• Women 2.0 HowTo Conference San Francisco, September 30 - October 1, 2014

The Imposter Syndrome And Knowing What You Don’t Know

imposter bunny

An accurate understanding of your own knowledge is what helps you grow and learn.

By Anna Billstrom (iOS & Facebook App Developer, Self)

I really have never thought I had Imposter Syndrome. I’m not a shrinking voilet, tend to talk pretty authoritatively, am confident, like to speak in public, etc. Yet, I joined a mailing list for women-techs and during discussions this term came up. I looked it up, and started locating this behavior in a few of my interactions.

Imposter Syndrome is the feeling of inauthenticity, that you will be “found out” – that you don’t belong, and that everyone has reached some basic level of knowledge or performance that you haven’t. The feeling that your accomplishments are due to luck, timing or as a result of deceiving others. The feeling that I only won that award/hackfest because of tokenism, or because our competition wasn’t that great.

Not only do I think these things occasionally but others tell me they think the same thoughts. I’m not kidding. Right after presenting Ruckus at AngelHack, this guy accused our demo of not working, of being faked. To our faces. Most presenters didn’t even have a demo, and very few had one that worked.

The Imposter Syndrome rears its ugly head during technical interviews for me. No matter if I’m a subject expert, no matter if I don’t know the backgrounds of the guys (and they are always guys) interviewing me, I will give them more authority than they’re worth, and think they know things I don’t know, and doubt or diminish my own accomplishments.

Afterwards, when reviewing the transcript in my mind, I am amazed at my lack of confidence and surity, and, generally, how I give them more than the benefit of the doubt. My solution to this – work more and more on doing LinkedIn checks before the interview, or, ha, ask what material’s going to be in it so I’m prepared. Also, as women (or people), we’re taught not to be braggy, but we have to be able to state our accomplishments clearly.

I also tend to over-estimate the knowledge and experience of speakers at conferences. I recently volunteered to be on a panel simply because I wanted to attend and I was wait-listed. It was on contracting in iOS. Turned out I was on the upper-median spectrum of experience on the panel. Why did I assume that they were qualified to speak with authority? Because they were men? I didn’t know the facilitator, and yet assumed he knew his stuff. So in a way the Imposter Syndrome feeds off itself, as more people undervalue themselves, they are also overvaluing those around them.

We all know that an accurate understanding of your own knowledge is what helps you grow and learn.

It’s actually quite rewarding when I find out a pocket of knowledge that I don’t have, and I’m eager to get better at it. I am actually, as I write this, embarrassed to admit my latest learning. I recently tackled and won a battle with threaded programming, in Android and iOS, that has me eager to redevelop all of my old titles.

I should write about it, but, having had bombed a (cough) technical interview about threading in Rails, I am shy of mentioning that it’s hard, and that I’ve figured it out, and it has really improved my apps. I’ve also done some serious image and sound encoding and now want to add voice and image creation to all of my old games. I got shot down on StackOverflow by some guy about a sound encoding issue, so guess what, I’m shy about writing about that triumph.

Anyway, it’s a journey, but having an honest assessment of your own skills is vital to learning, so in a way it’s inhibiting our abilty to publicly admit: I didn’t know this, and now I do, and I can now share it with others.

I wonder if this is the key element to why the percentage of women on Stack Overflow is so low.

This post was originally posted at Banane.

About the guest blogger: Anna Billstrom is an iPhone and Android mobile developer, specializing in social apps. She’s worked at Momentus Media, a startup that made the “8 Bit Your Pic” for Black Eyed Peas app, which saw 2 million users in 2 weeks. She’s done the gamut of OLAP DB modeling to Java development and Ruby on Rails. Follow her on Twitter at @banane.