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Me and my Impostor Syndrome

JC Smiley
Front End Developer with a focus on React (web) and React Native (mobile), Code Connector national team Online Content Manager and a leader for the Memphis chapter, Gardner, and Outdoor Enthusiast
・8 min read

I have been coding for several years, and I didn’t really understand what imposter syndrome was until a little while ago. It wasn’t until I was explaining to some boot camp students of mine about it that I realized I had it. Let me tell you my story that I told them.

My first Hackathon

I joined this team of young college adults (I’m dating myself) and one other experienced gentleman (we are not old) to develop a web app that used machine learning with a video camera to judge a person's pose.

During this process I watched one young man type at an unimaginable speed while talking to me, looking at me, and not making a single error. I am typing maybe a few keys at a time, staring at my screen, and need to concentrate. I instantly feel out classed and out dated. He talks about machine learning and things that I barely had a clue about. They are using advanced CSS frameworks and I just know basic CSS. Within a small time frame I feel useless and afraid. My instinct was to run because I felt like I did not belong. Even worse the only other minority developer that I knew in the city would see me fail.

I ran to the bathroom and stayed there for a long time. Just thinking about why I came and that I’m not ready for this level of coding. I went back to the group just to listen and learn. I didn’t want that first impression to be of a quitter. I literally cried inside because I was lost and embarrassed. At the end of the first night of the hackathon I sat in my car deciding if I should even come back. Should I give up? I was determined that I might fail but I will not give up. That’s not the person I was.

I went home and spent several hours learning about the technologies we planned on using. I got a total of 3 hours sleep before driving back to the hackathon. As bad luck would have it, the group decided to use older technologies instead of the new ones I just spent all night learning. Those older technologies were something I could do. I was able to contribute heavily to the project. The takeaway is you may not know everything but you know something.

My first tech meetups

One of the best pieces of advice given to me was to attend tech meetups. There are tons of great reasons. You learn new things for free, you make new tech focused friends, you get exposed to ideas, you meet people who could be your future co-workers, and the list goes on.

What they don’t tell you is if you are a person of color or a minority you may be alone. That was how I felt. I didn’t understand what they were saying. The technical terms might as well have been a different language and the conversation was all high level coding. I was lost, confused, embarrassed, and scared. I didn’t belong with these people.

Then one day I saw someone who looked like me. That made all the difference in the world. The more I attended the meetups the more I understood the conversations. In time, I found out the people there were nice, kind, and willing to teach if I would listen. I went on to help host several meetups each month. My personal goal was to create tech meetups that have low level technical conversations and where no one feels they are alone. That they are not the only one.

My first teacher assistant adventure

I joined a tech boot camp called Launch Code as a teacher assistant. The teacher for the class was one of my tech heroes, so I was very excited. For me, it was a chance to learn from someone I respected, work as a fellow TA with other experienced developers from around the city, and give back to my tech community by teaching/mentoring.

The very first day of class they had all the TAs line up in front of the class to introduce themselves. This is where everything goes downhill. I’m listening to each introduction and hearing lots of accomplishments. They have worked in the industry for x amount of years, won hackathons, started startups, graduated from boot camps, knew x amount of technical languages, and have several college degrees. With each person's introduction, my head is sinking lower and I’m staring at the exit door. One of the TAs is my cousin. All I can think of is what little I can say in front of my peers, my hero, my family, and my future students. When it's my turn, all I can say is "I’m a self-taught developer with one language and thank you". I couldn’t even look in my students’ direction.

Fast-forward to the end of the program. My students thank me for being a good TA. Other TA’s students thank me for helping them or being a mentor. One of my students was from India and gave me these dolls that I will treasure forever. Another student was from Israel and gifted me these delicious nutty treats. One of my students was an older gentleman who was a high level manager at a big local company. He wanted to learn new languages. This was someone who I thought I had no business trying to mentor or teach. His wife cried while thanking me on graduation day for helping him through the program with respect and patience. I learned that while I didn’t have what the other TAs had, I had enough to make a difference in my community. I didn’t give up.

My third Hackathon

At this point I considered myself a Hackathon pro and invited one of my former boot camp students to a GiveCamp Hackathon. This is a hackathon where teams build applications or websites for non-profit organizations. I joined her at a team that was using technologies that I wanted to learn. I was so excited. There were people working at local companies that I wanted to work with and this was an opportunity to learn from them (possibly impress them).

This excitement lasted about half a day when I realized that I couldn’t grasp the knowledge. I was given tasks that I failed and had to get others to complete. The room was noisy and there were so many people, I felt trapped. I have helped organize tons of tech meetups before and thought this shouldn’t be freaking me out. But everyone I ever respected in my local tech community was there, and I was bombing. When I looked in their eyes I saw pity. I will admit, I ran for it. I got in my car and drove away. But then I stopped, because I realized I was giving up. I turned around and went back. I explain to my team that I’m having trouble. I can go get coffee, I can research, I can do anything to help but I can’t grasp the information. All I saw was pity in their eyes. My friends would come by and ask me if I was OK. I lied. How could I tell friends who were doing wonderful things to help non-profits that would change the world and knew what I could do that I was drowning. Give me pain but not pity.

I stayed the entire event and watched my former student design and build an awesome website for an amazing non-profit. But I didn’t stay to watch her present the project, I didn’t feel worthy to be on stage with her and the others. I may have failed, but I didn’t give up and I was able to show a former student that she could shine bright.

My first semi-professional tech experience

Recently I joined a startup with a brilliant founder. I was given the opportunity to do what I always wanted to do which was to develop apps. This was my first professional team project and the first day I was on cloud 9 as each experienced developer introduced themselves. There was so much knowledge and excitement in the room.

With that said, it didn’t take long for me to realize that everyone was better than me. Did I mention that I stutter when nervous! I was required to present the front end team progress at each meeting. I would dread each day that I wouldn’t be able to talk in complete sentences much less sound intelligent. I was expected to lead, to have answers, and to solve problems. I would code something while the other developers would code something less error prone, more professional, and more modular. Before giving a team update I would have to read all the new code and sometimes ask for clarification on things. I had to admit, I wasn’t at that level yet. Even worse, my team was rewriting my code at times to make it better. I was embarrassed. Even more embarrassing was being called out during my team presentations for obvious coding mistakes.

Did my code make it into production, yes! Did I contribute, yes! Am I proud of the application that I helped develop, yes! Did I learn from that experience, yes! I realize that I don’t have to be the smartest in the room to be a developer, I just have to show up, learn, support others, and contribute.

Today

Currently, I am working as a TA for another Launch Code boot camp which focuses on non-traditional students. Again on day one we are introducing ourselves and I realize it's happening again. Everyone has a reason to be there but me. I just know how to code. I have no credentials to offer. I barely know more than the students.
My only thought process is I don’t give up and I can teach them persistence, courage, commitment, and a desire to learn from others smarter than yourself. I can be that person who looks like them if that is needed. I have a family (not single with all the time in the world), a grandchild (not young anymore), work a non-tech job (no industry experience), and I am still learning how to code. I have had imposter syndrome my entire career but failing is not an option.

The End

I tell my story to remind aspiring developers to not give up. There is nothing wrong with failing, with being wrong, with not understanding something, not looking like everyone around you, with being different, and with being scared. It's normal, it's okay, and it can be overcome. Just don’t give up. These things do not mean you are not a developer. It means you are learning. Speak the truth to others and I promise you they will understand. We all walk that road of uncertainty, but at the end of that road is knowledge, accomplishments, and friends.

Bonus

The contents of this blog post will be added to a free e-book called "Advice for Breaking into Tech". The book summarizes advice from 700 developers about learning how to code and looking for your first job in tech into an easy to read narrative.
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