I was amazingly honoured last night to be asked to sit on a panel of Women in Technology last night, addressing young women in the Wellington Summer of Tech program.
One of the questions that kept coming up and kept being addressed was one of how we should stand up for ourselves and feel like we know enough to contribute.
It’s a huge problem for me and for many of the women I know, and it leaves me continually questioning my worth and ability to contribute. “You don’t know enough”, the voice reminds me, telling me that other people are faster at writing code, or write code I don’t feel like I can match.
Worse still is that driving reminder of impostor fuels the idea that, since I have spare hours in my day that I must be doing more than I am, either at work or in personal projects. Otherwise, how am I ever going to catch up?
The narrative of “passion” in the industry also amplifies the damage this internal battle causes. Everywhere we look we glorify the passion and dedication to perform ridiculous work hours, contribute considerable personal time to open source, and force our entire lives through a keyboard and into a compiler. In fact, it’s so insidious and pervasive that I nearly wrote heroic hours.
I’ve been developing software professionally for almost 10 years, and it hasn’t entirely gone away; how can a young woman just starting out defeat that voice without burning herself out by spending everything to catch up, to keep up?
All the Lies
I’m also in therapy for my depression, and one of the things it’s driven home for me is that my brain lies to me, but it’s trying to be helpful.
See, there was a time when feeling like I wasn’t good enough was a huge help, when I was just starting out. I didn’t know very much, and other folk knew a lot more than me. I didn’t have the language to communicate with them, because I didn’t have the mental structures that let me communicate my ideas nor the experience to know which ideas were very good.
That was useful, it drove me to learn and grow and reach.
It wasn’t useful 8 years later, when I was an established professional who believed she was days from being found out or fired for not being good enough.
Quantify All The Things
My brain lies to me; how did I learn how badly it was lying? Well, I started teaching women who wanted to learn to program, but had no experience or background in programming.
All of a sudden I was struck with the knowledge of how much stuff 8 years of developing software all day, every day has taught me, because I literally could not communicate the things I knew to another person. I deal with logic and scope rules, I have an implicit understanding of closures and object orientation, because I do this all day, every day.
I’d forgotten that it took me almost a year for OO programming to click and start making sense. A year! It was hard, and complicated, and not well explained, and required a very different way of reasoning about program logic, and it was hard for me.
The voice is coming from a place of emotion. It’s not wrong or bad or harmful; it’s worried and scared. When I arm myself with facts about my knowledge, I can assure that voice and let her know that things are pretty okay. I can say I have a year’s experience with a given tool, and she will say I don’t know if that’s enough. But I can take that year’s experience and ask questions of someone whom I think knows way more than I do, run what I think the ramifications of my knowledge are by them. We can talk design, development, best practises, and I can flex the knowledge I have.
And I learn how far my knowledge goes, listen to the questions I’m asked and use those to deduce further research, if needed.
And every time I’ve done this? I’ve learned that what I know is considerable, and that no one minds that there’s places I have to grow.
Turning to Confidence
Every one of those conversations is an opportunity for me to reassure the voice that things are okay, and that I’m not about to get fired or found out as incompetent. The things I know I no longer think of as insufficient, but knowledge that I am confident I have. It may not be everything, but it’s this piece, and this piece, like every piece, is important.
I’m able to speak with people who I respect, technical conversations that don’t leave me feeling like I should know more, and I look back and realise I’ve been having them for years, much longer than I was able to look.
The synthesis of the worry of being an impostor and the facts of knowledge is the foundation of my confidence. I can show that part of my brain that cares so much that it wants to make me code day and night that I know these things, that my friends respect me, and she stops fighting me and undermining me.
Instead, she works with me, reminding me when I’m down that YOU KNOW ALL THESE AMAZING THINGS. Sometimes she’s quieter than others, resumes being worried and scared, and I get the facts back out and start reminding her of everything.
I tell her that people think I’m amazing in what I can do, and later she’ll remind me that people think what I do is amazing, when I’m down. I’ll argue with her, and she’ll remind me of other people who’ve been intrigued and interested in my ideas.
I guarantee that someone you know thinks what you know, what you can do is amazing and they could never do it.
My voice tells me that what I do is obvious, that anyone could do it, and I bet yours does too.
So we quantify it.
How obvious is it, really? How many years did it take to get where we are?
Each year is a year that these amazed people don’t have, a year of our own path and knowledge and growth, a year of ideas they don’t have falling out the unique set of knowledge we have, and each year is a year that they have become more amazing to us for the same reasons.
Once she’s in your corner, she’ll keep reminding you.
And for me? That’s given me all the confidence in the world.