Today on the show we are joined by none other than our host, Michael Nuñez’s brother, Steven Nuñez! Steven will be helping us in our discussion about a very special topic and one that is very common amongst developers, imposter’s syndrome! Sound familiar? Feel familiar? Well, chances are at some point in your professional career (and beyond) you have probably felt like an imposter. This can mean feeling not up to the tasks at hand, that everyone else knows more than you, that you do not deserve your position or just a general feeling of unease in your role. Well do not fear because you are not alone! This is a problem we all have to face at different stages in our careers and if anything it is a sign of stepping up to a new level and is a chance to learn.
During the episode we look at some of the particulars of the syndrome as well as looking at some possible ways to process these feelings productively. We explore the idea of “faking it ‘till you make it”, within this context as well as looking at imposter syndrome as you may climb the ladder of responsibility. Lastly, with the help of Steven, we really look at how imposter syndrome is a side effect of a very necessary and positive chain of events in a upward trajectory. Tune in to get it all!
Key Points From This Episode:
- Defining imposter syndrome a little more clearly.
- The difference between being an imposter and having the syndrome.
- The first tier of imposter syndrome and the feeling of un-belonging.
- How many people are affected by this and ways that it can be processed.
- Empowering attitudes towards your blindspots.
- ‘Faking it it until you make it’ as a way to combat the problem.
- The ethics around imposter syndrome.
- Managerial imposter syndrome and losing skills as you learn others.
- The language of failure and detailing the gaps in our knowledge towards learning.
- The patterns of learning to expertise and then having to learn again.
- Putting yourself in the position of not knowing as a way to get better at learning.
- ‘Embracing the suck’ to stay at the forefront of technology.
Transcript for Episode 57. Imposter Syndrome
[0:00:01.9] MN: Hello and welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developer’s podcast in fantabulous Chelsey Manhattan. I’m your host, Michael Nunez. Our co-host today.
[0:00:09.8] DA: Dave Anderson.
[0:00:10.8] MN: Our producer.
[0:00:12.0] WJ: William Jeffries.
[0:00:12.8] MN: Today, we’ll be talking about imposter syndrome, we’ll get into what it is and how we taken time to overcome imposter syndrome.
[0:00:23.0] DA: Yeah, definitely had a moment of that, doing podcasting and other things, I think just everything in life.
[0:00:29.9] WJ: Earlier today.
[0:00:31.0] MN: Why am I here? It’s again, you’re here, the imposter syndrome.
[0:00:36.7] DA: Yeah. 52 weeks.
[0:00:39.7] MN: 52 weeks in and you’re still feeling like an imposter, it happens, it will happen.
[0:00:43.5] DA: Hopefully we can talk about how we can get over this finally.
[0:00:45.9] MN: Exactly.
[0:00:46.5] WJ: We have a special guest with us here today, don’t we?
[0:00:48.8] MN: Yeah, we have a special guest, my brother, Steven Nunez. How’s it going?
[0:00:52.9] SN: Pretty good. Hey, how’s it going guys?
[0:00:54.9] MN: Doing all right, yourself? How are you feeling?
[0:00:57.8] SN: Doing all right.
[0:01:00.1] WJ: Which Nunez is the imposter?
[0:01:02.8] MN: It’s definitely me, I’m not even going to listen. We have that conversation, I’ll just take that to the bank.
[0:01:13.5] SN: Most people would expect me to be no, Mike, no. But you know.
[0:01:17.4] MN: Exactly.
[0:01:19.2] DA: What makes you the non-imposter Nunez? What do you do?
[0:01:22.8] SN: I am, I guess an educator, I have been for a while now, I’ve taught a couple of hundred people at a program across a few schools from zero to dev. Sort of had a chance to see people cycle through levels of imposter syndrome to confidence who re-imposter syndrome to confidence.
[0:01:42.3] DA: Yeah, there are tiers, right?
[0:01:44.6] SN: There are tiers. And then, there are also tears. I think one thing about seeing so many people do it is that you develop an awareness to it and I think that that’s really powerful.
[0:01:53.6] MN: Nice, yeah. Does anyone have a definition to imposter syndrome before we begin?
[0:02:00.1] DA: Yeah, what is imposter syndrome? Imposter syndrome is the feeling like you don’t belong, like you’re surrounded by everyone who knows everything and you’re the only one who doesn’t know the things. Which is like often the case and kind of a really learning intensive environment when you are programming because everyone’s always learning something and it’s hard to learn that thing.
[0:02:22.8] SN: Absolutely. I think one thing that’s interesting is also a hidden thing for why you have imposter syndrome is because you’re not used to – the delta from your level of comfort with something to some new thing that you don’t know, if it’s a really big delta, you’ll feel really – you’ll feel those feelings very intensely.
I kind of hark it back to students that we’ve had who are, who tend to be professionals in their field, you know, you got doctors, lawyers,, people who have some level of success in their lives to come and be really terrible at programming. Just yelled at by me, the term programmers, you start to feel that pain a lot more as a result of healing that delta.
[0:03:03.5] DA: Right, yes, that’s so true, you become established and like you’re an expert in the field and then actually humble yourself in a way and then figure out how to process that, that’s a challenge.
[0:03:17.5] WJ: One thing that I think is interesting about imposter syndrome as a term, is that it implies that you are not actually an imposter which can be really comforting. I’m not an imposter guys, I just have imposter syndrome.
[0:03:29.2] DA: This is just a medical condition. Medically an imposter. There’s a cure I guess. Yeah, I guess, what would be the process of like finding out that you have imposter syndrome, what’s the first tier of an imposter. What does that normally look like?
[0:03:47.7] SN: I think feeling like, I think you’re better really well, feeling like you don’t belong. You see this at a couple other places, you see it in the school setting, you’ll see it as I somehow lied on the application, there’s no way I should be here. I’m taking someone’s spot, sort of those thoughts.
At a job, I mean, similar kind of thing, I must have like, done something in the interview that fooled the interviewers and have lied to everyone and I don’t belong here. Then sort of progresses even in your career as you become a manager or start leading a team.
I think it’s that awareness of some difference between where you think you should be and where you actually are and then the feeling starts to set in.
[0:04:29.6] WJ: Yeah, supposedly it escalates as you become more successful, the most successful people are the ones who suffer from it the most acutely.
[0:04:36.9] DA: It’s just crippled.
[0:04:40.8] MN: Can’t pick breakfast.
[0:04:43.6] DA: I’m curious, does this happen to everyone in classes that you’re seeing? Or are some people like more resilient with it? What do you think like separate people apart?
[0:04:56.3] SN: I think there’s the feeling of identifying that difference and then they’re sort of what you do with it. I think the people who are most prepared to deal with the feeling of imposter syndrome or just realizing that difference, are people who just see it as something that they can fix, right?
You go into like growth mindset and then like Carol Dweck’s work and that kind of idea that I am not where I want to be, mope, mope, mope is an option or I’m not where I want to be. How can I identify the things that I’m not presently good at that I value and want to be good at and then what are my steps to kind of like, get out of it.
[0:05:39.4] DA: Right. I feel like I’ve definitely seen this in people who like say that they’re like not math people. Outside of like programming where it’s like, “Well, this is just it. I’m done, I cannot overcome this.” But by having like the growth mindset, you think, well, okay, I just need to practice more but it’s funny because you can simultaneously have that like mindset of being an imposter doesn’t belong but also be like, “Well, I’m also like really good.”
[0:06:09.2] SN: I think one thing that I do and I tell classes a lot that my goal is to sort of like, this is going to sound terrible but to break them in a way, break people.
[0:06:19.2] MN: I feel like you might need clarification on this. What do you mean by breaking?
[0:06:23.5] SN: No, exactly what you think. I’ve seen the third Iron Man movies.
[0:06:30.6] SN: I mean like part of my job is to sort of like get them out of the – remove any sort of pre-idea of who you are so you can be free to learn and then Tyler Durden-esque, “It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you're free to do anything.” I’m quoting a lot.
That I think is really important it’s sort of like figure – empowering you to say, “I can learn, I can pick up the topic that I’m not comfortable with,” right? You propose like learn data science to like an engineer. I can’t, I’m not a math person or I can’t, that’s really hard and I don’t understand graphing, graphs or don’t make me do calculus.
But, I mean, there’s you know, you’re only saying that because you are a successful programmer that has experienced doing things really well, you’re good at React, you’re doing, you’re good at your rails, you’re good at your wheelhouse of tools but if you erased all of that, it’s just at thing to learn.
[0:07:27.1] MN: Right, I mean, as you mentioned before, you can either not do anything about it and cry, I guess, or you can actually realize that you can learn how, what the step to take to be a data scientist.
[0:07:42.4] WJ: There are like two approaches that I’ve seen people take to this. One is, fake it ‘till you make it, that’s what I do, I think that’s like conventional wisdom that people talk about a lot. You know, okay, you’re not – maybe you’re right, maybe you're not ready for this but you know, step the – up.
The other approach is, stop pretending and ask for help and that’s how you avoid actually having holes in your knowledge and I always wonder you know, am I doing it wrong? Maybe I should try that other strategy.
[0:08:14.2] SN: I think a mix of both, I think a mix of both is useful. I mean, I think, fake it till you make it has a – it gives you the freedom to step up, right? To say, “Okay, well, I’ll say like when I first started my programming career, I definitely had no business being a programmer and that’s not imposter syndrome, I can imperially show that I did not, at the time of hire, I did not have the skills to be a software developer.
I taught myself how to script in Ruby, I had like 500 line long scripts, it was a terrible program, I didn’t write objects or classes or anything but I knew, I don’t know, I knew the documentation well I guess. I took nights and weekends class, like a Rails class and I was like, “I want to be a programmer,” went into that and genuinely, I think this day, fooled someone to give me a job and again, given the concept, given the topic, I think that actually happened.
But when I got there, I was like, my god, I’m here, I have to do something. They’re giving me money, they’re paying me actual money and then it was a combination of ask for help but also try to find opportunities to become valuable.
We were doing a project and it was, we were using some libraries that were relatively new. Well, I can’t learn everything that everyone knows, right? I’m working with people who have got decades of experience but I can learn this library really well and I went in and like, faked it that I was the expert and actually was called upon to be the expert on that topic and then eventually just kind of found my niche and rounded my skills out.
[0:09:46.7] MN: Yeah. I guess the key thing is that you’re not just faking it, you’re also trying to make it like –
[0:09:54.1] SN: Yeah, that till you make it part means work, the ‘till’ part is like working really hard.
[0:09:59.8] MN: That’s the understood part of that.
[0:10:02.3] SN: You don’t just make it by being fake, you fake it and you work really hard and to overcome.
[0:10:06.8] DA: Right, yeah, that’s awesome.
[0:10:09.1] WJ: Is that ethical to be an imposter?
[0:10:12.6] MN: I think would be non, it would be non-ethical if you just continued to fake it without the ’till’ part, I think both Steven and Dave were, had mentioned. If you were just faking it like I’m just going to – all right, I’m getting X amount of dollars for doing this position that I really don’t know and I’m just going to wing and not do anything about it, I feel like it’s pretty unethical because I do think that like, the idea of imposter syndrome happens at some point across like a person’s career, in which they then have to step up to do something about it.
It’s when you don’t where I feel like it’s probably unethical.
[0:10:51.4] DA: Yeah, I think that’s also maybe, it’s partially like an internal faking, rather than external faking, like if someone asked you if you know this thing really well, if you’re an expert then you can maybe give an honest answer that says like, “I don’t know this thing but I can learn it, I can make it,” and like having the confidence to ensure that and I always really respect that.
Especially on the job interview, if someone like asked you if you know this thing or you explain how this works. I kind of rather you be like “Okay, well I know this and this but I definitely don’t know that,” rather than just making up some fantastical way that this – like the internet works or whatever.
[0:11:32.2] WJ: Hypothetically if somebody were pretending to be a producer on a podcast, asking for a friend here. Hasn’t actually done any production work.
[0:11:44.7] MN: We’re about one year strong. I think.
[0:11:46.4] SN: I think that definitely counts.
[0:11:47.3] MN: Yeah, I think this –
[0:11:48.8] SN: We’ve made it.
[0:11:49.4] MN: Yeah, we’ve made it this far.
[0:11:50.4] SN: Not faking now.
[0:11:53.9] MN: I think we spent some time talking about imposter syndrome and I was curious if you guys were willing to share some experiences, you may have had yourself about feeling an imposter in the workplace. Does anyone want to kick that off?
[0:12:07.3] WJ: Yeah, I think even just recently as I’ve been transitioning into doing less and less code on the job and more and more management, I’ve been having more experiences where significantly more junior developers are better than me at stuff. And will be pairing and I’ll just assume that I’m going to be better because I’m used to pairing with juniors and knowing more about everything.
Then, you know, it’s weird, I get tripped up because I’m like, “Okay, well I must be tired or not paying attention because there’s no way that this person is just wrecking me.” But they are, it’s like, well, I mean, is that okay that – I’m a manager, I’m going to not be as good and at the same time, in order for me to keep up, I need to be doing as much coding as they do. Which makes it impossible to be a manager.
[0:12:56.8] DA: Also there’s like other things that you have that like our super important that you are delivering to the team and other people if they were in that position would feel crushed.
[0:13:10.5] SN: I mean by definition, there is no way you can code as much as them, right? That is sort of the shift and focus of management, right? By jumping into that role you’ve got to sacrifice something and it’s going to be coding and since it’s coding, you will become not as good at coding.
[0:13:27.2] WJ: So right, why am I pairing with them?
[0:13:29.6] DA: Well I mean you can still be a conscience right? You still know what the good thing to do and the bad things.
[0:13:36.6] SN: Guiding, you know the guiding light. You’re there to just make sure things are just there. Are you writing test first or you?
[0:13:43.0] WJ: Just a dead weight. Actually I got some good advice about this recently from my own manager and he said you should acknowledge that you are going to make them go slower and thank them and tell them that you would like for them to pair with you anyway because it will make you better at your job as a manager.
[0:14:00.5] DA: Right, sure. Yeah.
[0:14:01.8] WJ: I was like, “All right I can, I think I could pull that off.”
[0:14:05.1] MN: I think that feeling that you mentioned, I think that William explained in being a manager and not losing the technical chops, happens to a lot of people who become managers because they have been at a company for X amount of years and I think I read this in a book called Team Geek. I can’t remember the author. Hopefully it will be in the shownotes. I’ve got to make sure to put that in the shownotes.
But in the book Team Geek, they talk about how being a manager, the skills that you have as a manager can very well be important or even more important because you get to enable those developers to be good at what they do and when you take the opportunity as a manager to pair with them, you can then manage them better at the very craft that you only did. I would recommend any person who fell into the manager role in the software development field to read that book. It’s really, really good.
[0:15:01.8] DA: Cool, yeah definitely check that out.
[0:15:04.6] WJ: All right, who else is a poser?
[0:15:06.5] MN: Yeah, I mean I can –
[0:15:07.6] SN: Expose yourselves.
[0:15:08.6] MN: Yeah, exactly. I think for me it’s always pairing with someone working on a front end app and we got to touch CSS and I feel like CSS always gets me. I just don’t really understand. I just constantly have to check the Google Chrome debugger tools and fiddle around here and there but just recently with a pair it’s like, “Oh why don’t you try this?” Or you know, Flow or whatever the case maybe. I can’t remember the exact CSS attributes that were given.
But the combination of using CSS and using Slim which is I think I mentioned before in a podcast episode, it’s like Hamill but for a different way of doing Hamill. Using that is just like I don’t know what I am doing. I have no idea, why am I here? Why am I here right now? Please, do all the driving. I don’t know what I am doing.
[0:16:00.7] SN: If I can play therapist for 30 seconds. I think it’s interesting that the language that we use is very important into how we frame, like, problems. There’s a very final I guess attribute of like, “I suck at CSS,” right? So Martin Zellar talks about this in some book. You know the book, I know the author but so the idea of like whether or not something is general, I describe as a general or specific or temporary or permanent. This is a thing that is very specific and permanent.
“I suck at CSS.” As oppose to thinking about it as like, “I’m on the road to getting better at CSS. I currently struggle with CSS.” Or an even a better way to look at it is, what part of CSS do you not understand? Because I am sure you can change the background color, or something.
[0:16:52.8] MN: Oh yeah, I’m sure the favorite font.
[0:16:54.8] SN: You can change the font, you could probably input some fonts. What you probably aren’t very good at is maybe page layout, right? And I think that getting that detailed into like, “What is it that I suck at?” Is the first step to kind of like how you address this imposter syndrome, right?
[0:17:09.6] WJ: Or what is it that I don’t know yet.
[0:17:11.4] SN: Right and sometimes that’s hard, right? Because you have to – sometimes it’s just a blob of something. “I don’t know Python.” “What do you mean you don’t know Python?” and if I showed you an example of a class, you’ve been doing orientation forever could you make a class? Probably, muscle through. Maybe I don’t understand how function passing works in that language, maybe I don’t understand scoping works but I think getting that language is really important.
[0:17:34.3] DA: That’s true, yeah. I feel like that comes to deliberant practice. The idea that if you just generally practice things then you’re not going to get that much better but in my experience especially with music, if you are learning an instrument, if you can be really introspective and see exactly the thing that you’re messing up and then focus only on that thing then you can get to the happy place.
[0:18:01.7] SN: Dave did you or do you have any imposter?
[0:18:04.2] DA: Yeah, I do. I feel like I have gone through many tiers of this imposter syndrome like when I first started out in programming, I actually had studied mechanical engineering and I got a job that offered like some training to figure out for programming and so I’m like, “Okay”. I know java a little bit and then I learned it and then I was working on the job and getting comfortable with that and so I was like “Okay,” struggling through that.
And now, I am a Java Oracle enterprise engineer and now okay, now I get a position where I am doing Agile and dynamic programming languages and it’s like, “Whoa, what is going on here?” But the experience of going from those different levels of expertise and be like, “Oh yeah I can bang out all kinds of hierarchical queries and Oracle.” you know? It’s just I can’t believe you use this when you have to use ORM and whatever else. But to go from the place where you know a lot and then you don’t know anything but then you’d fill up and you learn it and then you go to the next place where you know nothing and you fill up and you learn it and you’re just like, “Oh wait, I kind of see a pattern here.”
[0:19:17.8] SN: Yeah, it’s a process right? Like I don’t get it, just keep reading, keep reading, keep reading, “Okay I get it.”
[0:19:22.4] DA: Yeah and then all of a sudden people are like, “Oh this guy is a nice person” so like, “All right, okay if you say so”. Yeah, so I think that’s been my long saga, my lifelong saga of imposter syndrome.
[0:19:36.0] SN: I think it hits you harder if you get comfortable. I think there’s something interesting in the story of like, “Well I did this for a while and then now something changed,” and I’m like, “I don’t know, you pulled the floor out from under me.” I try to, Seeing it in students is one thing because you get to see people go from not knowing to being freaking out to knowing some then new topic, freaking out, not knowing something, knowing something.
But one thing that is really important to me as a teacher was to have – to develop empathy for students. So one thing that I would do for myself is I would try to make myself really uncomfortable outside of my normal teaching because I honestly believe if you don’t, you will lose patience with students when they are having trouble understanding how strings work for instance. So for me, I like to do things like a lot of immersive experiences.
Like I was like, “I can’t draw,” so I took a week long immersive drawing class. I can draw, not as good but you pick up a skill. I did an immersive primitive survival for that like I am just going into the woods. I have never camped, Mike can tell you that. We never really spend time in the woods so maybe like the seven lakes growing up but other than that –
[0:20:40.6] DA: Tree grows in the Bronx.
[0:20:43.8] SN: I am a certified personal trainer which is just weird but I didn’t know about that and I wanted to be uncomfortable. I had to learn a lot about anatomy and muscle movements and strengths curves and all that stuff.
[0:20:55.4] WJ: Where do you find the time for this and also to keeping up with technology?
[0:21:00.6] SN: I think they feed each other. I think it’s I have a long train ride that’s one thing.
[0:21:06.7] MN: The Bronx is far guys.
[0:21:07.9] SN: Yeah.
[0:21:09.9] WJ: Is it far enough to do an immersive?
[0:21:11.8] SN: No those are little harder and sometimes I will take vacations to do this thing. So I will take a week off and then like just sign up for this class and do it.
I do think it’s that important to kind of like – we would just say to humble yourself. To remind yourself that being in a space of not knowing is okay and that you can get out, right? That constant reminder that Dave was talking about, that reminder that I didn’t know something. I will just keep reading the books.
I will keep reading the blog post, I will keep reading the documentation, it won’t make sense if I just keep reading it and then it will make sense and then new thing. The same cycle, it’s just understanding that cycle. I gave a talk recently about a graduation at Flatiron School. The theme was “Embracing the Suck”. The idea of like if you’re coming into programming, your programming is special because it throws into your face that you suck, right?
Every day there is a new framework, there’s a new library, there is a new way of doing stuff. There’s Slim, “No one uses Slim anymore Mike are you crazy? There’s a new thing” and it’s this wave upon wave and just really, really harsh reminder that the amount of the body of programming that you understand is shrinking way faster than you can learn it. So you have to go through, you have to embrace the suck like just understand that that is a part of your journey.
That you will go from not knowing more often than you’re going to be in a place of knowing if you are doing it right. There is a way – I just want to make this point, there is a way to not have to embrace the suck right? You can pick a job that you are using technology that is 40 years old, right? You’re going to be a 4chan developer, go live your life like –
[0:22:55.9] MN: Co-ball.
[0:22:56.5] SN: Coding with the co-ball.
[0:22:57.7] MN: For all the co-ball listeners out there.
[0:23:00.9] SN: What’s up Bobby.
[0:23:02.5] DA: Although I feel like even like Rails you can be very comfortable as a Rails developer and just be like, “Well I know Rails”.
[0:23:07.9] SN: That’s my bread and butter, that’s what I do but I think that like a more fulfilling career, I think one that gives you the staying power that lets you not only express yourself through code but also through different mediums. So like doing hardware programming, doing web programming, doing all of these different things, you have to accept that it’s going to suck and then do it.
[0:23:29.2] WJ: I really like that notion that the speed at which technology is increasing and that breathe of knowledge available to you is growing faster than your own knowledge ever could. So the percentage of technology that you understand actually decreases as you continue to study.
[0:23:49.2] MN: Yeah this inflation of knowledge.
[0:23:51.3] DA: Right, the whole time you’re talking about this I’m just imagining like all the MPM packages that are coming in and out of fashion by the second. There’s a velocity.
[0:24:02.4] MN: Oh yeah, cool. Steve, do you have anything you want to share?
[0:24:06.5] SN: Yeah, sure. We got some stuff going on at Flatiron School that is really cool. In the past we have done fellowships with the City of New York for low income New Yorkers, working with the city is great. Working without them might be better. After partnering, we work or starting up a different initiative that targets low income New Yorkers called Access Labs. You can check it out at accesslabs.org. I think it’s a really great project close to my heart just helping people out to get out of –
Giving people opportunity to learn this craft, become amazing programmers and hopefully change their financial situation over generations. I think it’s going to be really cool.
[0:24:39.9] DA: Awesome. How can people get in touch with you?
[0:24:42.7] WJ: On the Twitters, I am @_stevennunez and that’s probably it. I’m Steven Nunez on GitHub and everywhere else but someone got Steven Nunez on Twitter, that monster. So if you are listening to this and you work at Twitter and you want to help a brother out. He doesn’t tweet, there’s nothing. Nothing.
[0:25:00.8] DA: Well that is going to be the R5.
[0:25:03.5] SN: That’s true, also I blog at hostiledeveloper.com.
[0:25:06.4] DA: That sounds very aggressive. I mean to that.
[0:25:09.5] SN: Be afraid.
[0:25:11.9] MN: Awesome, well thanks for coming on down Steve. I really appreciate it.
[0:25:14.5] SN: Awesome, happy to be here.
[0:25:15.6] MN: I’d like to thank my co-host, Dave always great recording with you.
[0:25:18.5] DA: Thanks man.
[0:25:19.3] MN: And our producer, William, thanks for coming on down.
[0:25:21.9] WJ: It’s great to be here.
[0:25:22.8] MN: Feel free to hit us up at twitter.com/radiofreerabbit and if you haven’t, subscribe and give us a five star review on iTunes. I’m Michael Nunez, this is The Rabbit Hole. We’ll see you next time.
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