By Jim Grey (about)
I hired a software developer right out of college. He had a lot to learn, but he learned it steadily. Yet he admitted to me privately that he wasn’t sure he belonged. He thought that the other developers spoke so confidently and delivered so competently. He compared himself to them and, in his mind, came up wanting.
What he didn’t know was that I was leading developers for the first time. I’d been in management roles in the industry for a very long time, but always of testing and communications teams.
Worse, I hadn’t written a meaningful line of code in about a decade. Even then, most of that code was test automation. That’s not the same as writing product code.
Yet here I was, leading developers. The CTO who hired me wanted my skill in managing people, leading projects, and refining process. But I had so much to learn about modern software development. It was embarrassing to need the developers to explain the basics to me.
I told this young developer this story and admitted that I felt like an impostor, too. But I’d experienced impostor syndrome before. I knew that with effort and time I’d learn what I needed to learn and the feeling would abate. More importantly, even with all I needed to learn, I knew I had something valuable to offer right now. He did too, I told him.
We all figure it out as we go. In time, we build experience that lets us get it right more often.
What I wish I’d told him, what I’ve learned since then, is that there are three kinds of impostors. There are the impostors who don’t know they’re impostors. They’re so self-possessed that they overestimate themselves. There are the impostors who know it but do everything they can to hide it. They live in fear and anxiety that they will be found out. And then there are the impostors who know it, admit it to themselves, and sometimes even admit it to others. They’re the ones who can grow the fastest.
This young developer was the best kind: he admitted it. It let me tell him my own story, which helped put his mind at ease. Then it let us talk frankly about the areas where he felt like he didn’t know what he was doing, so I could pair him with other engineers who could level him up faster.