and I listened to it for so long) is because I thought I didn't have a chance in this industry.

I've been a successful developer for years but often unable to enjoy my jobs because I've been too uncomfortable to embrace them. Then feared I'll be found out as a fraud, not a "real programmer".

I've been telling my students that since they understand the major components in web development and have some understanding of how they fit together, their real focus to grow should be practice. Constantly building bigger things, trying to make each piece more cleanly than in the past, gradually knowing how to solve harder and harder problems.

I stopped taking my own advice at some point. It's time to build new things again. Bigger things. Not the prettiest or the best, but real.

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