Software development and Imposter syndrome

by Sara Dragojević, November 24, 2022


With fast-changing technology, which makes our lives easier in one aspect, come the demands that can make our lives harder in another. One of those prevalent demands comes in the form of a constant need to learn new things so we could keep up with the non-stop changes.

For some of us, “non-tech” people (and the majority of the older generations), sometimes it’s already hard enough trying to catch up with new or improved features of applications and devices because as soon as we get used to something, there is already an upgrade or a completely new way of how things work. As such, if we want to keep using a particular product or a service, we will have to apply a well-known (and slightly changed) meme phrase - Learn. Adapt. Overcome….and repeat indefinitely.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are those who have the responsibility of planning and implementing said changes in the products and services we use - software developers. Despite all of the education, knowledge, and experience a person may have, there is always some uncertainty and obstacles in the field of software development. Failed attempts to solve a complex task leave just enough room to gradually turn a bit of self-doubt into Imposter syndrome.

What is Imposter syndrome? 

There are a few definitions, but I would describe it as a psychological manifestation in which a person (usually a high-achieving individual) doubts their competencies and abilities despite their education, experience, and accomplishments. A person attributes their success to external factors (luck, being in the right place at the right time, being surrounded by the right associates…) and they perceive any minor setback as a confirmation of their incompetence in the role.

Even though this topic is not researched in detail on a scientific level within the population of software developers, there is some research conducted on computer science students, that confirms this phenomenon is common in the world of technology and programming. There are also a lot of self-reports from software developers working in big tech companies who feel like imposters and, should you google it, there are quite a number of articles that programmers themselves write about this topic.

In the work setting, people with Imposter syndrome are more prone to experiencing higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout, which in the long term results in a decline in their performance and job satisfaction; and in the environment where people are being let go off, the ones with Imposter syndrome can feel guilty and feel like they are the ones who did not deserve to stay. Needless to say, all of these can have a negative effect on a person's mental health.

If you’re dealing with a fear of failure (or success) and low self-esteem, if you’re having a hard time establishing a good work-life balance, or if you are prone to questioning yourself and your decision, there is a high chance you’ll feel like an imposter.

Let’s see through the example of one of our senior developers what are the problems she had to deal with over the years while working on various projects, and how she managed the feeling of incompetence.

Some thoughts of our Senior developer on Imposter syndrome

As someone who’s prone to self-doubt, I’ve had my fair share of instances where I felt like an imposter during my professional career. It was obviously more present when I was just starting out as an intern and was unable to dig myself out of the majority of errors that I would encounter. I would first be frustrated with the error, then with myself and my inability to fix it, and then I would have to fight the hesitation to ask my mentor for help.

As years went by and I gained more experience, I began to develop a better resilience towards new challenges, but even then, switching to a new project would feel daunting at first, especially because by that point I would’ve grown comfortable working on the previous one.

Likewise, there are other situations that can make you doubt yourself, such as taking on new roles and responsibilities. Helping with onboarding and mentoring new employees is also challenging in the sense that you may feel like you need to be able to provide all the answers for them at the drop of a hat, just because you’re considered a senior. The truth is, nobody knows everything, and there is no shame in admitting that you’ve never encountered an issue that your mentee is facing. What you can do in these kinds of situations, regardless of your knowledge of the particular topic, is to help them navigate those uncharted waters. Teach them how to face situations where they have no idea what they’re doing, because guess what - they’ll be experiencing those even after years of programming. Sure, it will happen less often, but it won’t magically disappear.

The reality of software development is that we’re working with unknowns all the time. Continuous learning is at the very core of what it means to be a programmer. If you’re able to meet every challenge with the mindset that it’s an opportunity to learn (as opposed to an opportunity to fail), you will save yourself a lot of anxiety.
Also, if everything else fails, a good rant with your co-workers about your tasks is always good for the soul. :)

If you recognize yourself in her struggles, in the text below, there are some guidelines on how to manage it (from science's perspective).

Guidelines on how to make Imposter syndrome more manageable

a) yourself

 - Focus on learning instead of performance - try to accept that making mistakes is a normal part of your work and of gaining new knowledge.
- Be aware that a lot of other people also have these feelings; talk to a colleague or a friend about your experience.
- Understand that feelings are not facts, if you made a mistake it doesn't mean you are incompetent. Try tracking your progress and accomplishments.
- Try not to overwork yourself - it can lead to even more anxiety and stress and enhance the feeling of feeling like an imposter.

b) manager

- Clarify responsibilities and your expectations from employees (especially when the workload is increased).
- Create realistic expectations from employees depending on their experience and knowledge.
- Involve employees in proper training for their career development and mentor them towards self-directed learning.
- Show more support, encouragement, and recognition of people's accomplishments.
- Encourage employees to talk about their failures between themselves or their peers to reduce the feeling of being the “only one” who feels this way.
- Enroll employees in the resilience training program.

In conclusion, Imposter syndrome is a manifestation in which capable, high-achieving individuals attribute their success to external factors. It is more common in people who have low self-esteem, those who are prone to question their decision, and those who have a fear of failure. Complex work tasks, lack of structure, guidance, and uncertainty can intensify the possibility of feeling like an Impostor and enhance feelings of stress and anxiety. To keep Impostor syndrome under control, feel free to use some of the advice in the guidelines written above this paragraph. :)

About the author:
Author avatar
Sara Dragojević
Sara handles all the employee-related questions and ideas. From administration, office management, new policies implementation, planning and organizing events to selection and recruitment process, onboarding, talent management, and all other HR operations.