Peter Chng

Imposter Syndrome in the Tech Industry

Imposter Syndrome is a condition where an individual consistently undervalues their own achievements and abilities despite persistent evidence of their success. This leads to a situation where they end up feeling like an “imposter” among their colleagues, afraid that they will be eventually uncovered for the supposed “fraud” that they are, especially by those that they feel are more talented than them.

Besides the obvious mental and emotional impact imposter syndrome can have, it also has a practical impact: Perfectly fine individuals can be held back from their full potential, which in turn limits the potential of the team and the company. So, what can be done about this?

I will write about this from purely the perspective of working in the tech industry, though I realize other fields are not exempt from such experiences. In settings where technical ability is highly valued, people can more easily fall into the trap of imposter syndrome. In the rest of the article, I’ll outline what I believe are some of the causes, what you can do to prevent yourself from falling into this trap, and what we can all do to encourage everyone to be their best.

Possible Causes

The possible factors related to imposter syndrome have been talked about before, but here are some specific factors that I feel are relevant in the tech industry. Note that I am not saying imposter syndrome will happen to everyone who experiences one or more of these, but rather that I believe these can contribute to the cause.

1. Difficult and often arbitrary interview process

Anyone who’s been through an interview loop at a tech company will realize that for most interviews, the kinds of things you need to know to pass an interview are markedly different from the things you need to know to do your job effectively. My colleague Avik Das has written extensively on this topic, and so I won’t be going into too much detail on this complicated issue beyond describing the factors that have produced the current conditions in tech interviews:

  1. Companies believe there are software engineers out there who cannot code, and believe the cost of hiring these individuals (a false positive) is a net negative - that they can actually reduce a company’s productivity.
  2. Hence, they design interviews with a large emphasis on weeding out individuals like this.
  3. Due to the high cost of false positives, companies are OK with the interview process rejecting perfectly good candidates (false negatives) as long as it keeps the false positive rate low. Essentially, the cost of a false positive greatly outweighs the cost of a false negative.
  4. Because an interview is essentially a binary classifier (pass/fail), there is going to be a trade-off between false positives and false negatives. The selected point on this trade-off curve ideally has a low false positive rate and accordingly may have a relatively high false negative rate.

I am not going to make a value judgment about this process, but will rather note that it exists at many tech companies. (Anecdotally, it does seem to result in a higher level of talent at these companies) Instead, I have described this process to point out the implications it has for imposter syndrome.

You will note that perfectly capable individuals get rejected; this is by design. If these folks get rejected enough, they may start to believe that they are not capable of performing at one of these companies, even if they subsequently are able to pass an interview. Hence, these individuals may believe that they got “lucky” by passing their interview and may secrently worry that they aren’t qualified for the job.

2. Plenty of talented individuals at tech companies

It’s true, at many tech companies there are some truly talented and motivated individuals. In some of the bigger tech companies, there are individuals who are at the forefront of their respective fields and have made significant contributions advancing that field.

Others have built frameworks and technologies that have seen widespread adoption. In such an environment, it’s hard not to feel awestruck and to get the sense that you are walking among giants. This can be a humbling experience, and can lead to one feeling that they are not at the same level as their eminently-qualified coworkers.

3. Lack of diverse representation for certain groups

Unconscious bias can lead to feedback loops where people from diverse backgrounds tend to get filtered out. For example, if an interview process is not standardized it can allow for an overreliance on subjective factors like “culture fit”. Coupled with a desire to avoid false positives (hiring the wrong person), an interviewer might be worried based on a “gut feeling” that a candidate might not be a good “team player”. This sort of unconscious bias can lead to a dilution of diversity at a company, which has further implications for the few diverse candidates that do make it past the interview process.

Imposter syndrome is ultimately about an individual feeling like they don’t belong in the same group as their peers. This can be exacerbated if there aren’t many other people with similar backgrounds as that individual in the group, as this reinforces the feeling (if only subconsciously) about not belonging.

Note that I used the term “diverse background” here. A person’s background is not just related to their race or gender (though those are two important components), but is rather the sum total of their life experiences up to the present. It can include, but is not limited to, where they grew up, what their family looked like, what schools they went to (or did not attend), and which jobs they had prior to joining their current company.

What we can do about Imposter Syndrome

Because imposter syndrome is primarily an error in the way a person perceives themselves, the solutions mainly lie in changing patterns of thought. But we can also work to ensure that external conditions don’t inadvertently foster conditions for it. Here are some ways of doing that.

1. Recognize negative thought patterns, and act to counter them

A negative thought pattern is one that is automatic and happens almost without one consciously noticing it. When you make a mistake, there are different ways that you can react to it. For example, let’s say you wrote some code that resulted in a bug because you didn’t realize how a particular library function worked. One internal self-explanation might be:

“I didn’t dig deep enough into the implementation of this library function to realize what it was doing. I should have spent more time on this and not have been so careless, like that other time I missed catching another person’s bug in a code review. I wonder how many other times I’ve made this mistake?”

Another might be:

“This library function wasn’t documented very well, otherwise I would have spotted the mistake right away. Next time I won’t make this mistake, and I’ll dig deeper, as I’m usually not like this.”

These are two very different explanatory styles for how a person might react to this situation. The first is decidedly more negative, because it attributes this single failure to something more fundmentally wrong with themselves. The second, while still owning up to the failure, doesn’t attempt to make a mountain out of a molehill and try to link this particular failure with something more widespread in meaning.

Cognitive Therapy is a technique that is designed to break up negative thought patterns like the first example above. In the book Learned Optimism, Dr. Martin Seligman (who also worked on developing the aspects of explanatory style) outlines five steps from cognitive therapy to change these thought patterns:

  1. Recognize these automatic thoughts. Often times, these thoughts happen so quickly that they go unnoticed, except for the bad feelings they generate. The first step is to be aware of what you are thinking.
  2. Counter them by “marshaling contrary evidence”. Remember times when you acted in a way that was counter to how you currently feel about yourself.
  3. Provide different explanations, called “reattributions”, that avoid seeing a specific situation as representing something more fundamentally bad about yourself.
  4. Recognize that you do not always have to yield to these negative thought patterns. As Dr. Seligman puts it, “You can learn to control not only what you think but when you think it.”
  5. Learn to recognize the requirements you have implicitly set for yourself, which may constitute an unrealistic set of self-expectations. For example, do you feel that you must always be correct, and never make a mistake? Doing so is setting yourself up to experience failure, even if others may not view your actions as such.

The flip side of negative thoughts is a systematic downplaying of positive thoughts. One particular thing I’ve noticed associated with imposter syndrome is an apprehension in accepting praise for one’s work. When given congratulations for some work they contributed to, they’ll often say, “Thanks, but it was a team effort…”, or some other statement that implicitly downplays their contribution. Try instead to say something like, “Thanks - it was a lot of work, but I’m happy with the result!”. This isn’t being arrogant, but instead being gracious in accepting praise.

This is just a very brief overview of cognitive therapy, and I recommend reading Learned Optimism should you get the chance, as it goes into much more detail on this topic.

2. Be compassionate and understanding of others

There is something you can do to help others be their best, and that is charitably interpreting their actions. One advantage of the strict interview process we talked about earlier (which minimizes false positives) is that it enables a strong prior belief that most coworkers you’ll encounter are indeed highly qualified for the job.

Thus, when you observe someone making a mistake or not understanding something, it’s more likely that they are having an “off day” rather than this being a true reflection of their level of competence. You should be supportive of them, and not overly critical. This doesn’t mean that you can’t correct them, but when you do, you should be respective and offer meaningful advice rather than just pointing out their mistake. What you say matters just as much as how you say it.

3. Create a work environment where people of diverse backgrounds can succeed

This one is not straightforward, and so I won’t pretend to be an expert in this. However, we should realize that talent can come from many backgrounds, whether it was attendance at a prestigious school, or from being self-taught, or any shade in between. When thinking of what background a “successful” person may come from, we shouldn’t over-index on any one attribute.

One particular incident that helped me recognize this was a workshop our director signed us up for. As part of this workshop, we were encouraged to share some piece of our background/upbringing as part of an activity. Doing this helped me better appreciate the diversity in background that the people in my organization had, which would not have been possible to realize just by interacting with them during a normal work day.

Closing thoughts

When working at a company, if you’re in a senior role, it’s often part of your responsibility to ensure that other members of your team can perform their best.

Doing so means making sure they have the right tools and mindset to get things done. Having the right mindset means having the confidence in their abilities, and imposter syndrome can be a major impediment to that.

Understanding the potential causes of imposter syndrome (rather than just dismissing it as low self-confidence) can help shed light on possible remedies. There are things the individual can do, and things that others can do to help reverse the course on imposter syndrome. Keep these in mind as you mentor or coach a colleague.