How I dealt with severe imposter syndrome.
I used to think I was dumb because I struggled academically in high school.
At university, I chose computer science as my major because I assumed it was a course anyone could do regardless of one’s academic background or level of intelligence. Also, I was intrigued by the possibility of using technology to solve real-world problems. Had I known what it’d take to be a computer scientist beforehand, I would have never entered the field. I would have automatically disqualified myself as incompetent.
Most people who choose to do computer science believe they have an above-average level of intelligence so they are ready to take on the challenge. Most times, the challenge takes over them. My university had a 75% dropout rate for computer science majors. It was simply that hard for a majority of students — even brilliant ones. Generally, people who did well in computer science were exceptional and highly talented people — whether they knew it or not.
Then there was me. I thought of myself to be unintelligent and yet here I was, choosing to do computer science.
After my first year at university, I landed a software internship during the summer. I was excited to make money but I felt like a fraud. I knew they didn’t hire me because I was competent. Why was anyone hiring someone who didn’t know how to code?
When the summer was over and it was time to go back to school, my boss extended the internship for another 6 months. He said he loved my work and wanted to keep me longer with the company and I could work while going to school.
Honestly, I knew it was a lie. I felt he liked talking to me, I was a good culture fit for the company, so he was willing to keep me around. I had come to learn that many companies keep incompetent employees as long as the boss likes them. I was now one of those.
After my second year, I got another summer internship. A few weeks into it, my boss made me a tech intern manager. He thought I could be a great leader to the rest of the interns.
That made me skeptical of his judgment. How could he possibly know after only 3 weeks what kind of leader I was? I had never led anything at any job. I scrapping by writing code and hoping it could work. Now intern manager? I was convinced he was setting me up for failure so he would have a reason to fire me.
At the beginning of my third year, I applied to be a research assistant with one of the professors in the department. I genuinely didn’t think I’d qualify but I thought it didn’t hurt to try. I ended up getting the job. It was a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded research project with an award-winning professor. Many master's students had been rejected by the professor when they expressed interest in working with him — he felt they were incompetent. But he chose me? A third-year undergraduate student?
This intensified my bouts with anxiety. I was absolutely sure I was going to be fired in the first week. I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew nothing about research in computer science. I wasn’t even writing good code for homework. Now research? I was 99% sure I had become a master liar because people kept hiring me. But my days were numbered and I was going to be let go. This was the breaking point.
Shortly after getting the research job, I started applying to internships because I needed a backup plan. I was sure I was going to be fired from this research position so I needed to have something lined up. I started sending out applications. In past years, I was only able to get callbacks from small companies. This time things were weird. Interview requests came flooding in from Google, Facebook, Bloomberg, and many other tech companies in just my first week of applying.
Normally people are excited about such news. I wasn’t. I panicked so bad. This can’t be me. I felt like I had embellished so much of my resume now people think I’m someone else. I was largely afraid that these companies would find out I wasn’t as smart as I appeared on paper and I would be fired immediately. So I declined all interviews from the big companies. Besides one from a small start-up.
After I interviewed with the start-up, I knew they weren’t going to take me either. I knew the code I wrote during the interview was terrible, buggy (meaning it had mistakes) and there’s no way they would call me. In fact, I had even asked for more time to finish the algorithm. Why would anyone want to hire a slow coder?
The next day, I received an offer letter. I was so shocked when they offered me the job. I started wondering if they were picking just anyone. I even asked the engineer who interviewed me, why did you give me the job? He said, “Your resume was the best we had received for this summer’s interns and after speaking to you, I knew we had to hire you without a doubt.” How? I felt like I was now lying my way through things. They were going to find out after hiring me that I was a smooth talker and a liar who didn’t know what I was doing.
But I took the job anyway and started in the summer. I also kept the research position part-time. Towards the end of that summer, Google reached out again. This time it was for a potential full-time job after graduation. I had never applied to google for a full-time job. Why was their recruiter reaching out to me for a potential software engineering job after graduation? I hadn’t even started my final year in college. This was one year in advance. Moreover, they hadn’t even officially opened the applications for these jobs to the public.
I asked the recruiter, how did you find me? I haven’t applied for this position at all. He said “Google assigns recruiters to particular schools to hire graduating engineers every year. I’m assigned to your school. We check student profiles, their LinkedIn, personal website, and their public resumes and reach out to the best candidates. Your resume was hand-picked for next year’s graduating class.”
In case you’re curious, here’s my college resume.
During my third year, I had thought of launching a tech start-up after graduation instead of getting a full-time job. When Google reached out again, it made me stop and really think. What if I wasn’t as bad as I thought myself to be? What if I had skills that people around me could see but I was blind to? Their invitation to work with them is what really gave me the final push and confidence to launch the start-up. If Google thinks I’m potentially a good engineer, then I’ll put that to test. I’ll create my own software for a business that solves real-world problems which I care about. Let’s see how that works out.
So, I said no to Google.
I began working on my start-up after graduation. I imagined, if I can get customers to want to use my product, then truly, these people were not wrong. Maybe I’m truly gifted and talented and incredibly brilliant.
One year later now, we’re beta testing the app. Sometimes, customers can be the harshest critics and the most difficult people to impress.
However, most of our target customers are impressed with the software. A user commented on one of our features on the app and said “Wow, Mercy, this is innovative.” Another tested the app and said, “I’m definitely paying for this. How much can I pay to use it? and when can I start using it?” He then called his business partner and said “This girl has built something that’s going to save us a lot of money. We need her.”
Realizing I struggled with imposter syndrome
One of my professors gave a talk about imposter syndrome during my senior (final) year of college. After the talk, he said that over 80% of the class (I was part of this 80%) contacted him to thank him for speaking on this topic because they had been feeling dumb. I’m talking about high-achieving, exceptionally bright students who I greatly admired were also are grappling with feelings of inadequacy?
This is how I realized I struggled with imposter syndrome. My perception of my worth was based on how I performed in comparison to others and I used my past experiences to judge my present capabilities.
The bigger problem? I was not paying attention to all the things I was doing right already.
Learning to value my work helped me realize that I was good enough.
I didn’t write the best code during my first internship, but I did have the best eye for good user interface (UI) design. My boss, later on, told me they kept me because I designed such a good prototype for the website revamp, that they chose to use it for the platform re-design. Even though I didn’t know how to code well at the time, I had a valuable talent that not all engineers have: good UI design.
At the internship where I become an intern manager, my boss didn’t have to coordinate the interns anymore because I could do it. His work was now much easier. Managing people while doing your own work is an incredible skill to have and I had it. I underestimated myself by thinking my job was only about writing code yet it was so much more than that and I was already doing well at the “so much more”.
The professor I did research with said he had been impressed, during my job interview, by my knowledge of the technologies and which ones I wanted to focus on in the work I did. He said “Many students come here trying to do the “latest hottest thing” and yet here you are, you want to do something because you understand its value and how you can use it.” He was impressed.
During my college years, I worked on many personal projects and learned so much from them. It’s not every day that you find a college student who worked at over 6 internships all before graduation, with their own personal projects and independent studies in tow. That was exceptional. That is a driven student with a strong work ethic. No wonder Google was interested. Which employee wouldn’t want that?
It took me time to really sit down and start to appreciate a lot of the effort and work I had been doing overtime which was now paying off. I didn’t need to compare myself to others. I was good already and other people could see it. I needed to see it for myself too.
These days, when I sit with people more junior and are starting out in their programming journey, they seem to think I magically know all these things. Yet really, I just spent a lot of time being thrown in different directions having to learn different technologies to get things done. I’ve worked on not less than 10 projects in the last 5 years I’ve been programming (while going to school for 4 of those years). So eventually, I’ve tried so many things and that experience helps me make better decisions while programming and makes me look like “I know stuff”. I do. Not because I’m any better but because I tried really hard at doing things continuously and never gave up. As time went on, I naturally progressed and became good at them. This gave me more confidence to know that I can actually get things done as an engineer.
Seeing the impact of my work changed my focus. The more my work benefited others, the more I began to believe in myself.
First, I had to figure out that what truly brought me satisfaction in my day-to-day life was doing work that solved a problem for people and had a social impact. So I decided to focus on doing more of that kind of work.
Consequently, I eventually got over my fear of not being good enough since I found that, for the most part, the problems I was attempting to tackle lacked solutions. So, in fact, no one had the answers. I was in a decent place to find out how to fix these issues, which gave me a lot of confidence in my capabilities.
Also, I now wasn’t as concerned about running into challenges that I had never encountered before and potentially seemed like I couldn’t solve. When you work on “hard” things several times, even when you feel incompetent, you give yourself a testimony for the next time you have to do something difficult. When I get anxious these days, I remind myself of all the difficult things I’ve accomplished over years. This isn’t going to be the hill where I die. So I keep going.
Gradually, it has mattered less if I am smart or good enough — what matters is if I am solving a real-world problem or making an impact in a community with the work I do. This is what truly gives me confidence that I’m good enough and I can do whatever I set my mind to.