Web Developers and the Impostor Syndrome

Last September, I had lunch with another WordPress Developer while at WCLA. During our discussion, we touched on an interesting subject. The Impostor Syndrome. I wasn’t aware of the actual term at the time, but the definition seems to fit our discussion.

The impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

How does this apply to web developers? What the hell am I talking about?

Let me explain…

During our talk we both acknowledged that when we first started working with other developers, we were apprehensive about it. Not because we were against collaboration. Not because we were against working with other people. But simply because it was very intimidating.

I know for myself, it wasn’t necessarily a lack of confidence. I have always taken pride in my work, and I am confident in my craft. I know that I know my stuff! Yet, at the same time, there is a feeling of vulnerability when you expose the code behind your work to other people.

The “I Can Do It Myself” Stage

Prior to working with other developers, I tried to do everything myself. I worked at small agencies and was usually the only full-time developer on staff. This forced me to learn a lot, and to learn it quickly. But the projects continued to get more and more complex. And the workload kept increasing. I had to work with other people. I was terrified. What if they find errors in my code? What if I’ve been doing something incorrectly? What if I’m a fraud?!

At this point in time, I had plenty of accomplishments under my belt. I had an extensive portfolio, a long list of happy clients, and plenty of my own personal projects. But for some reason, that fear was still there.

Getting over the fear

Eventually, I had a project come up in my freelance world that I knew I couldn’t handle myself. The agency I was working with at the time had another developer that I was going to work with. Logically, I knew it would be okay. But, panic still set in. And I had to face it straight on. And guess what. The project went great.

Come to find out, this developer was far more advanced with JavaScript than myself. But I wasn’t exposed as a fraud or banished from the web development community. Instead, he offered some advice about parts of my code – which lead me to become a better developer. And on top of that, I was able to give him some advice about working WordPress.

Who would have thought… I was able to teach him something. To this day we still exchange emails and offer each other advice. When I have a JavaScript question he’s usually the first guy I ask. And when he has a WordPress question, he doesn’t hesitate to ask me for help.

Looking Back

Now, a couple of years later, I look at that first project as a significant turning point in my career. That’s when I started to collaborate. It wasn’t until I started working with other developers that I really began to pinpoint my strengths and weaknesses. And I have found out that it’s extremely valuable to know both of those.

I will admit that I still get jitters every once in a while when I publicly share my code. But it’s usually followed by positive feedback. On top of the thank you’s, I’ve also received valuable feedback that has helped me learn new things.

So… What’s my point?

I am a firm believer that everyone can learn something from everyone. And everyone can teach something to everyone. I’ve heard other people talk about the Impostor Syndrome (or similar feelings), so it doesn’t only apply to developers. And I don’t think that it is uncommon.

I wanted to share my story, and urge other people to take a step out of their comfort zone. Whether you are a seasoned developer, or you’re just getting the hang of HTML and CSS, you can learn by sharing and collaborating. So put yourself out there!

8 thoughts on “Web Developers and the Impostor Syndrome

  1. Very well written, Ryan . . . and you’re right. This doesn’t only apply to developers. It is part of the Human condition. I remember it well from when I stood before my first classroom in 1968. I was sure they all knew I was a fraud. Thank you for expressing this so articulately and for encouraging others to step out of their comfort zone. We are so much more collectively than we are individually.

  2. Thanks for posting this. I have been doing my own WordPress hacking or years and developing websites without it for longer, but didn’t feel comfortable putting stuff out there other than in my own corner of the web until I started teaching others how to do this stuff. So I’ve finally started contributing to the WordPress community and am now considering writing a plugin. I don’t think I’ll ever bill myself as an expert though. Not sure I’ll ever be comfortable with that. :P

    1. It can definitely be scary to put yourself (or your code) out there! But as Chris said, that fear can be very powerful – and it can really drive you. And hey, no one will ever pressure you to bill yourself as an expert :) But remember, there will always be someone out there who you can teach. And there will always be someone out there that can teach you. Thanks for reading, Amanda!

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