Combating Imposter Syndrome

Jan 4, 2021
Michael Carroll

Michael Carroll is a Web Development Cohort 39 graduate and a teaching assistant with Cohort 45, who are one month into their bootcamp. Michael is looking for his first job as a junior developer. Learn more about Michael visiting his LinkedIn profile!

I recently had a question from a student that reminded me of what seemed like a pretty common occurrence at this point in the learning process for Web Development Cohort 39 and didn't quite go away throughout the course; at least it stuck around the whole course for me. The question was, "In your NSS experience did you ever deal with imposter syndrome from feeling like you are just copying all of your previous work?"

Yes, I did. 100%. There were plenty of times it didn't feel quite like I was a "real" developer because I didn't quite understand what was going on, or because I couldn't do it from scratch, even when I did understand the entire process. I was just replicating through pattern recognition by copying, pasting, and refactoring. I felt like I wasn't a real student, because I questioned if I was really learning or not. There were two things that kind of jolted me out of thinking like this more than anything else.

“Just Google it!”

First, my lead instructor went out and copied code from Stack Overflow in front of the class. We were trying to return an array in alphabetical order, and he was like, "Why would I bother remembering how to do this? Just Google it!" And that was incredibly reassuring to me. Someone who was a legit senior developer that had been coding for decades still went and found old code, copied it, and refactored it to meet his demands....all the time (at least I tell myself it happens regularly, even if it doesn't). He only cared that he knew how to search for, and find the answer he needed.

Making It Work

The other thing I tried was to work a day ahead of the class because I was struggling at first, and I hoped seeing the material the day before would help me when my instructor went over it in class. This made me get used to the idea that I was simply taking the example code out of the chapter and pasting it into my code while trying to make it work. So I just got used to the feeling. It became the norm for me. And that's honestly how I would argue it should feel to you. Normal.

Getting Comfortable with the Discomfort

I don't think NSS is supposed to teach us how to code from scratch in just six months (let alone a single month). Maybe I'm wrong, but that just takes too much time in my opinion. It seems to me that as soon as you learn it, W3 or Microsoft or someone else comes along and changes the rules just enough to make it not work that way any longer and you have to relearn it all over again. NSS is really more about teaching us how to think, how to problem solve, how to ask the right questions to find the right answers, and how to be comfortable with the discomfort that goes with the process of being a subject matter expert when we're not really experts. Eventually you'll copy, paste, and refactor enough that some things will start to feel rote to you. You'll be able to anticipate how to write things without needing to refer to old code. But it takes more than just a month, and it never goes away completely. There's just way too much to know.

I never got away from finding old code (or example code on Stack Overflow) and using it to build what I want. I'm still doing it now when we're talking about projects in C45 that I did six months ago. I go into old code I wrote as a student in C39, reference it, and ask myself what I was trying to accomplish and what other ways it could be accomplished to talk about with everyone. I assume I'll wean myself from example code the more I write because that's been my experience since I started this process in February, but it is at a much slower pace than I would otherwise have assumed would occur. But I'm less interested in the speed of that process now; all I care about are the end results. Am I getting to the finish line of producing what I desire and is it well made? Yes to both. I'd still argue we're software developers, and hiring managers seem to think so as well.

Repetition is the Road to Understanding

Furthermore, it would be odd to not be copying and refactoring your code right now. If you compare learning to read and write code to learning a new musical instrument or spoken language, you wouldn't be expected to write a song or poem from scratch after only a few weeks (even if you could translate it already). If it only took a few weeks to learn JavaScript, the market would be over-saturated with developers and the pay would be garbage. This isn't supposed to be something you learn overnight. You very much SHOULD be going back and looking at previous examples of similar code to refactor for your new code as you attempt a similar thing. I would argue you should do this EVERY time until you feel bored with the process and start choosing to skip it because you can. That's honestly how the course is designed. If it feels like you're doing the same thing over and over again, it's because that's how they designed the class. Repetition is the road to understanding. From what I've seen, NSS seems to work. Have a little faith.

Lastly, maybe other students have had different experiences, but this is my take on how my classmates and I felt one month into our cohort, how I dealt with it, and what I've come to think of it. We've all had our successes in life up till this point, we've done well in traditional school settings or we've had careers that we've grown in. It's super weird to try to rewrite our brains and learn something in a crash course via months of repetition. My main advice is to not listen to your assumptions about where you should be right now; your assumptions are probably wrong. Those assumptions are likely based on your perceptions of others (other students or teachers) and your belief that they've got it going on, or those assumptions are likely based on how you've learned and grown in past experiences (school or work). But NSS isn't designed to help you grow like those experiences did and your perception regarding others is certainly wrong (we're all struggling every day, we all just stay quiet about it). Trust your instructors (and NSS), since they've done this for a pretty large number of people.

If my experience is anything to go by, there are other students dealing with imposter syndrome as well. I hope sharing my experience helps another person or two. 

Topics: Learning