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Impostor Syndrome in Software Engineers: What It Is and How to Overcome It

Impostor Syndrome in Software Engineers: What It Is and How to Overcome It

Have you ever felt like you weren’t the right person for the job? Or were you worried that everyone was going to find out you were a fraud and not qualified for a position?

If so, you may have experienced what’s called “impostor syndrome”. Many professionals, including software engineers, suffer from it at different points in their career. What is impostor syndrome, and how can you overcome it? Keep reading to find out.

What Is Impostor Syndrome? 

Impostor syndrome is defined as a “psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud", despite evidence of their competence.”

In plain English, it means that you feel like you are a “fake” in your job, and that you will be called out on it at some point, even though you may have years of experience or have had success in your career. You may think that your success is due to luck, or that others simply haven’t noticed that you’re not qualified -- again, despite all evidence to the contrary.

This feeling can lead to self-doubt, anxiety, and overly focusing on small mistakes or failures that don’t actually indicate incompetence. In some cases, impostor syndrome can lead to self-sabotage, where your feelings about yourself lead you to miss out on promotions or new opportunities. Or they can cause you to set unattainable goals, and then be too hard on yourself when you don’t meet them.

How Common is Impostor Syndrome? 

It’s estimated that over 70% of people have had at least one episode of impostor-like feelings at some point in their lives. For some, the feeling may be temporary, for example, after receiving a big promotion or making a major career move. For others, the feelings of self-doubt can last for a long time, even when it’s clear that they are well-qualified for their job and successful at it.

What Impostor Syndrome Isn’t 

This isn’t to say that some people aren’t actually impostors -- people who have lied or exaggerated their accomplishments to qualify for a position. Making up or lying about education, experience, or qualifications to get into a better position isn’t impostor syndrome. However, those who suffer from impostor syndrome haven’t done any of those things, and are usually very successful at their chosen profession. Still, despite this evidence, they feel that they are not qualified and are frauds waiting to be discovered.

Why Do Software Engineers Suffer From Impostor Syndrome? 

Impostor syndrome is very common among people in high-performing careers, including software engineers. Here are some reasons why this may be the case.

Software Engineers are Perfectionists 

The types of people who choose to become software engineers may have perfectionist or overachieving tendencies in their personalities. These qualities make for great engineers -- an attention to detail and the ability to set and achieve goals is an important part of coding and software development.

But these same qualities can lead to impostor syndrome if they go too far. A small mistake -- or a major setback -- can nag someone who tends to be a perfectionist, leading them to feel that they aren’t qualified for the job. If these feelings persist, they can lead to the self-doubt and anxiety that comes from impostor syndrome.

Software Engineering Is Challenging 

Coding and software engineering can be a difficult job. A programmer may get stuck on a problem for days or weeks, and begin to feel like they’re not making progress. If this happens repeatedly, it can make you feel like you’re not qualified for the job -- even though you may actually end up solving the problem in the end!

In addition, many software developers work collaboratively with a small team or with other teams. The goal is to catch mistakes and produce better software -- but for some, the small mistakes can add up over time into feelings of incompetence, leading to impostor syndrome.

Software Engineering Is Competitive 

Though more people than ever are getting into coding, and more companies than ever are hiring programmers, software engineering jobs at the highest level remain very competitive. A job at a big tech company like Apple, Google, or Facebook is viewed as a major goal, and these companies still attract some of the brightest talent coming out of universities like MIT and Caltech.

So for software engineers who manage to land jobs at this level, feelings of impostor syndrome can set in. Why was I hired when there are so many people smarter than me here? While this is normal when starting a new job, if these feelings last, they can be symptoms of impostor syndrome.

How Can You Overcome Impostor Syndrome? 

Feelings of impostor syndrome can be a challenge for software engineers to overcome. But they’re not impossible to beat. Next time you feel like you’re a fraud, think about some of these points.

Review Your Accomplishments 

If you’re wondering how you got to the point where you are, why not look back and see? Think about the big projects you’ve worked on, the people you’ve worked with, and the products that you’ve been a part of. Think about your contributions realistically -- if you had a breakthrough that solved a big problem for your team, be sure to give yourself credit for it.

You can make this easier by writing them down as they happen. Put them in a little file or in a note on your computer or phone, and review them from time to time. (Plus, this will make it easier for you to update your resume if needed.)

Be Honest With Yourself 

This isn’t to say that you’ve never made a mistake in your entire career. But here too, be realistic. Think about a mistake you made and what happened. It may have seemed like it would end your career -- at the time. But think about what really happened.

In all likelihood, you fixed your mistake and you and your team moved on. It didn’t derail the project, bankrupt the company, or end your career -- it was simply a bump in the road in your journey.

When you can think about your mistakes in an honest yet realistic way, you’ll be able to put them in perspective with your achievements, helping you to overcome feelings of incompetence.

Continue Learning And Growing 

By continuing to educate yourself, you’ll add to your knowledge and skills to use in your career. Keep track of your progress and learning history to show yourself that you’ve learned the skills you’re now using. By continuing to grow in your career, you’ll give yourself more evidence that you have the skills needed to do your job.

Talk To Someone 

Finally, others can help you to overcome imposter syndrome. Speak with a trusted friend or colleague to get honest feedback about your job performance and your skills. If your company does performance reviews, use them to ask your manager for ways to improve -- and be ready to believe what they tell you if the feedback is positive.

If you continue to struggle with impostor syndrome, you may choose to speak with a licensed therapist or counselor. They may be able to help you get to the root of your thinking and overcome it, helping you keep growing in your career.