In May I wrote an article about how I am a code school graduate and have recently entered the field of programming. Today I’m going to talk about the previous experience I had with programming and computers in general, and how “imposter syndrome” strikes in the tech field. Unlike many of my coworkers, I wasn’t surrounded by electronics and computers a lot in childhood. My parents were fairly nontechnical. My dad worked in mechanics and my mom in biological research. At school, we received only a nominal education in computer use. But I was really excited when, in 1999, my parents decided that we needed a computer at home, since typed assignments were expected when I entered middle school.
I don’t know why, but I was the person in my family most interested in the computer. I had never played a video game before, but I became incredibly immersed in playing old-school RPGs (role-playing games) and strategy games. I logged a lot of hours in Sid Meier’s Civilization and old shareware games like Castle of the Winds and Exile (which has been remade under the title Avernum and is an incredible series worth checking out if you have the time). When we got internet, I would connect every day after school on the old dial-up modem. That led to my first experience with programming.
Thanks to a site called Neopets, where you could raise a virtual pet and make a homepage for it, I taught myself HTML and CSS to design my little virtual friend’s page. Unfortunately, that was where my childhood programming endeavor ended. I didn’t have any friends who were interested in it, and my high school didn’t offer any programming or computer science classes. I never saw myself going into a technical career either – I thought that I would need to have stronger math skills, and that is also what every adult around me said as well, so I gave up on it.
I took the same career route my mom had, and entered the veterinary industry out of high school. I started as an assistant, then got a degree as a Certified Veterinary Technician. It wasn’t until I was 27 years old that I decided I wanted to change careers, and a friend suggested programming. I confessed I did have an interest in programming but that I doubted I knew enough to make it a career. This friend kept pushing for me to learn the skills, so I ended up at code school. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself. The experience showed me I could learn a new skill, I just had to put the effort into doing it, and at code school there were a lot of people like me with none or very little experience.
I take the same approach at work as I took at code school – recognize I’m there not only to work, but to learn, and make a commitment to lifelong learning and the improvement of skills. Some of my coworkers have decades of experience with both hardware and software, and have a wealth of knowledge. Instead of feeling intimidated and as though I don’t belong, I try to learn things from them. I remind myself that on my first day of vet tech school, I didn’t know where the cephalic vein was or how to place an IV catheter into it, but two years later I was extremely good at it and taught others how to do it. Don’t feel intimidated; find someone who knows what you want to know, and learn from them, practice what they teach you, become good at it, and then teach it to someone else.
There’s a saying in the medical field – “see one, do one, teach one.” It’s an effective method of training someone, but it’s also a method to show yourself you’ve really learned a skill. In reality you may have to see it twenty times, and fail the first five times you try to do it, before you can teach someone else. But once you can pass on a skill you’ve learned, you know you’ve harnessed that skill. Don’t be an impostor. Become an expert.