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András Tóth
András Tóth

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Impostor syndrome, burn out - interview with an ex-FAANG employee

There's an extremely rare source for career advice that can only be obtained from people who went through a lot. There will be a lot to reflect upon, regardless if you manage teams or mentor junior developers.

My friend, whom I will refer to here as my friend worked at famous reputable employers in Big Tech and investment banking. (Unfortunately, she can't disclose the company names because of the NDAs she signed.)

She battled with impostor syndrome, and after a recent lay-off, she realized she had a tough case of burn-out: she's not in the tech industry now for a year, and she's unsure if she ever wishes to go back. She also feels safer not to disclose her identity (but not afraid to disclose her gender), as she does not wish opportunities to close for her. 😐

This interview lays bare many of the disfunctions in the tech sectors, showing how such a passionate, intelligent person is being ground down by external forces, of which she had no say in. I would also like it if you, the reader, note the omission of certain things: How come none of the environmental problems (like battling with too divergent tech stacks) were discovered during performance reviews, for instance?

Part 2 will be posted a bit later. From now on, you will hear her voice 🫡.

[If you see these brackets, it will be me, the interviewer.]

Impostor Syndrome

University: Being A "Noob" With No Context

[The university mentioned in this interview is one of the best universities in Budapest, as my friend is from Hungary.]

My impostor syndrome started right at the university. Before that, I have been among the top 3 throughout my school years. But then at the uni I realized everyone else was also coming from top of their schools.

I guess this is in line with what everyone else experienced, however, I soon realised that the other kids also were not coming in as blank slates: most of them were so much into programming that many arrived knowing to code in one or two languages which they picked up in their early teenage years or even earlier.

Me, I just lived a normal teenage life: aimed to be good in all subjects at school, had social life, attended dance classes. I expected that you start from scratch in university; like how people who chose philosophy at the philosophy faculty come in without being philosophers themselves.

I chose software engineering from a practical viewpoint, I was good in maths and it interested me but it was not a specific calling since childhood.

Though I liked computers and indeed made a "proto-virus" during high-school: on my father's machine I created a recursive little script that copied itself into a sub-folder that ended up replicating itself until a limit was hit 😄. My poor father had trouble fixing the sluggish machine afterwards.

I tell you this so you know that I had a healthy interest and a normal childhood.

So when I got there, it was a shock that the classes at university were for people coming with initial knowledge, which I did not know how I could have obtained beforehand under normal circumstances.

Many classes had no introduction, like in a lab subject called "Measurement techniques", In the first class they asked us to "electrically ground" something and I said, "Hey, I'm a girl, I have no clue what you are talking about" 😄.

From being top of my class, I resorted merely to survive: relying on my intelligence and friends who liked explaining, while I felt I was a total idiot. I have learned later to adapt to these new circumstances and gained footing.

The Ever Junior Polyglot: The First Job

I started my career at this big American investment bank. They had an excellent 2-month training program for people coming from college, where I could actually learn to code well and network with peers, and it gave back my confidence.

However, a pattern started here that became frequent and a problem later: I had 3 different teams in 4 years, each with different languages and platforms. I could never gain deep expertise on any of them as it was simply impossible in such short time, especially while you have to make sure features are shipped, bugs are fixed.

I was on an endless learning curve, almost like playing board games without having a chance to learn the rules, while I thought everyone else knew all of them.

And again, I felt like a total idiot.

Maybe because I am a woman, or maybe because of impostor syndrome I wished to "avoid getting detected". Therefore, I did not dare to ask questions. I felt humiliated whenever I had to ask because it would mean I didn't know something.

Another repeating pattern emerged here: for many of my leads and bosses, I was their first "direct report". They were very technical people with no experience/talent in people management, meaning I actually had to help them with the social side of things. It also felt humiliating and unstrategic to ask for help from the person who will decide how much bonus I will receive or if I will get promoted/fired.

It was not helping that they also handed each problem to me without context: here's an unknown system, here's the bug report, good luck! Every time I fixed something, it felt like a rare miracle.

When I left this workplace, this was the first time I considered abandoning coding and doing something more predictable, like product management or consulting.

[Note the omission of two important things here: first, a mentor should have assisted her and made sure she could focus on one thing before moving on. And second: how she does not ever mention this even hypothetically. No culture, no great examples of actual performance management, pointing to performance reviews just streamlining salary debates.]

Suit & Tie: A Different Professionalism

After some change I have ended up working at another investment bank. This place put great emphasis on looking professional: what clothes you wore, how you behaved, like do not giggle - or be 5 minutes late! Here I had a different impostor syndrome and I almost burnt out, but left before it could happen.

There were many problems, for example,

they treated IT department just like we are service providers: we have the cleaning crew, the cantine crew and the devs. No involvement, no vision for the software.

One time I asked the trader I was working on if I could help him with anything else and he replied: "Please fetch me a pen.". It was quite shocking to see he thought of me as some kind of personal assistant.

Promotions solely depended on how much the traders liked you; there was no emphasis on code quality. We also had no backup system 🫣. I am proud that I could fight for having some manual backup, at the very least.

[After hearing this I am not surprised how fintech startups could disrupt the banking sector. It is pretty scary to know your finances rely on folks manually backing up stuff. If they remember...]

Feeling Old at 32

My next workplace was a mid-sized Silicon Valley company. It was a very tough battle to get in there (even some of my later colleagues at the BigTech company were jealous as they tried and failed), so I felt pretty proud.

However, inside I saw most of the workforce was in their mid-twenties: extremely smart and ambitious people spending every waking moment working, using the energy superpowers of a young person; also, of course, people without children. The load and the expectations of working long hours was crazy: I dance as a hobby and I had a weekly class that started at 22h (10pm) in the evening. Guess what, most of the time I had to apologize for leaving early at 21:30.

After my class, at midnight from my bed I had to catch up with what the others were doing, and most of them were still online.

Since it was more or less a consulting place, the technologies, platforms, and languages changed with each project. The expectation was to do everything ourselves: fire up a new AWS server, make sure it runs properly and so on.

But I had no interest in operations and infrastructure, and encountering, googling and fixing random error messages were not really motivating.

Obviously this combined with competing with younger "daredevils" fired up my impostor syndrome, yet again.

[While it seems like a fair idea to think of "great engineers" as jack-of-all trades, in reality server management, operations, distributed databases and security are separate fields each with their own set of gotchas (euphemism for potentially catastrophic rookie mistakes). This is also a clear management mistake stemming from ignoring or not understanding how software engineering truly works.]

My boss was also very smart and gifted, however a younger person, for whom I was one of his first subordinates. Obviously at that age, with that inexperience, he had no conflict resolution abilities and at the first given issue they decided to terminate my contract with made up accusations and no chance or time given to improve.

That affected my confidence tremendously, even though the place had a toxic work-life balance (more like work-work balance).

------------ END OF PART 1 -----------

Stay tuned for part 2! And stay healthy, be critical and always ask questions!

Do not normalize the abnormal!

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