We’re neither rock stars nor impostors

Recently, Rach Smith raised some important points about how we tend to talk about impostor syndrome:

  • it minimizes the impact that this experience has on people that really do suffer from it.
  • we’re labelling what should be considered positive personality traits - humility, an acceptance that we can’t be right all the time, a desire to know more, as a “syndrome” that we need to “deal with”, “get over” or “get past”.

If you haven’t read her post yet I highly recommend you do. The issue came up again during Rach’s chat with Dave on Developer on Fire.

I can’t truly say I’ve experienced impostor syndrome, although I suspect that’s mostly because I’ve often been in small teams where everyone was similarly skilled. For example, I was once one of two novice web developers in a product development team. We really didn’t know what we were doing. I did feel unqualified, but since there was no one more experienced to compare myself against I didn’t feel like an impostor. But I did suffer from low self-confidence and a huge pile of self-doubt. Fortunately, experience and education has helped me come to grips with the limits of my knowledge and ability. I’m sure that self-awareness has contributed to better performance independently of any increase in my skills.

It all got me thinking about my experience with how jobs are advertised and how interviews are conducted, about the pressure to elevate one’s technical skills, about the growing awareness of the importance of “soft” skills, and about the rock star culture that’s promoted in some parts of the industry.

Rach noted that even highly successful senior developers sometimes experience self-doubt and the awareness of gaps in their knowledge. This is something that is all too often missing from discussions about preparing for interviews, especially for highly sought-after positions. We’re always told to prepare extensively (good advice), and to project confidence (sure, projecting a lack of confidence is understandably unhelpful), but the highest quality advice also points out the importance of awareness of the limits of one’s skills and knowledge so that they can be appropriately managed. Much of the advice I remember from my early days suggested I should do my best to cover up my weaknesses. I don’t believe that did anything but lead to feelings of insecurity and inevitably falling apart when the limits of my knowledge were revealed. Later, I received much better advice; to be able to say “I don’t know,” and then to work through the problem aloud, asking questions to fill in the gaps until I do have enough understanding to give a reasonable answer. And isn’t that more or less how we work each day? If anyone actually had the supreme skills and confidence we’re naively advised to portray during interviews, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t find the job challenging or interesting enough (and would likely inflict their arrogance and the consequences of their boredom on the rest of us).

Another topic missing from good career advice, fortunately less common these days, is the importance of soft skills. As Rach noted, “the most accomplished developers [have] constant awareness of the ‘gap’ in their knowledge and willingness to work towards closing it.” That sort of awareness is as important a soft skill as general social and communication skills. It’s a key part of metacognition. The people I’ve experienced most joy in working with are those who freely admit their limitations and strive daily towards eliminating them. That effort shows in their contributions at work that go above and beyond the explicit requirements of their role. Among the worst people to work with are those who do the minimum work required, without any awareness of the opportunities for improvement that pass them by every day. Even worse are those who perform at a similar level while believing that they are in fact contributing much more and at a much greater degree of competence1. The latter type of person is unlikely to experience anything that might be called “impostor syndrome”, although if anyone were truly an impostor, it would be them.

Beyond a growing understanding of the importance of interpersonal soft skills, there are many other non-technical skills that make a solid team member. For example, the O*NET database shows active learning towards the top of a list of skills seen as important for a programmer2. And yet typical hiring practices overwhelmingly reflect the prioritisation of immediate technical skills. I’m confident that’s a big part of the reason “rock star” developers are those seen as having the greatest skills rather than being most able to learn or improve. And yet the former doesn’t imply the latter, especially if those great skills lie in one highly specific domain; you can learn to do one thing really well without being able to generalise that skill, nor does it mean you possess other distinct but important skills. Other downsides of specialisation are a topic for another post.

Similarly, the poor attitudes and bad behaviours of some workers are accepted because of their technical skills, despite the negative impact they have on the people around them. I suspect this might be a subtle influence on feeling like an imposter; we provide a perverse incentive for people to behave in ways that no reasonable person wants to. Our industry favours those who promote themselves as the best coder, the most knowledgeable developer, the ideal technical candidate, and we (at least implicitly) discourage people from embracing their range of skills and their ability to improve.

1. The Dunning-Kruger effect in effect, so to speak.

2. Although communication skills are apparently the #1 requirement in computing-related job ads, other soft skills and transferable technical skills are far less frequently mentioned.