“Hey [boss] — am I fired?”
This is one of the those “ha ha, only serious” jokes; one of those places that we all use humor to broach a topic that’s hard to just come right out and ask. I remember using this (admittedly hamfisted) line with various managers over the years. What I really wanted to know was “Am I doing okay? You’d tell me if I wasn’t, right?”
I remember one job where I was so deeply uncomfortable about whether I was measuring up that the sound of the Skype ringtone (of a boss or coworker calling) would give me an instant anxiety attack. To this day I can’t hear that sound without it triggering a Pavlovian response. But, when I finally left that job, they made an aggressive counter-offer: our internal barometer is not necessarily a reliable indicator of our external effectiveness.
Fast forward to recently as I was managing a team, except that I was on the receiving end of the “Am I fired?” (or equivalent) joking. It’s a whole different set of emotions to hear it from people who have every reasonable expectation of knowing where they stand with you; even more, this was coming from people who are diligent, talented, and effective at their jobs. Exactly the sort of people who really shouldn’t have to be walking around with some doubt in the back of their minds.
I recently changed jobs from that position where I was a manager of a technical team, to one where I’m member of a team and not in a managing role. It’s not a move that a lot of people choose to make, and it has given me an unusual perspective and a chance to reflect on some things that technical managers can easily become disconnected from.
The Imposter Phenomenon
InfoSec has gone through some previous rounds of talking about imposter syndrome, so I won’t re-explain the concepts here. If you’re not already familiar with it, Jess Barker, Ben Hughes, and Micah Hoffman have all shared good explanations and perspectives on it (or outside of infosec: Neil Gaiman, Adam Savage). Likewise, the original paper on the “imposter phenomenon” (they specifically didn’t think it was a disorder, so “syndrome” is wrong) is still a relevant and interesting read, and has some actual thoughts on approaches to dealing with it; I highly recommend it. Finally, I think many people know about the main point of Dunning-Kruger (“Unskilled and Unaware of It”), but the core idea of of imposter syndrome also shows up on the right hand side of each of the graphs in that paper; even high achievers tend to perceive themselves as essentially just a little better than average. Put another way, we tend to devalue a skill as we improve. That’s the insidious thing about imposter syndrome: it doesn’t go away as you get better.
With all that in mind, I’d like to use my recent experience and perspective to share some approaches to addressing and handling the imposter experience for both managers and individual contributors.
How Managers Can Mitigate Impostor Syndrome In Their Teams
Encourage “I Don’t Know”
As a manager, you should both foster and model team norms that encourage asking questions, getting help, and learning without judgement. Treat good questions as a valuable resource: ask questions publicly yourself, and encourage others to seek help visibly (on shared mailing lists or channels), and then summarize the answers and how they found them. When people share new learnings in private, encourage them to proudly share it more broadly; from something as trivial as a new keyboard shortcut to big strategic ideas, both the knowledge itself and the meta-level learning of how someone came to that knowledge can help the team. I would even argue that the latter is more important: it represents an investment in getting better at learning together, an investment which compounds over time.
As a corollary to this, be vigilant for people undermining these values; a toxic individual on a team can affect this for an entire organization. Which takes us to…
Don’t Tolerate “Brilliant Jerks”
There are lots of ways that “brilliant jerks” manifest, but the bottom line is that their negative impact on the team always outweighs whatever individual contributions they’re making. If we truly value the investment in collective learning discussed above, then it becomes easier to reason about the damage caused by these people. Particularly in relation to imposter syndrome, I think some of these “jerks” thrive because other people who are as good but more cautious don’t call them out on it. That silence emboldens and normalizes the behavior, and the effect spreads. As a manager, specifically screen for it when hiring, and excise it if it slips through.
Give Specific Feedback (Both Positive and Negative)
There’s a lot of guidance out there about how to give critical/constructive feedback, so let me focus on positive feedback for a second. For strong performers, “good job, keep it up” is lazy feedback. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and I’ve personally been guilty of it, but it’s a disservice. It doesn’t help the recipient grow or continue to improve and it passes over an important opportunity to reinforce values, but there’s something more germane to imposter syndrome: it doesn’t come off as credible. Remember that the challenge here is that someone doing good work simply doesn’t believe it’s good. So specificity is an important tool here to address a bug in the recipient’s perception.
Especially for more junior positions where roles are relatively concretely defined, I encourage you to put in the thought to tie “good job” back to specific, areas of professional development and, hopefully, their next tier of advancement. If we, as managers, can’t link “good job” back to accomplishment of specific, collaboratively-set goals and visible milestones then we’re robbing our best people of a chance to recognize their own accomplishments and maybe even surprise us. (Aside: More senior roles need different types of feedback, where the specificity is about helping to bring patterns and trends into focus. But that’s a whole other post.)
Finally, find ways for people to work together. This can take the form of pair programming, cross-functional projects, outside blogs/talks/research, or really anything that has people of different skillset and skill levels doing meaningful work together. I’m a fan of the mantra that “we all have something to teach, and we all have something to learn.”
Nothing drives that point home faster for team members than having them plunk their laptops next to each other and actually work on a problem together using their differing approaches. As a manager, look for ways to help your team internalize that lesson.
How Individual Contributors (IC) Can Reduce Impostor Syndrome.
Position versus Trajectory
The first thing you probably need to know about good managers is that they care a lot less about where you are than about where you’re going. If you’re making progress, learning from mistakes, and getting better at your role, then you shouldn’t worry too much about individual day to day bumps.
This also applies importantly in hiring: it’s not uncommon for folks to somehow think they “lucked” or “conned” their way into a job offer, that they’re not actually good enough to get the job they just got. From a manager’s perspective, this is bollocks. The single most important thing that people managers do is pick their team. Jess Barker does a good job of translating a technique from the original Clance & Imes paper into an useful infosec context: imagine for a moment “confessing” to your new manager about how you feel like you conned them into giving you the position, and then try to imagine the response. Realistically, the response should be something like “I put a lot of thought into who I hire, and there are really good reasons I think you belong here; it’s my job to see that.”
Stop looking at your feet; look at the road ahead. Ask “where should I be in 6 months?”, then work on getting there, a little bit at a time.
Embrace the “Thirty Percent Feedback” Protocol
Fear of not being good enough can make us less productive. There’s a strange, destructive feedback loop that I’ve noticed (and been a victim of) where the more we worry about our work being worthwhile, the longer we’ll hold it away from scrutiny and criticism. This can manifest as trying to perfect a project or assignment right up to deadline, then dumping the entire thing in “final” form, without ever soliciting meaningful feedback. Ultimately this is counterproductive because it means that we’re not getting potentially useful feedback at the earlier, formative stages of the work. Worse, that lack of useful feedback increases our uncertainty about the quality of our work, which increases the inclination to work privately longer. Ever felt like you worked really hard for really long on something, and even at the end thought “that’s really not my best work”? Yup, that’s this. It sucks.
That’s a tough cycle to break. One approach I really like is Jason Freedman’s “Thirty Percent Feedback”. Give it a read for the entire concept, but the essence is to force yourself to seek feedback early, and provide context to your reviewer about how “done” the thing is. An outline, a whiteboard sketch, or a chunk of pseudocode is totally fine if you preface it with “this thing is 10% done”. Then you’re inviting responses that are useful at the 10% or 30% mark and can drive important holistic improvements, instead of getting bogged down in discussing things that aren’t important until the 90% mark.
Don’t Shoot for 100% Perfect
The “X% Complete” protocol actually helps with another challenge in complex fields: there is rarely a single, completely correct, un-nuanced answer. This can lead to analysis paralysis as we try to force a solution asymptotically to 100% complete and correct. Likewise, it contributes to imposter experience as we are best positioned to see the flaws in our own work. I’ve listened to phenomenally talented people absolutely *trash* their own work, even though it was objectively useful and important. Whether it’s releasing code as open source, giving a conference talk, or delivering a PhD thesis, the creator is inevitably the greatest critic. All the work that goes into understanding a topic or building a thing makes us better at seeing failings, which means that the horizon of perfection inevitably moves during the process.
There’s no fix for that, nor would we really want one; it means that we’ve grown while doing the work. To counteract the imposter experience that comes with this effect, change your goal: explicitly do not aim for perfect. Make your goal instead to make things a little better, and also to make it easier for others to make them better still.
- Don’t write all the code to solve a problem: write enough, and make it maintainable and extensible.
- Don’t write an entire textbook in a technical answer: write some guidelines and examples, and document the most useful references for others to expand later.
- Don’t try to cram everything into a 50 minute conference talk: instead, try to convey the improved mental model you have after doing all the prep work, and help listeners get to your level faster than you did.
The entire impetus for this post was my recent change of roles; a good reminder that starting a new, larger job is a chance to be both excited and scared. Does knowing this stuff on an intellectual basis actually help with the feelings? I truly think it can, but the reason this article focuses on technical managers and leaders is because the real meaningful solution is in the culture of an organization. One reviewer pointedly asked if these ideas can work at high performing companies. I think that’s reversing causality; these are the kinds of ideas that *create* high performing teams and companies.
The role that’s currently scaring and exciting me is application security at Netflix. When I have a little more perspective I’ll certainly write about the first sixish months, but in the meanwhile I’ll answer the reviewer by pointing at Netflix’s recently updated culture essay. It really is how the company operates, and the cumulative effects of an entire organization working from those principles and at that level is a strong argument for the effectiveness of building a team around those values (…and if the culture deck resonates with you, you’ll find that we’re always hiring).
These are my thoughts, but I really hope they encourage others to share theirs. Managers — are there approaches that are useful in your team that others should use? ICs — are there things you or your managers do that improve or exacerbate the challenges of imposter experience? What am I not asking about that I should?
Please share in comments, twitter (@coffeetocode), or email (pst @ this domain).
Thanks to the many reviewers of various drafts of this post.