Starting from new equals endless potential for you
Have you ever worked your butt off for several years to break into the tech industry only to suddenly feel like all of the work you’ve done is fraudulent and you didn’t actually earn your place? Spoiler alert: it’s not just you, and you’re going to be just fine.
Almost every technologist I’ve ever talked to about imposter syndrome — ranging from beginner tech students all the way up to executive leadership — has acknowledged that they’ve gone through it at some point in their careers. For new grads, in particular, it can be shocking to go from being the most experienced students to the least experienced developers. You’re in a much bigger pond now, so there are so many more exceptional people to compare yourself to.
Making the change between student and working professional is a big jump. Without the proper support and mindset, this is one of the most uncertain times for a developer trying to find their place in tech. As someone starting my professional career myself, here are a few thought processes that are helping me manage my worries about succeeding in tech.
As a new developer, you might be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of new terminology, technology, and tools that you have to pick up to be effective at your job. Maybe you were finally starting to feel confident about your skills, and now you’ve suddenly been thrown into a new arena with different rules. Some good news? If you recognize there’s a lot you still need to know, you’re on your way to being a better developer.
Find your place on the Dunning-Kruger curve.
The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the phenomenon where people with low abilities in an area tend to overestimate themselves, while those who have more skill in an area underestimate themselves. The effect has been visualized like this:
This curve shows how confidence soars in the early stages of learning a new skill. After all, the “fastest” progress you’ll ever make percentage-wise is improving from zero to something. If you look back on when you were just starting to code, you can probably recall a phase when you were starting to “get it,” and coding felt good, right? Now, think about how good that code really was.
Now that you’ve learned more about programming, your confidence may have dipped as you realized how much more there is that you don’t know. Imposter syndrome develops when this dip in confidence is combined with a lack of recognition for how much progress you’ve made and how much more you will grow as you explore some of the things you don’t know now. Trying new things that force you to expand your skillset is the only way to grow. Besides, how boring would it be if you knew everything there is to know at the start of your career?
As a new grad, you’re probably somewhere in the valley of the Dunning-Kruger curve since you’ve hopefully learned by now just how vast the world of technology is. Now, as you progress through your career, you’ll gain more competence, so let your confidence rise with it while keeping in mind that there’s always more to know. The goal as a new technologist is to learn how to be uncomfortable while still believing in your ability to overcome that discomfort.
Recognize the skills you have already.
It’s easier to see what we’re lacking because everything you don’t know creates an obstacle for you. You’re much less likely to notice how smoothly most things go because of what you do know how to do.
Pay attention to how prepared you are for the day-to-day interactions required of a software engineer. The soft skills like interpersonal communication that you’ve developed through college will allow you to start building your professional network. Your ability to organize helps you be a more effective employee. Even the new, unfamiliar technical skills might relate to some of what you learned during your time as a student, which gives you a huge advantage in picking them up.
A lot of things will be new to you, but you didn’t come with an empty toolkit. Figure out what your strengths are, and you can maneuver your career towards something that allows you to lean on your strengths while also learning new skills.
As a new member of a company or team, it’s hard to fight off the urge to hit the ground running and prove your worth as soon as possible. That feeling is intensified if you’re a new developer in your first tech role because what you’re trying to prove isn’t just that you can do your specific job, but that you can make it in tech as a whole. That’s a whole lot of pressure to put on yourself all at once. Slow down.
By making it to your company at all, you probably had to pass a set of interviews and a resume screen. You might’ve spent years in school before that, taken certifications, participated in trainings and boot camps, or self-studied your butt off. No matter what your background, you’ve already put in plenty of work just to get to your first day.
Onboarding is designed to take time.
Your career is a marathon, not a sprint. Building a solid foundation is the most important step to long-term success. Companies know this, which is why full-time onboarding can often take weeks or even months to get through. This might be hard to wrap your head around if you’re used to internships, semesters/quarters in school, or other activities that typically have timelines of just a few months. In those cases, the ramp-up time has to be fast to get everything done, but for full-time work, you’re in it for the long haul.
If you feel like you’re moving too slowly in your first few weeks, it’s probably not you. You might actually hurt yourself down the line if you try to speed through the onboarding process. However, here are a few things I recommend doing if you do think you could move along faster while still giving yourself a strong start.
- Check in with your manager to see if you’re on track. If you really are behind, they’ll let you know. Otherwise, it’s probably just your fast-paced student brain struggling to adjust to full-time professional mode.
- Be proactive in reaching out about resources. Ask to be added to relevant repositories, communication channels, and documentation so that you can familiarize yourself with the work early on.
- Use your extra time to set up one-on-one chats with people so that you can learn all about the little details that don’t come up in the formal training program.
Create a career timeline that works for you.
If you’re a new grad, this might be your first time in life where there’s no set endpoint. With school, training programs, etc., there’s almost always an end date in sight. In a full-time job, however, there’s typically no planned end date. That might sound intimidating, but it also means that there’s no need to rush because the amount of time you take on your goals is open-ended. More than ever, it’s up to you to set your own career goals.
If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome, it might be tempting to set low goals that you know you can reach, but don’t underestimate yourself. Instead, you want to find a balance between setting an attainable goal and pushing yourself to grow.
To determine reasonable but challenging goals, here are a few questions to ask.
- Find out what the typical career progression is for someone in your role at your company. How long does it usually take to get that first promotion?
- Ask members of your team about their typical work timelines. How long does it take them to work on their tasks? How much do your teammates get done each sprint, each quarter, each year? (Make sure you don’t try to hit the same goals as someone with far more experience than you. They should just serve as references!)
- Remember that your goals don’t have to be strictly related to your job description. Does your company have employee resource groups that you’d like to be involved with? Do you have personal and professional growth goals beyond your responsibilities as a dev?