My decade of impostor syndrome

Mental health is not something that we can fix once and move on. Like physical health, it requires an ongoing effort and it is not always immediately obvious that something might not be quite right.

Impostor syndrome is exactly that. There are no meltdowns in the street, no straight jackets, no men in white coats, or any of the other misapprehensions that Hollywood has given us about mental health. Instead, it is the silent feeling that you are just not good enough.

This is my personal experience of Impostor syndrome; how it impacted me and what I did about it.

I guess the best place to start is 2010. I had just finished my Computer Science & Cybernetics degree at Reading and had been awarded a 2:2, the equivalent of a C grade. Not an amazing grade, but also not bad. My main aim was to learn about my field and I was not overly bothered about the grade, so that was mission accomplished.

My final year project had been to write a position monitor for those experiencing dimentia. This would alert the family if Gran went “wondering”, the official term, which is a big risk when the individual forgets that they no longer live in the house they did a decade ago and tries to fiend her way “back home”. I wrote this in C# for Windows mobile and had got a first class grade for it. It worked pretty well, even if my decision on target operating system proved to be a poor one in hindsight; Microsoft axed Windows mobile not long after.

A few days before graduation, I was sitting in my room in Reading looking for jobs. It had been the first time I had lived on my own, so this little flat was a bit special to me. I remember finding a Junior Software Developer role advertised and thinking, “Well I’m not good enough for that, nobody would ever hire me to do programming.” I had just done a Computer Science degree!

Instead, I went back to what I knew; IT Support. I had been doing this for some time before Uni, so was happy that I would be able to do the job, and from a technical perspective, I did. I am happy to admit that I did learn a lot of operational and interpersonal skills in those first few years, but from a technical standpoint, things were pretty easy.

When it was time to move on, I did not even consider going into Dev. Instead, I became a road warrior, or more accurately a tube warrior, for a multi-site business in London. Everyone there was fantastic and I did learn lots of technical skills too, but still had in the back of my mind that one day in the future I might be good enough to be one of those cool Software Developers. One of the memories from this particular role that still makes me chuckle is looking out of the window of the data centre where they had leased a rack and asking the Lead Systems Engineer why all these servers needed such a pretty view over London. He replied, “It’s not the IT guys who get to make the decisions in most companies, it’s the Directors, and Directors like pretty views.”

Once again, the time came to move on, but this time to the North. Some people say Coventry is the Midlands, but I’m from London, so it is most definitely the North. I was very fortunate that a friend was able to recommend me to their employer, again to another IT Support role. I did learn lots of Linux skills, but the Devs were these mysterious gods who were allowed to work from home and performed wonders with the systems. I was not good enough to do that.

I then tried my hand at consulting. I made lots of customers very happy, but often got other people to do the coding. I remember saying to a colleague, “I am not a developer.” Again, I felt that I was not good enough, even though at the time I had made the Geek.Zone Social Photobooth, which used a fair chunk of Python and hardware skills. But that was just a toy, right? Why would anyone pay me to code? Not good enough.

After that, I did apply for a Database Administration job, and got an interview, so progress, right? No. I got scared and withdrew my application because I did not think my SQL skills were good enough. I then got a job where database administration had not been mentioned in the job description, but turned out to be primarily database administration, and I really liked it. The Developers were lovely and mindbogglingly knowledgeable, so I really loved spending time in the Dev office. Nonetheless, I was just a DBA, so still did not think I was good enough to be one of them.

My next role was billed to be a rather technical one, more in line with my IT support background, but I guess not everyone got the memo. It turned out to be a lot less technically orientated than was originally promised, but I was still sure I was not good enough to be anything other than an IT guy anyway. After all, I had been generally describing my self as “an IT guy” up until this point. I did do some Python work as part of the role, but this was never requested.

This (broadly) brings us to 2020. The pandemic had escalated up to its first peak in Britain and we were all battening down the hatches to flatten the curve. This caused strain on many people who would normally have been frequently out and about. One person in particular joined Geek.Zone at about this time, when their partner found us online and suggested they come along to our Discord events. Me being the pushy twit that I can sometimes be, it did not take long for me to discover that this person was (is) a software developer and consequently to suggest that they join the Geek.Zone/Dev team. To my surprise they agreed!

We started discussing potential plans for the Geek.Zone website and what GZ had already tried. I explained that we had already gone through a variety of off the shelf software but nothing had actually done what we needed. They then suggested that we could build something bespoke, using Python & Django. I was initially against this; what would happen if this person needed to leave the project?

Sometimes I take a few days to come around to an idea. I can be a bear of very little brain on occasion, so about a week later I agreed. We then start to build Geek.Zone/Web and with their gentle nudges (often more like a shove to ensure I didn’t do something daft) in the right direction, I learned masses. Perhaps I might be good enough? Nope, the majority of the jobs I started applying for were still IT support.

But then I chanced upon an advert for a DevOps Engineer role at a fantastic organisation. Reading it, it felt like a lot of their requirements were skills I had gained in Geek.Zone/Web, so I applied. I fully expected them to say no, not even an interview. After all, I was not a Dev, so why would would anyone want me for one of the most sought-after areas in the field?

I got the job.

When it truly hit home for me was when my partner and I watched the Pixar movie, Soul.

If you have not seen it, go watch it now. I’ll wait.

“22” is a soul who has never been assigned to a human. Souls are given a mentor who lived an extraordinary life who is supposed to help train them to go to Earth, but 22 was never able to pass the training.

Instead, every single mentor who 22 had been given just told her that she was not good enough. Years upon years of being told “you are not good enough”. Outwardly, 22 expressed this by being a prankster or a rebel, but 22 was actually being pushed further and further into impostor syndrome.

I have never had a famous mentor. For me, I was the one telling me that I was not good enough. For this reason, 22 absolutely knocked me for six, as she helped me to see how much I had held myself back over the preceding decade.

I will always be tremendously grateful to that person for helping me to realise that I am good enough. Without them, I would not be where I am today. With regard to “Soul”, many movies are great, but “Soul” is one of the few that are important.

If there is one thing I can share from my experience, it is to say that you are good enough. So what if you are not a “Black belt” in your field yet? The only way to get there is to do, and you are good enough for that.

Just to be clear, I have never received an official diagnosis, however, I feel that my experiences do match the description. I am continuing to learn more, to move out of that place and to progress in my life, and it feels great.

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