High-Tech Careers and Imposter Syndrome

While mentoring a colleague today, I pulled two independent concepts into the same thought: how many in high-tech careers feel the tug of imposter syndrome.

While the term imposter syndrome has been around for quite a while, somehow I had never heard it myself until a couple of years ago. A different colleague of mine was apparently feeling a bit overwhelmed by their job responsibilities and the experience they brought to the job. Wikipedia defines imposter syndrome as “a psychological occurrence in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.”

I will now wind the clock back twenty-five years or so, when I worked at a skunkworks project at AT&T Wireless known as Project Angel. There, we were hiring a dozen or so engineers every week, including electrical, power, mechanical, RF, software, electrical, and others. We were bringing in a dozen or more new hires each week. My job was building IT infrastructure (desktops, servers, storage, security network, Internet) to support the growing workforce. After an interview debrief, where we discussed a candidate who met some of the job requirements but fell short of others, I asked the VP of engineering why we were going to go ahead and hire that engineer anyway. The VP replied, “Peter, in high-tech, people want to keep learning and growing. Usually, a candidate will only apply for a job for which they are only partly qualified, so that they can grow into the bigger role. Persons are not likely to apply for jobs in which they are fully qualified – where would the challenge be for them?” So, as a result, we had hundreds of engineers in the organization, few of whom were completely qualified to do the jobs for which they were hired (me included), but they counted on learning and growing into those jobs.

(image courtesy Aardman Animations)

It would make sense, then, that those engineers with a realistic awareness of their own capabilities and shortcomings, would feel afflicted with imposter syndrome, particularly on those days when the skills deficit feels large.

This seems to be the way of high-tech professionals: we are driven to learn, grow, and stay current with the innovations in our fields of specialty. And often, because we feel that those shoes we are attempting to fill feel so large, imposter syndrome creeps in.

I’ve embraced the mindset of growing into one’s job from then onward, and found myself in such a state more often than not. For me, the secret to hiring the right people is to find those who are self-aware of their strengths and weaknesses, have a hunger for learning new things, and the initiative to do so without being asked.

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