The importance of psychological safety

There seems to be growing awareness of the importance of safe environments and John Le Drew dug deep into that topic at Agile Testing days 2017 with his talk about how the most significant obstacle in agile teams is the lack of safety. He mentioned Aristotle, Google’s research project about what makes a great team. What they eventually found out was that team effectiveness is not about who is on the team, but how they work together. Their result can be summed up in these five keys of a great team:

  1. Psychological safety. Team members must be comfortable in taking risks and speaking their minds.
  2. Dependability. Get things done on time and meet expectations in regards to quality.
  3. Structure and clarity. Clear roles, plans and goals.
  4. Meaning. The work is personally important to team members.
  5. Impact. People’swork actually benefits the company.

Humans are reluctant to do anything that could negatively influence how others view our competence. The Impostor Experience happens when people can’t get their heads out of this mentality. We need the psychological safety so we believe that we won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, and mistakes. Most workplaces are not toxic, but people still don’t feel safe to speak up, be critical and ask for help.

John suggested using improvisation as an exercise to make people be more caring for others and feel safer. In improv, you need to pay attention to your fellow performers, accept them without judgment, and expand on what others have offered to encourage creativity. John got the audience to participate in fun improv exercises with him; first we paired and played mirror with each other’s hands, then audience members created a story on the spot. I’ve heard others talk about using improv to help make better agile teams and this is something I’m very excited to take further with my team back home.

Recent research show that 65% of the US workforce don’t feel engaged at work and suffer from work related stress. And how can we tackle stress at work? Well who would have known, but research also shows that when we are engaged, we are more resilient to stress.

Where there is no embarrassment, where it is safe to fail, where there is autonomy on people contributions, and anyone can contribute, that is when the magic happens, and people perform their best. A famous example of this is Menlo Innovations, a company which Rich Sheridan founded with the purpose of creating a workplace where people find joy as he talks about in his book Joy Inc. One of their values is empathy over judgment. You can read more about Rich and Menlo Innovations in my post from PNSQC.

I’ll end this with John’s words which I wholeheartedly agree with: “Safety is a very profound thing. Not being emotionally abusive in the workplace sure would make the world a better place.”

written Nov 22 2017

How to succeed as an introvert

The second day of Agile Testing days was very much in tune with my talk about the Impostor Syndrome. I feel there is a mind shift going on in the corporate world, people realizing that employees are not resources but human beings which means that they are complex and full of emotions. This line from an Icelandic poem captures this well: “Carefulness shall be had in the presence of a soul.”

Elizabeth Zagroba had a personal and insightful talk about succeeding as an introvert. She offered suggestions on how introverts can feel more comfortable and succeed at their job, testers, as well as others. Elizabeth has been inspired by reading Quiet by Susan Cain and Introvert Power by Laurie Helgoe. I related 98,345% to her talk 🙏.

Introverts excel when they can dive into things alone, express themselves better in writing, and are good listeners. However they don’t like small talk 😱 When a person casually asks an introvert how she is doing, she takes her time to think about what is going on in her life, and by the time she feels ready to talk, that other person probably has passed by without thinking more about it.

Elizabeth mentioned that introverts like to stay on task and she just wants to be left alone at work and get her job done than doing small talk. I relate to that very much; often I wonder how some people get any job done because they are small talking all day. But this can be unhealthy if you put too much pressure on yourself to be working every minute of your work hours. It’s necessary for everyone to take a break, so introverts should also remember to take breaks and it’s ok to do that alone.

Introverts are quiet but observant, so they like to take notes and process things before they speak. Introverts don’t like to talk more than is necessary, so when they feel people have made their point, they just want them to stop talking!

I’ve been struggling to know when I should step out of my comfort zone and improve my social skills, and when I should accept who I am and how I function best. A lot of teamwork today is better fitted for extroverts; brainstorming in a group is not the place introverts get their best idea, open space environment makes us uncomfortable, and meetings drain the life energy out of us very quickly. If you are an introvert, it’s crucial for you to sense when you are overstimulated and need to take your alone time to recharge. You might notice that you have a hard time prioritizing, you’re not finishing any task or not being creative at all. Elizabeth then made an excellent point that if an environment is making you feel uncomfortable, then it is not the right environment for you.

Elizabeth admitted often feeling awkward, but never guilty of not being social. She’s content with not wanting to spend socializing with her co-workers, 40 hours a week with those people are just enough and she instead just wants to be home in her pajamas. Like Elizabeth, it helped me to identify myself as an introvert and highly sensitive (which is a term Susan Cain explains in Quiet). It made me accept who I am and not feeling bad when I think I’m socially weird or too quiet in meetings.

As much as I love going to interesting conferences, I feel exhausted after each day, so it’s very important for me to get some alone time. Now I don’t feel bad when I leave the people at the bar at 10 o’clock (which still I get a social hangover from), it doesn’t mean I’m antisocial or stuck up, I’m just an introvert. 😊

 

Skepticism, hard conversations and building a workplace people love at PNSQC

Last week I was so lucky to get to give my talk about the Impostor Syndrome, Feeling like a fake, at the Pacific Northwest Software Quality Conference in Portland, Oregon. PNSQC is for people in QA (QA engineers, testers, testing specialists, quality fighters, whichever term rocks your boat) so it was a pleasant surprise to find out that it was also very informative for software developers and anyone involved in software development so I was not as much of an impostor as I thought.

Now I went deeper into the reasons behind people suffering from it, which can stem from mixed signals when you’re growing up from parents regarding achievements and praise. Not getting praise for doing good, or always getting praise no matter what, skews our ability to assess our achievements realistically. Being in the minority can make us feel like an outsider from the get-go and so we quickly slip into feeling like Impostors. We can even start to feel like we need to represent our whole social group, which of course is very stressful. Organizational culture at our workplace plays a significant role, so we need to take steps to keep it healthy, so people feel safe to be themselves. One part of that is to have a working agreement, so there is a mutual understanding in your team, or your company, how you can work together in a healthy environment. The Recurse Center, an educational programming retreat in New York, have social rules which I feel are also very useful to make people feel comfortable.

  • No feigning surprise
  • No well-actually’s
  • No back-seat driving
  • No subtle -isms

My measurement on that my talk went well is getting people come up to me afterward who have related and share their story with me. Like a woman who questions if she can ever quit on her anti-depressants and still feel good about herself, a man who called his wife immediately after the talk to share with her what he heard and a remote worker who was so intrigued about getting his team share their feelings that he was going to get them to try it, even though usually he’s not much of a feelings-sharing-kinda guy.

Skepticism

When I read the description the talk of my fellow European, Zeger Van Hese,The Power of Doubt — Becoming a Software Skeptic about being afraid to say when you don’t know, I knew I had to see it. Zeger took us through his journey from being unsure of himself as a tester because he felt bad not having all the answers to being a confident tester that makes decisions based on evidence and rationality. I wasn’t sure at first where he was going with it when he started talking about his ventures in trying to explain the unexplainable, like ghost hunting. But his talk then proved to be highly entertaining as well as making you question your senses and your memory. Try this illusion where you see something completely different than reality, or try to unhear the hidden message in Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven played backwards, when you’ve once read them.

These may be silly little experiments, but they make you wonder, how much of our perceived reality only exists in our perception? How can we KNOW anything when we’re prone to display confirmation bias, finding rhymed statements more accurate, and believing even more strongly when given evidence to our beliefs? What we can do, is to use scientific methods, starting with Occam’s razor, to think critically. Maybe not believe a developer who says something doesn’t need testing, maybe think twice when we feel like we already tested this and don’t believe the majority just because. As a software developer I have a strong logical side to me, but as a poet, I’m very emotional, and these two opposites of me sometimes clash. This talk was an inspiration for me to start to question everything, starting with myself, to understand me and others better and improve my communications.

Hard Conversations: Project Quality & Project Sponsorship

I met Payson Hall on a speakers dinner the night before the conference where he was a bit distracted since the PNSQC app didn’t show his talk, so he was worried that he wasn’t on the schedule. Fortunately, it was just a bug in the app which somehow had slipped QA (pun intended). His topic, communicating with the Project sponsor, seemed to be just in the line of where Kolibri is moving (that is, the cultural transformation only gets you so far if the project sponsor does not agree with it). I hadn’t heard this term before, Project sponsor, but I immediately knew what people meant and related to how important it is to have the Project sponsor happy and informed since, in the end, it’s his or her decision where the project is going. Even though a product owner and the team are autonomous and have much influence on what they work on, there can always be some business or market decision that the project sponsor only knows about and is equipped to make decisions.

So what is the best way to have that difficult conversation with the Project sponsor? Perhaps this is a project you have been cheering for as a product owner and is not going as well as expected? Maybe some premises have changed, or things didn’t work out as planned? Maybe this is a software development project and all that could go wrong did? Nobody expects us to be able to control how things go, but what we can control is how we react when we realize that things are going differently than planned. If you tell a project sponsor that everything is going down the drain, you can bet that she will ask why you didn’t say anything sooner. The best way to communicate difficult things are to have a cheeseburger talk, i.e. get her out of the office and talk over a cheeseburger or a salat. This makes you get her full focus, and it doesn’t look as dramatic as it might otherwise be. Remind the project sponsor about the feasibility and risk of the project, then the situation. Never say that something can’t be done because how are you going to prove that? Instead, say that you don’t see a way and you need to work out where to trade-off to accomplish the desired outcome.

Build A Workplace People Love — Just Add Joy

The final keynote was by Rich Sheridan who wrote the book Joy Inc. about how he created a joyful culture at Menlo Innovations. His book inspired us at Kolibri, and my some of my co-workers met with Rich when he came to Iceland a while ago. Rich talked about how he had felt miserable in his programming job after climbing the corporate ladder. From working in chaos to bureaucracy to agile, which was a blend of those two. After the company he worked at became bankrupt after the dot-com bubble he tried being a kano instructor. It didn’t take long until he wanted to find the joy he had first felt when programming and was sure that he could create a joyful environment with simple structures and processes. Rich founded then Menlo Innovations who provide innovative consulting and software development. Everyone work in pairs who are rotated on a weekly basis. And since people switch places all the time, nobody has their machine, but they have many different kinds of computers and versions of OS which means that all code is constantly developed on various platforms. Headphones are forbidden and everyone works together in an open space. Personally, I’m not a fan of open spaces, but I can see how it can work for a pairing culture like that. Meetings are life-sucking, so they are kept to a minimum and instead discussions are made ad-hoc and quickly. They do have a daily meeting which takes around 13 minutes with 70 people. I call that efficient! They have an interesting approach to their weekly review meeting with their customer where the customer shows them the project instead of the standard vice versa. Just as at Kolibri, transparency is regarded essential and a part of that is open salary. As someone that has gone through burnout, I’m a big fan of their no-overtime policy.

I haven’t read the book yet, but it’s high on my to-read list now. Even though at first I felt some of Menlo’s work processes are a bit out there and is maybe not for everyone, after thinking about it, I can see people thriving in it.

All things must pass

Like at all great conferences, it’s not just the talks that are inspiring but also the people and I made some great connections. Portland is an amazing city with quality food, quality coffee, and quality people. Americans are generally so open and friendly, and even more so in Portland than in many other cities. Finally, a big kudos to the organizers of the conference, especially to Joseph Ruskiewicz who showed me around and made me feel like a local.

To be, not to be seen – Inspiration from AgileEE

Last week I went to speak at the Agile Eastern Europe conference in Kiev, Ukraine. My talk was about the Impostor Syndrome with a focus on the importance of a humane work culture and how agile processes can support people with being themselves.

The first thing that struck me about Kiev is its enormous size. Officially there live 3,5 million people in the city, unofficially (whatever that means), 5 million. On the way to the hotel from the airport, I drove past what felt like endless large apartment complexes, each one housing more people than my entire neighbourhood in Iceland.

Ukrainians are very hospitable which was apparent in the atmosphere at the conference which was very friendly and inviting. The theme was To be, rather than to seem which fits my talk perfectly. I dutifully attended talks on the first day but started to feel I wasn’t getting much new out of them, although I agreed with what was being said. Agile (with a capital A) has started to focus more on management and to stick to predefined processes instead of focusing on agility. A culture where people have the freedom to control what they do and at the same time take responsibility for it, where people feel safe and are able to communicate with honesty is much more important than following some certified instructions. I’m not sure if this is a new realisation to people in Eastern Europe or just in the Agile community itself but this is something I have been thinking of for some years now. Anyways, I’m glad to hear that people are coming to this realisation. I’ve worked in strict Scrum where the team didn’t see any benefits of some processes, like estimating story points, and it was the cause of so much frustration and wasted a lot of time. When we finally realised that being agile meant iterate and improve the processes as well as the product, everything started to work so much better. And more importantly, everyone started to feel much better.

That being said, I heard some inspiring talks and was reminded of how strongly I feel about having a humane working culture and that you need to nurture it. When writing this article I also realised that I gained more from the conference than I realised at first. Then I had many inspiring conversations with amazing people from all over the world, which is priceless.

 
Invitational organisational growth

The conference started with a keynote from Michael Sahota where he talked about agile being for teams, not for organisations. The agile community is failing by trying to force changes on an organisational level instead of focusing on creating a good culture within a team. Teams should be in their culture bubble, don’t advertise it and people who find it interesting will come. Then remember to communicate with people outside the bubble in ways they are used to. “They want a Gantt chart, give them a Gantt chart”.

I agree that Agile shouldn’t be forced in an arrogant way to an entire organisation, but there are many problems as well with being in a cultural bubble within an organisation. There is always communications between departments, and it can cause a lot of problems when people are working in very different ways. At Kolibri, we often experience that culture clash when we are working in an agile team within a waterfall organisation. This makes you often feel that the rest of the organisation is working against you and you are forced to work in ways that go against your better senses. I would never make anyone a useless Gantt chart, I’d rather initiate a conversation about the reasons for it and the expected outcome. But it always needs to be a conversation, and that can be an exhausting task because it takes time. But how to present agile and your culture to others without being arrogant and work out a solution for both parties is something I’m very curious to know more about, so I was hoping to get more actions or broader insight from this talk than I did. During the talk, I was also trying to get over my slide fetish and ignore the comic sans that appeared every now and then between almost unreadable scribbled notes. The talk ended with encouragement to meditate and figuring out who you are, which I liked because that’s a big part of my life, but it wasn’t presented in a flow with what came before, so I’m not sure how people took that in.

Visualising culture

Next up Philipp Engstler showed an awesome visualisation of the culture from localsearch.ch where he worked as head of engineering. They decided to do this really cool nerdy picture that displays their values and principles. It’s crucial to clarify what elements the company culture consists of so everybody is on the same page on how they want to work together. But it’s worthless unless it’s done in a bottom-up way like Philipp and his team did. We at Kolibri have also made our culture values and working agreements very clear in words, though not in an as cool picturesque way. This is both introduced to new employees, clients we work with and people outside the company. We also take it up every now and then to spark a conversation about if they are still viable and make sure everybody shares the same understanding. One of my favourites from their manifesto is We care about our PRODUCTS not our EGO.

Values in words vs. in hearts or “How to f*ck up with building processes without culture”

When the latest Scrum guide was released with the emphasis on values, instead of having more detailed processes as some people were hoping for, people asked whether Scrum is a framework or religion. Artel Bykovets had a nice talk about this issue and how he asked himself that very question at first, but came to appreciate the values and see that they are actually more important than to have very specific processes. I agree with him and really like these values and think it’s good for all agile teams to talk about what they mean to them.

All work performed in Scrum needs a set of values as the foundation for the team’s processes and interactions. And by embracing these five values, the team makes them even more instrumental to its health and success.

Focus: Because we focus on only a few things at a time, we work well together and produce excellent work. We deliver valuable items sooner.

Courage: Because we work as a team, we feel supported and have more resources at our disposal. This gives us the courage to undertake greater challenges.

Openness: As we work together, we express how we’re doing, what’s in our way, and our concerns so they can be addressed.

Commitment: Because we have great control over our own destiny, we are more committed to success.

Respect: As we work together, sharing successes and failures, we come to respect each other and to help each other become worthy of respect.

Rethinking agile leadership

Andrea Provaglio’s talk about rethinking agile leadership was well carried off and in line with the culture change theme, talking decentralised decision making. There were many good points there from Seth Godin’s book Tribes which I read recently and has many good points though it’s not the best I’ve read by him. Seth puts it very nicely with saying Leadership is about creating the change you believe in. In a self-organising team, there shouldn’t be a specific leader, but leaders should emerge from different people when they are needed. It’s important to have a non-self mindset and not just know how to lead, but also to know how to follow.

In old fashioned management, people were referred to as resources but let’s not do that, people are human beings and must be treated like so, in words and in action. Andrea also had a great point about how good communication is important and how it’s impossible not to communicate since we do that with body language and our every act. Not talking is not the same as not communicating since that can also send a message. Then he talked about the Responsibility Process which shows how all people mentally process thoughts about avoiding or taking responsibility. This is really useful to have in mind when you are processing your feelings when something fails and helps you not to get stuck in the first five emotions before you can take responsibility.

Scaling is on aggregation — How to reach the “C” level

Despite the cryptic name of Dave Snowden’s talk, it was the one that wowed me the most. He started with criticising the whole certification fascination that is present in the Agile community. I agree with him wholeheartedly, though I do feel that in Iceland agile coaches can have too little training at all, but people have to start somewhere I guess. The ability to understand how people are feeling and help them communicate is more valuable for an agile coach than a certification of knowing Scrum.

Snowden mentioned how people flock to where the money is, as in agile certifications, even where there is no real value there. This can lead to the Cobra effect. At the time of British rule in colonial India, the government was worried of the multitude of venomous cobra snakes. Their solution was to offer rewards for dead cobras to get people to kill them off. This lead to people starting to breed cobras to get the money until the government realised this and stopped the reward program. The bred cobras were released and the end result was an even worse situation. The point is that by getting more certified agile coaches, agile might get worse by being stuck in processes.

Snowden then made some points which I’m still pondering over. I feel they are very true, but the question is how best to address them.

  • Retros are determined by the present so they might reflect accurately what actually happened.
  • In light of the Hawthorne effect, single stories of change that improved the situation don’t really tell us anything.

But what was Snowden’s talk really about? It was about the Cynefin framework he’s developing, which can be used to help managers and others reach decisions. The Cynefin framework shows organisational complexity in different domains, so you can better know how to handle things when you’ve specced out in which domain the problem is. As cool as it sounds, it is complex and I’m not sure how to use it in my daily work. What stuck with me from his description of it is a method they use to collect data from people. They go to 10% of the people and hear out their stories by asking, what story would you tell your friend about your workplace? From this, they mathically (magically with math) draw up landscape models that show you where problems lie. This will have more realistic data than from surveys for example. People tend to answer surveys like they feel they are supposed to. This sounds really cool, but again, I’m not sure how to make use of it.

There are other practical things as well I took away from this talk, like having in mind that creativity only happens when people feel safe and can think freely. Total transparency will hinder innovation. Then instead of teaching how things work out perfectly, teach how failure happens. That’s when people actually learn.

Take back the space

The conference ended with a well fitting keynote from Tobias Mayer where he encouraged the makers to take back the space from managers. It reminded us again to develop with agility instead of “Agile”, referring to Dave Thomas article, Agile is dead, long live agility where he states the basic steps:

  • Find out where you are
  • Take a small step towards your goal
  • Adjust your understanding based on what you learned
  • Repeat

Finally…

Other talks worth mentioning is Gil Zilberfeld’s talk about agile DevOps and Roland Flemm’s talk about remote team facilitation. I was so exhausted in the end of the first day that I missed Olaf Lewitz’s keynote about surprisability which I heard was very good. There was also a talk about Holacracy I would have wanted to go to since Kolibri uses that organisational structure, but it was unfortunately in Russian. Then there was a surprise talk about Teal organisations I‘m also very interested in (I’m currently reading Reinventing organisations), but I didn’t know about it until afterwards. The second day I decided to take people over processes to heart and connected with people instead of attending talks. I got great questions and feedback from my talk which were very useful and will help me make my talk even better. My next talk will be at NextBuild in the Netherlands 20th May.

I could write more about the culture in Kiev, Finland, Israel, South Africa, Netherlands, Russia and Spain from all the great conversations I had, but that must wait another time. Going to AgileEE was a great experience that pushed me back to really think about improving communications and how people work together, so they love to come to work and grow from it. It’s so easy to forget that on a day-to-day basis where there never seems to be enough time. Even though Kolibri is on the forefront with running the company with agility, there are things we can still improve on. It’s good to take a step back like this and get insights from others to be able to focus again on what really matters.

Still feeling like a fake?

This is a follow up on my article about the Impostor Syndrome I wrote this summer. I gave a talk about it a few times, even went on the radio, and got great response from so many people that related to it and hadn’t talked about it before. I suspected that many people had experienced it, but I didn’t anticipate that my talk and article would awake so strong responses. I was riding on my confident bliss of being able to advice others about it and how far along I had matured out of it.

Then it hit me again the other day. It hit me pretty hard.

It helped a lot that I had to been talking about this and going over what could be done to prevent it. But it still took me a few days of getting out of the self-destructive zone the Impostor syndrome drags you to.

This feeling of not being good enough, thinking what the hell you are doing there and how you could have faked your way here, god, it’s awful. I’m a very emotional person and the tears start to bubble up when I get to this state. They tend to squeeze themselves out when I start to talk, so I tend to shut down and withdraw. Which is the worst thing to do because suppressing the problem always makes it bigger than it really is.

I went over all the bits of advice I had given and realised that I had been in this new job, programming in an environment which was new to me, for a few months and I hadn’t got any feedback at all on how I was doing. The syndrome makes me think that if I’m doing a poor job, no one says anything to me when in reality it’s probably the opposite. So I went and requested feedback from my teammates, first informally, then in a formal setting. I ended up getting really good feedback, both on things I had been worried about not doing a good enough job on, and also about other things I didn’t even think about being a positive quality. The demands I was trying to live up to were unrealistic demands I had been setting myself.

So I wanna stress how important it is to receive feedback, both informally and formally. You can’t expect to receive feedback unless you give it yourself, so be mindful of giving others feedback as well. If you and your team are not used to it, it might be best to start with positive feedback, then add giving corrective feedback, because that’s also beneficial. To be able to do that, in a constructive manner, there needs to be trust and respect in your team. At Kolibri, we have a working agreement, based on the Core Protocols and commitments, which purpose is to make sure people can be themselves and respect each other.

  • Practice open and constructive communication. Say what you think and feel and ask for help.
  • Expect the best from people.
  • Practice check-ins, when the team meets regularly and share their feelings; if people are sad, mad, glad or afraid. This creates trust and empathy within the team which is key for good communication and co-operation.
 

I knew that one would probably never be cured of the Impostor Syndrome but still got angry at myself for feeling this way. I’m now accepting that this will probably always come over me every once in a while, and I can’t control it coming, but I can control how I react to it. I’ve noticed the pattern for when this happens to me, it’s when I get stuck on some programming problem and before I know it, it spirals to me thinking I’m not smart enough to figure this out and I should just quit programming and start to work in gardening. To break this spiral of negative thoughts, I get up and take a break when I feel this is approaching. Then if I still make no progress, I either talk to someone about my problem and even ask for help. It’s also best to say out loud how I’m feeling (the sooner the better, then I’ll beat the tears!).

Lastly, I’m working on giving myself positive feedback, so every morning (or you know, most mornings, I am only human) I write down at least one positive quality about myself which keeps the negative thoughts at bay.

So, in short, get feedback from people you trust and break your negative patterns and use positive affirmation to chase the impostor syndrome away.

Feeling like a fake  – The Impostor Syndrome

This article is based on a talk I gave at a JavaScript meet-up in Reykjavík.

I’ve been an Android programmer for six years but recently felt like making a change so I joined Kolibri doing web development. I’m not gonna talk about my month experience of programming in Javascript though. I’m gonna talk about something else. Something I feel is a taboo, emotions and thoughts. More specifically, the feeling that you are a fake or an impostor in your field. You might think this is not related to Javascript at all, but I am gonna make that connection so just wait for it.

What is the Impostor Syndrome?

Impostor Syndrome is a psychological term brought up in the seventies. It refers to when a person feels like a fraud and the whole world is going to find out that he or she is really just faking it and is really not as competent as everyone thinks. This feeling is in spite of external signs of success which is dismissed as being luck, timing or some other factor than your own skills.

Sound familiar?

Well, that’s completely normal. One study shows that 70% of all people feel like impostors at one point in their life and another estimated that 2/5 successful people consider themselves frauds. If you have experienced the impostor syndrome you’ll be glad to hear that it is particularly common among intelligent successful people and you are in a group with celebrities like Tina Fey, Neil Gaiman, Bill Murray and Emma Watson.

“The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you. It’s Impostor Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.” – Neil Gaiman

This feeling is common among students, which makes sense when learning new things, and I was waiting for this feeling to wear off. But after a few years in the industry I still often felt like I was just faking that I had any real programming skills. When I got stuck on a problem I was often afraid to ask for help because that would reveal that I was only a fraud and didn’t really know what the hell I was doing. Also, I was convinced that everyone else knew what the hell they were doing.

My insecurities might have started because I’m not the stereotypical programmer. I’m female and I did not spend my teenage years programming or disassembling computers. In fact, before I started in university, my programming skills were only a dash of HTML and this one SQL course I accidentally took in college. I didn’t even have all the math courses I really should have had. At my first student society event I attended, this guy asked me what computer games I was playing, and I became terrified of never being able to be a computer scientist because I wasn’t playing any computer games! Later on, I found out that not all programmers play computer games and people that play computer games are not necessarily skilled to be programmers.

I was in the first group at the University of Iceland to study Android programming. This was in 2009. After I graduated the following spring I went to work at gogoyoko where I developed a music streaming Android app and even created another Android app for a mall on the side. A couple of years later I was offered to join Plain Vanilla to create the Android version of QuizUp since I was suddenly one of the most experienced Android programmers in Iceland! Being the most experienced Android programmer in a whole country might sound really cool, but honestly, I felt it was terrifying. I did not feel like it at all! But in spite of my insecurities, I joined Plain Vanilla since it was such an amazing opportunity. Time went by and I still had this reoccurring fear of being found out, even though I was a big part of the huge success of releasing QuizUp worldwide. Even though I worked hard, was very passionate and put everything I got into it. I was always quick to dismiss my success as luck or that anyone else had been able to do it as well. When I was asked to take on more responsibilities I always said yes but there was always this voice in the back of my mind telling me I was deceiving people who thought I was more competent than I really was.

Then I stumbled upon this concept of the Impostor Syndrome a while back. I was so relieved! This wasn’t just me struggling with a low self-esteem but this was actually a thing that had been studied and is common for programmers. Just knowing that I wasn’t alone helped a lot. But what more can one do? Here are some tips that helped me.

Recognise your success

Write down what you have done to get to where you are at today. When did you say yes when you could have said no? That takes courage! Think about problems you have solved, projects you have finished, what new things have you learned. I think you’ll find out that you have a big part in your success.

Recognise your strengths (and weaknesses)

We are all different, for example, some are introverts while others are outspoken, and that’s ok! The one is not better than the other, they’re just different. But we tend to compare ourselves with people that have different qualities than us or people that are exceptional. But comparing us unrealistically isn’t gonna get us anywhere. Rather think about your strengths and how you can improve on them. Also, think about your weaknesses and see if you can work on them.

I’m a single mum and it took me a long time to accept that I can’t spend as much time and energy coding as a programmer who doesn’t have children. This means that I’ll probably not gain as deep knowledge as they will. But I have other strengths. I really care for details, I’m good with people and project managing. My greatest weakness is to not ask for help sooner and I’ve been working on that.

Pair programming

Pair programming can sound scary! There is no way of deceiving others when a person is watching you program, right? That’s what I thought at first at least. But then when I was forced to dive into it, it went much better than I thought. Then when you pair with someone, you get a valuable insight into how other people think and solve problems. You’ll also realise that nobody knows what they’re doing like you thought. All you can do is to do your best. I’m not saying you should pair all the time, there is definitely just a time and place for it, but it’s very healthy every once in a while. And it’s actually quite fun interacting with another person when programming!

Say what you’re thinking

If you don’t understand or know something, just be honest about it. It’s ok to be wrong. Presidents are wrong all the time! It’s said that no question is a stupid question and there is much truth to that. And even if it is, it’s still better than not asking. You’ll never learn anything if you never ask. Don’t let your ego hold you back because it’s afraid to make a fool of itself. And it’s not even just about you. It’s better for everyone around you if you admit when you don’t understand something so a solution can be found quicker.

Feedback

Casual feedback in the moment is very healthy, but it’s even more powerful when it’s given in a formal setting. Have a formal meeting with a person that’s been working closely with you, where both of you have prepared to talk about your strengths and weaknesses. This was extremely beneficial for me but I did this a couple of times at Plain Vanilla and this is also done at Kolibri. If your workplace does not do this I really encourage you to try to get it going.

“The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh God, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ “— Tina Fey

The JavaScript Connection

I really stepped out of my comfort zone going from a senior Android position to start as a junior web programmer at Kolibri, working in JavaScript. I really wanted to try something new, but I’m not so sure I would have dared if I still had severe Impostor Syndrome. I knew this meant that I had to be totally honest about my skills and not be afraid to ask for help.

Getting over feeling like a fake is a process. Maybe it will never completely go away. Just the other day I was trying out ReactNative and after having spent total 10 hours on it I was beating myself down for being so slow at it still. Surely someone else would have made a lot more progress than me?! But now I manage to snap out of it quickly and see it realistically. Sometimes I have to stand up and take a break. Meditation always helps and if you don’t have time for that, just taking 3 deep breaths can do the trick. Saying it out loud to someone can also break the spell.

Remember, you are not alone!

(This post first appeared on Medium)