Navigating my Imposter Syndrome

— 5 minute read

In 2017 I made the decision to give up my job as a maths teacher, and pursue a new career as a front-end developer. When I tell people this, it’s not uncommon to hear something along the lines of, “really? That’s cool. But I bet that was quite different.” And a few months ago, I would have completely agreed. I’ve been working as a front-end developer for a year now, and it certainly feels like a long time since I stepped foot inside a classroom. But over time, the move has come to seem less drastic than I initially thought.

Feeling like an imposter permalink

I spent the first few months in tech experiencing two main emotions - disbelief and fear; disbelief that after spending 10 years in education, I had managed to change my career into something so different and so exciting, and fear that I was going to be found out. The fear was paralysing at times. I woke up every day convinced this would be the day I was going to be found out as the ex-teacher that I really am; the one whose “teacher” voice occasionally slips out when I don’t agree with someone, or the one who feels more comfortable annotating in red pen.

When I decided to make a career move from teacher to developer, I focused on all the technical skills I needed to learn, and the list just kept on growing. Once I learned HTML and CSS, I then needed to upskill in accessibility, semantic markup, BEM and OOCSS. The basics of JavaScript were never going to be enough when I needed to be able to write React, understand Webpack and be skilled in Git.

Spending so much time thinking about my lack of skills, and how out of depth I felt, gave me overwhelming feelings of imposter syndrome. I completely forgot who I was and the more of an imposter I felt, the more I started behaving like someone I no longer recognised. I stopped asking questions because I feared it would expose my lack of technical knowledge. I stopped putting myself forward for opportunities because I worried that people would think I was crazy to be doing ‘extra’ stuff when I wasn’t even doing my day-to-day job properly. I stopped contributing in meetings because I believed that my opinion had no value, as I couldn’t back it up with experience. And I stopped believing that I was a competent, professional person, who had a lot to offer.

Recognising my transferable skills permalink

And then one day, I had a conversation with someone who said that being a developer was really just about solving problems. In the days and weeks after this conversation, I kept coming back to this idea. I thought being a developer was all about technical skills, and I didn’t have a lot of those. But solving problems was something I could do! After spending a decade in education, I had finely honed my problem-solving techniques. I had practised the art of patience and resilience, and solved problems every single day, despite a lack of resources, an overwhelming lack of time, and an often-unreceptive audience of teenagers.

The more I accepted that my role as a developer was about solving problems, the more similarities I found between my old and new career. All the problem-solving strategies I had applied in my time in education were just as applicable as a front-end developer. For example, as a teacher, your time is so stretched that you need to be efficient and focus on the big wins. Rather than trying to do everything, it’s much better to put your energy into the smaller tasks that make the biggest impact. In tech, we use the same strategy but we call it developing an MVP, and fixing small bugs that break a user journey, rather than worrying that your entire product is flawed.

We also concentrate on closing the feedback loop and using that to solve problems. In education, the loop is the relationship between teaching and learning, and remembering that you can’t measure one without the other. For developers, that loop is between your product and its users, and remembering that your job is to create something that users need and want, rather than just something that looks nice.

Overcoming imposter syndrome permalink

Once I started to understand how I could apply my previous experience in my new world, I started to feel less like an imposter, and more like a professional with skills to offer. The imposter syndrome is still there but forcing myself to make connections became a way to quieten that voice and to find my own place in tech.

The more I’ve shared this with others, the more people have opened up about their own feelings of being an imposter, and their own experiences from outside tech that are actually incredibly valuable and should help our industry to become better.

We’re living in a world where changing careers will become the norm, and I hope that sharing how I’ve navigated my imposter syndrome may help others who are either changing their career, and working with colleagues who are. Now, when people tell me my old and new career are totally different from each other, I say “yeah it’s different, but also, kind of the same”.