Impostor syndrome is something that is discussed a fair amount these days. Used to describe the state of feeling like you will be discovered at any moment to be a fraud, or that you haven't really earned any of your successes, impostor syndrome is something that many people are familiar with.
It's not universal, however. Lara Hogan has written about how overuse of the term has the potential to rob people of opportunities to demonstrate self-confidence. Another friend of mine recently commented to me that she didn't feel like she'd ever really struggled with it, attributing this to having a great deal of prior experience in identifying systemic problems and thus not taking those problems as an indicator of her own personal knowledge or value.
That last point was incredibly interesting to me. The early years of my career were marked by increasingly intense impostor syndrome. This started around the time I found myself as the only non-male engineer in a company, and didn't ease up until I began talking with other people who share some of my backgrounds or experiences, whose knowledge and insight helped open my eyes to the sorts of systemic issues that I had been dealing with. When I was more isolated, I assumed that the issues I was facing were all my fault (clearly because I really was an impostor), but once I was able to see what systemic problems existed, I started having a much more realistic view of my own knowledge and capabilities.
Differentiating between systemic and individual problems could potentially add some nuance to discussions about how much people should "toughen up" and "just deal with it" in the workplace. Take the issue of interrupting, for example - something that multiple studies have shown often happens along gendered lines. At my very first job, I initially got interrupted a bunch because I legitimately wasn't very good at speaking up in meetings. That was an individual problem that I worked with a manager and a mentor to fix. However, I've also worked in environments that I've described as interrupt-driven cultures, where people interrupting and talking over each other was encouraged and yelling the loudest was the only way of winning arguments. Yes, the people interrupting each other were all individual people, but those cultures overall had more systemic communication problems.
When I worked in a particularly interrupt-driven environment, I was pretty unhappy. I regularly felt disrespected, and started to doubt if my technical knowledge was good enough since nobody seemed to ever listen to me. Once I got out of that environment and back into one where cultural norms strongly discouraged interrupting, I was much happier and more confident in my knowledge. I hadn't gained any significant amount of skill or insight in the few weeks I took off in between those jobs. The problem hadn't been an individual one, like needing to improve my communication skills or the content of my suggestions. The issue was more that I wasn't willing to endlessly yell more and more loudly until everyone else gave up. In this particular case, my technical chops didn't need to toughen up, I just needed to be in a work environment where systemic cultural norms weren't working against me.
How do you tell the difference between a systemic problem and an individual one? That's a question it's hard to have a broadly applicable answer for - with so many different individual people and organizations and situations, a lot of it comes down to experience. Rather than relying solely on your own experience, however, you can benefit from what other people have learned as well. In my experience, part of the value of having special groups for various underrepresented groups is that they provide safer spaces to talk about these sorts of things. Especially earlier in your career when you have less individual experience, having a venue and community to talk about issues, ask questions, and learn from each other can be very valuable in helping people get a feel for what systemic versus individual problems look like.
If impostor syndrome is something that you struggle with, consider whether or not you feel confident in distinguishing cultural or system problems from legitimate areas for individual improvement. If you feel like your internal barometer needs more calibration, finding communities of people you can trust - especially if you're from a group or background that doesn't match that of the "stereotypical" person in tech - can be incredibly valuable. Community doesn't have to happen in your own office, though that can be helpful as well. For years I was the only non-dude or the only out queer person on my team or department, and during those years, being able to find community through meetups and on twitter was extraordinarily useful.
As I look back now, over a decade into my career, with my feelings of impostor-ness nearly all behind me, I've noticed that those sorts of groups (for me, groups for gender-minority and LGBTQ people in tech, but of course these are not the only underrepresented groups by any means) provide less value to me than they used to. I still enjoy them from time to time on a social level, but I don't feel like I need those particular community settings the way that I used to 5 to 10 years ago. In the intervening years, I’ve gained not only technical skills and a strong network, but I’ve also gotten enough practice and experience that I feel pretty confident about what issues are mine individually versus what are systemic. With a stronger sense of this internally, I don't need to rely on external expertise or advice nearly as much as I used to.
If this is the case for you as well, ask yourself if there are ways for you to pass on the knowledge and experience that you have, to be the kind of connection or resource that you had (or wish you had) earlier on. Part of why I like writing is being able to share what I've learned with other people, with the hope that maybe I can help people who are dealing with struggles similar to my own. Of course, different people will appreciate differing kinds of advice and approach their issues differently, but we as senior engineers can do a great service to the community by helping other people become more senior themselves, both in terms of technical skills and in terms of navigating these other sorts of challenges.