Owning Your Career
25 June, 2020
From the outside, I have always been seen as a challenge-oriented and hard-working person, but on the inside, I’ve fought a life-long battle with Imposter Syndrome. Long before I had a name for what was holding me back, I found myself wondering why my career always seemed to stall out. Time and again I found myself in the same place: working in roles where I was told, “You’re doing great, just keep doing great!” But I was never given more impact, never handed additional responsibility. Even worse, I trapped myself in a negative cycle of thinking that because I wasn’t progressing against an arbitrary career ladder, it was because I was actually terrible at my job, and I would be discovered any day as a fraud and probably be fired. It was easy to tell myself “You don’t deserve anything more, you’re not good enough for what you’ve got, they’re going to find out how bad you are.” Sadly, while I’ve witnessed this “I’m not good enough” type of thinking time and again, among people of all professions and genders, I’ve never yet met a woman in tech that hasn’t had to wrestle with this internal battle of Imposter Syndrome.
As a perennial senior engineer, I had become disheartened to the point I was considering leaving technology altogether. What would it take for someone to give me an opportunity that would finally make me feel good about myself? Finally, I got the courage to face that question head-on -- I went to an individual who was three levels above me in the organization to ask him. As I was complaining and complaining about being stuck, asking what more I needed to do, he looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “You own your career! No one is going to hand you anything!” It took the shock of those words to wake me up. I had spent years waiting for someone to give me external validation that would make me believe I was “good enough”. He opened my eyes to see that I was looking at the problem backward. I owned my career. Therefore, I owned my own validation. No amount of external positive validation would ever overcome the self-sabotage of negative self-belief. And that negative self-belief made every bit of negative external validation ten times more powerful. If I truly owned my career, then I had to own and deal with the internal voice that was always telling me, “You’re terrible, they’re going to find out how bad you are”. Nobody would believe I could do more unless I believed it for myself first, and started acting on that belief.
But how to do that? There were a few things I had to do. First, I had to find a way to catch that self-doubt, to name it, to stop it before it could sabotage me. Therapy was useful, and I pursued that to learn techniques for introspection, reflection, and self-kindness. Second, I had to allow myself to hear the positive feedback of others, and accept that they could see me better than I saw myself. I wasn’t bad. I was capable. They were right, I was wrong. Third, I had to see systemic negative feedback as not personal. If I, as a woman, was constantly talked across in a room it wasn’t because I was less worthy, it was because there were other external issues in that room that needed to be addressed. Finally, even if I didn’t feel it, I needed to “fake it until I make it”, and act from a place of confidence until true confidence could arrive. Doing so meant others would see me acting like I was already in the roles I thought I could achieve, and that in turn would lead to opportunity.
None of this was easy, but I pushed forward despite setbacks. I reached out to those who knew my abilities well, who could give me unfiltered, critical feedback which I forced myself to take as truth without judgment. When they said I was doing well, I believed it. When they said I needed to correct something, I acted.
With increasing confidence, I realized that networking was the next big piece that was missing. Over the years I mistakenly assumed that if I was worthy, success would come to me. I wasn’t good enough to go looking for it, after all. Yet once I was able to see myself as capable and worthy, I realized that what I needed was to find those who were already making the type of impact that I was hoping to achieve. They were the ones that could teach me and learning from them was essential.
At Microsoft, there were women’s networking groups and I rushed to join one. There, I found many who expressed similar self-doubts, and I discovered I wasn’t alone. The opportunities for mentorship and peer-analysis in a smaller company may not exist, but fortunately, external opportunities such as Plato exist today! Do your research and connect with mentors, colleagues, sponsors, and advocates who can pull you out of the box in which you’re trapped. Reach out to them, show them your interest and competencies; they will hold up a mirror to your self-doubts and remember you as someone who can fill a role later or as someone who can help them in turn. Those relationships will open more doors and eventually will snowball into the opportunities you so richly deserve.
- You own your own career! Nobody will give it to you for free.
- You are good enough! Really, you are. Stop telling yourself you’re not. You wouldn’t have the job you already have if you didn’t deserve it.
- Introspection can help you learn more about yourself. Self-reflect on your values and goals, then supplement it with the feedback you are receiving. Imposter Syndrome is real, but it’s not reality. If your self-conception is negative and what you’re being told is positive, you need to consider that you might not have a good view of yourself and you shouldn’t trust your own opinion.
- Don’t be afraid to seek help. Therapy helped me, but you can also find yourself a solid set of mentors that will give you unfiltered critical feedback, both positive and negative.
- Your voice is valuable. Speak up and be willing to get shot down. Don’t be overly self-critical when things don’t go well, it might be them, not you. Recognize that you have expertise and capabilities, otherwise, you wouldn’t be in the role you are already in! Others will see your value based on the voice you present to them.
- Continuously seek out further opportunities for networking, mentorship, etc. With that in hand, you can find sponsors to accelerate your career, and opportunities for career advancement will start to arise.
- Over time, your network will grow as you both demonstrate in-role as well as follow your values and goals with confidence. Once the momentum picks up people will start to seek you out for your expertise.
- Be aware that many around you might be struggling with Imposter Syndrome, especially women in a male-dominated field who have the additional burden of negative social reinforcement holding them down. Lift one another up. Encourage others to introspect, speak up about their challenges, take risks, and learn to believe in themselves!
- Imposter Syndrome cannot be cured, but it can be tamed. The work is hard, but the reward of being able to interact with others out of your own presence and conviction is priceless.
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