Career Changers & Impostor Syndrome

Leveraging Your Unique Strengths

Posted by 'Tine Zekis on January 10, 2019 · 8 mins read

On Tuesday, January 8th of this year, I gave my first formal lightning talk! Dev Together put on a lightning talk event (hosted by RedShelf) around the theme "Your first dev job". Dev Together posted a recap of the event, where you can see videos of all eight talks.

But for those of you whose learning style gives you a preference for reading information, I’m going to recap my talk here. Enjoy!

A Little about Me

My name is Christine Zekis, but I go by ‘Tine Zekis…which also happens to be my Twitter handle, for those of you who would like to follow me after you read this. My pronouns are she/her/hers. And as you may have correctly guessed, I am a career changer. In my former life, I was a high school math teacher.

I started coding about 4 years ago, and I’m currently working as a mid-level software engineer at an AdTech firm called Centro (cough..cough…we’re hiring!). So, it wasn’t too long ago that I was in the position of looking for my first dev job. And one of the things I remember most vividly from that experience is:

Impostor Syndrome

Let’s start with a definition I’m paraphrasing from Wikipedia: Impostor Syndrome is a thought pattern where a person diminishes their own accomplishments, largely attributing their successes to luck. This is paired with a fear of being exposed as a “fraud”, or not as capable as they appear to be. Imposter Syndrome can affect all kinds of people at all different stages of their careers. But I think a group that is especially prone to this type of thinking are career changers.

I say this for a variety of reasons. First, it’s tough to be new, especially if you’ve been somewhere where you were an expert. There are going to be times when you feel like you don’t belong in tech. Maybe some of your colleagues have been coding since high school, and you’ve only been coding for six months!

These are all legit concerns. But they don’t tell the whole story. So I want to talk about one strategy you can use when you feel Imposter Syndrome sneaking up on you.

Ditch the Deficit Mindset

Imposter Syndrome feeds off of the deficit mindset. You know, things like: "I’ve never done this;" "I don’t know how to do that;" "Oh my goodness, people are gonna realize I don’t know what the heck I’m doing!" These are the types of thoughts that breed Imposter Syndrome.

So we’re going to work on ditching the deficit mindset. Let’s stop thinking about what you haven’t done…yet. You bring a wealth of experience no one else on your team has. So think about what your unique talents are. What transferable skills have you honed in your previous experiences? These are the things that will build your confidence, and help you start contributing right away to your team. For example, when I was looking for my first dev job, I thought about what skills I had honed as a math teacher.

For instance, I can get up in front of a room full of people and give a presentation. I also bring a passion for social justice, which translates well to working in diversity and inclusion efforts in tech. But probably the most important skill I bring is my ability to teach. So the guy next to me has been coding since high school. Well, I’ve been tutoring math since high school. I can take a concept that most people find scary or intimidating — like deriving the quadratic formula or the limitations of a technology my team is considering — and I can explain it at the level of whomever I’m talking to. Not every engineer can do that…but every good dev team sure could use someone who can. In the interview for my first dev job, I told my future boss that I’m a developer who speaks human.

So, What about You?

Maybe you’ve worked in sales, and your new dev team is building a tool for the sales team at your company. My goodness, who better to have in those meetings than you?! You can help your team to understand the needs of your users, since you’re familiar with the day-to-day of a sales team. And you can help explain the technical stuff in a way your colleagues across the table will understand.

Okay, so the sales example is awfully specific, and probably doesn’t apply directly to most of you, dear readers. So I’d like you all to take a moment (whether you’re a career changer or not), and think about what specific skills you bring to the table. Take some time to think about your transferable skills. Seriously, do it right now. I’ll give you a moment.

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Perhaps you’re thinking about your experience in customer service, or your excellent communication skills. Maybe you are a musician and you’re great at pattern recognition, or you’ve done work with creative problem-solving. Or maybe your previous work has helped you master the art of persuasion. All of these are invaluable skills to bring to a dev team. Revisit this idea over the next few days and try to come up with one or two unique attributes you can highlight. And if you’re having trouble thinking of anything, consider this:

Being new is an asset, in and of itself. You’re a pair of fresh eyes on the code. You can ask questions that no one else has thought of because “that’s just how we’ve always done things”. You bring your unique experience and perspective into everything you do.

I’ll Leave You with This

Awesome dev teams, who know what they’re doing, aren’t just looking for a good fit. They’re looking for a good add. They want someone who brings something to the table that they don’t already have.

So walk into your interviews knowing that’s you.

Walk into your first day on the job knowing that’s you.

Then comes the really hard part: walk into all the other days on the job knowing that’s you.

If you’re worried this won’t come naturally, I find it’s best to take it at a bit of a strut.

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If you want to watch the video, check it out below. And if you’d like, you can follow along with my slides here.