How to avoid developer imposter syndrome

Every software engineer experiences imposter syndrome at various points in their career. Here are some of the most powerful techniques I use to put this debilitating mindset in its place.

Never use words like ‘lazy’ or ‘stupid’ to describe yourself.

The words we use to talk about ourselves – even casually – affect how we show up in the world. It might seem innocent to laugh something off and say, “Haha, oops, I’m such an idiot”, but this language seeps into our subconscious. The more we tell ourselves we’re stupid and lazy, the less we believe in our own abilities. The less we believe in our own abilities, the more we feel like an imposter. The more we feel like an imposter, the more we try to hide, not speak up, not ask as many questions, and as a consequence, the less we learn. The less we learn, the more of an imposter we feel, and the cycle continues.

Here are some phrases you might catch yourself saying, and some alternative scripts to use instead:

  • “Oh crap, sorry I missed that, I’m such an idiot.” → “Oh wow, I totally missed that! Thanks.”

  • “This is probably a stupid question but how do you…? → “How do you….[just ask the question]?”

It can be particularly tempting to reach for verbal self-flagellation when we’ve made a mistake, but it’s important to remember that we are not our actions. A problem may have been caused by something we did, but calling ourselves “lazy” is a piss-poor excuse that doesn’t help anything. Instead, take a look the actions you took, or what external factors might have caused it. This isn’t just kinder, it’s more productive.

Elaborate on what you don’t understand

Admitting that you don’t understand something can feel quite vulnerable. It’s the core experience of imposter syndrome, the feeling alone in your ignorance in sea of extremely competent people. It’s hard to combat. But I’ve found that a great way to stop feeling like I’m "secretly the dumb one” is to ask smarter questions. Take this as an example:

“I’m hearing you use the term ‘controller’, which I understand in certain contexts to mean X, but it sounds like you’re using it in another way. Can you elaborate on what you mean by ‘controller’ here?”

This isn’t about trying to sound smart, it’s about providing context. Just saying, “Sorry, I still don’t get it” isn’t helpful because the other person has no idea which parts you understood, and which parts you didn’t. By providing more color to where we’re coming from, we can get to the answer quicker. I love this technique because not only does it help you learn faster, it also serves as a defense against the urge to call ourselves stupid.

I also tend swap phrases like “I don’t understand” with ones that illustrate the gaps in my experience. For example:

  • “I’m not familiar with that term, could you explain it?”

  • “I haven’t run into concept before, can you tell me more about it?”

I’ve found that I’m much less likely to judge myself if my reason for not understanding is due to a simple lack of exposure, rather than a lack in my cognitive abilities.

Parrot back what you’ve learned

The best way to commit something to memory is to teach it to someone else. For this reason, always repeat it back in your own words when you’re learning from someone else.

“Okay, so let me see if I can explain it back to you…does that sound accurate?”

Many people skip this step, especially when they feel nervous about sounding stupid by asking questions. This is one of the most dangerous traits of imposter syndrome, how it makes us want to fade into the background. The less we engage, the less we grow, thus perpetuating the imposter feelings. Practice parroting back what you learn, and I promise you’ll be amazed at how much more information you retain.

To be clear, I don’t recommend this to help you learn more so you “aren’t an imposter anymore.” Over coming imposter syndrome has to do with bravely shining light on what we don’t know

Replace “I’m sorry” with “thank you”

There are some things worth apologizing for, but if you suffer from imposter syndrome, you tend to think you need to apologize for far more than you ought to. It’s a much more empowering stance to replace “I’m sorry” with “thank you”. Try it and see what a wonder it does for your confidence.

Actively update documentation

One of the most irrational parts of imposter syndrome is blaming ourselves for not knowing things that are tribal knowledge. When important information is stuck in people’s heads, how on Earth could you be expected to know it? For this reason, if you come across important information that isn’t written down, document it!

  • We have a couple different kinds of tests in this codebase, some for good reasons, others are just technical debt

  • Document historical context. If there’s crufty code, make note of it in the README or as a comment in the code

Ask for help – without being disruptive

A trap many of us fall into is not asking for help for fear that we’ll be a nuisance. And sometimes we are! And frankly, sometimes people are just crotchety and it’s not something we should take personally. However, there are ways to ask for help that are less intrusive. Here are some examples:

  • “When you’re at a stopping point, could I ask you some questions about XYZ?”

  • “I’m a bit stumped on X – do you have 30 minutes to help me rubber duck this issue?”

  • “Can I grab some time on your calendar to discuss ____? I have some questions about X.”

Take notes!

Asking once is okay. Twice is also fine. But ultimately, you are responsible for remembering things you’ve been taught. Having to repeatedly teach someone the same thing is disruptive, so take notes!

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#The Biggest Takeaway

The antidote to something as pernicious as imposter syndrome is clarity and grace. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the solution is to “stop being an imposter”, because it’s not. The solution is taking an honest and non-judgement look at what things we still need to learn, and giving ourselves the credit for what you do know.

Written by Annie Sexton

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