I have a two-year-old daughter who adores Dr. Seuss. And as I was reading Cat in the Hat for the 214th time, I realized Dr. Seuss had it all figured out.
His words are odd. The cadence confusing. But there’s a gem hidden in all his children’s rhymes.
You see, Dr. Seuss would have made an excellent engineer. Because great code isn’t about choosing the perfect method name or building out 95% test coverage. All that is great, but it doesn’t make great code.
It likely never feels that way. There’s a rhythm to software development that goes something like this:
- “Easy. I’ve got this.”
- “Uhhh, maybe not.”
- “HALP! I have no idea what the f*ck I’m doing.”
- "How did I not think of that before?"
- “I AM A GOD.”
This process is okay if you’re comfortable having a mild psychotic break every sprint. I’m not.
I think we’re going about it all wrong. Putting ourselves — our egos — above our code. No judgment. I do it too. We’re human. It’s okay.
But I think we can bypass our egos and the emotional ups and downs it produces.
If you haven’t heard of imposter syndrome, it’s a concept describing high-achieving individuals — like you! — who struggle to internalize their accomplishments and experience a persistent fear of being exposed as a "fraud."
And if you think I don’t feel like a total fraud every time I stand up in front of a crowd at a conference, you’re wrong.
I think any thoughtful, intelligent person deals with self-doubt. Some of us deal with it a lot.
A few months ago, I did something pretty stupid. I volunteered to demonstrate a mock technical interview in front of 100 students.
My motivation was pure. Students at Turing, the code school where I learned to program, are terrified of technical interviews. Because they’re scary. Right?!
(And junior engineers seem to think seniors code like Neo.)
So my mentor, Ian Douglas, and I thought we’d show them what to expect. Ian would throw some tough questions at me and I’d illustrate how to handle questions you don’t know the answer to.
I don’t normally quote Mike Tyson, but he has one great saying I love. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Ian asked his first question and I froze. I realized that 100 people were staring at me. Expecting me to know the answer. And that all of them would leave thinking I’m an idiot.
Which left me looking a lot like a sad pug — can we make #sadpug a thing?! It was scary, but I muscled through it as best I could. Like every technical interview I’ve had, I left feeling a bit down. The quiet but persistent whisper of doubt left me skeptical of my technical abilities. And I started wondering again if I was really cut out for engineering.
This feeling was reinforced when I found out a student had expressed disappointment at my performance to Ian. He thought my answers were weak and, if it were a real interview, I should not be offered the job.
Gonna be honest, I cried.
Because it fed into all the doubts I’ve had over the last year. When I graduated Turing I had a lot of success in the job search. I was offered 4 jobs which made me feel extraordinarily lucky and wonder if I somehow oversold my talent in those interviews.
But the last year hasn’t been easy. I’ve struggled. And I’ve worried constantly that I haven’t been growing fast enough. That I had beginner’s luck. That I won’t be able to get another job. Certainly not one I love.
Imposter syndrome isn’t limited to me or you or this industry. Imposter syndrome is a human problem. There’s something called negativity bias. And it’s played a crucial role in keeping humans alive all this time. Basically, if we hear a noise in the dark, our brains assume it’s a lion about to eat us. Not a mouse scrambling through the grass.
Negativity bias is awesome if predators are an everyday threat. But we don’t have to worry about being eaten much these days. These days, negativity bias adds stress and anxiety to our lives. Certainly to mine. Who’s had a good day only to wonder what disaster is awaiting you around the next corner? As if we can only have so much good before it’s balanced out by something terrible.
Like many of you, my heroes are the extraordinary men and women in history who stood up against a fearsome power and overtook it. The little guy going toe-to-toe against the giant. And, against all odds, winning.
I love stories of underdogs. I actually think we all do. Because it’s fundamental to American culture. We were founded by rebels and embody the attitude of we’re gonna make it on our own — no matter what it takes or how hard it is.
It doesn’t matter the risks. It doesn’t matter the odds. We believe, as a people, that hard work can overcome just about anything.
I like to think sometimes about what it felt like to be Caesar standing before the Rubicon or Hannibal facing the Alps. I picture strong, confident men. Filled with hubris and might. Commanding enormous armies filled with men loyal to their cause and their cult of personality.
But I know how their stories ended. They — in that moment — did not.
Abraham Lincoln might never have been president. (He had lost 8 elections prior.) George Washington could have been hanged for treason. And Rosa Parks might have decided to sit where she was supposed to.
It’s easy to look at historical figures and think how courageous they must have been. How sure of themselves they were to take the action they did. They weren’t. Like each of us would be, they were scared. Afraid they would fail.
Dr. Seuss started life as Theodor Seuss Geisel. His first book, Mulberry Street, was rejected 27 times.
Walking home from the book's twenty-seventh rejection, with the manuscript and drawings tucked under his arm, he ran into a friend from Dartmouth College. His friend — Mike McClintock — had been made editor of children’s books that morning at Vanguard publishing.
Geisel said later “If I’d been doing down the other side of Madison Avenue, I’d be in the dry-cleaning business today.”
It may feel as if all your accomplishments can be attributed to luck. And everyone else’s to their intelligence and hard work. That’s not true. Every success story is a little of both.
So if we know this is the reality, how can we feel like it in our everyday lives? Dr. Seuss has some hints.
Find A Mentor
I firmly believe that your mentors should be people outside of work. It’s important to remember that humans are motivated by different things and sometimes it creates a conflict of interest.
For example, your boss — as awesome as he or she may be — will likely not recommend you ask for $20,000 more than you currently make because he or she does not want to pay you that. Whereas someone without that conflict of interest may recognize that you’re currently underpaid.
I have 2-3 mentors in tech whom I trust implicitly. Whenever I need encouragement, honest feedback or career guidance, I call them. They’re generous with their time and believe in me as a person and as a professional.
That all sounds great. But how do you go about finding a mentor?
My best advice is to be vulnerable. Do the scary thing. Reach out to people you respect and ask them to coffee. Mentorship doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement. It can be an organic friendship between two professionals.
People talk a lot about the importance of networking. But, to me, networking conjures an image of a silver-tongued salesman with slicked back hair working a room and collecting business cards. I don’t know about you, that’s not my kind of thing. I’d rather sit at home and watch Netflix.
So let’s not call it networking. Let’s call it connecting. And that requires vulnerability — the foundation of genuine relationships.
There are jerks in this world. And being vulnerable is risky. Everyone in this room has had their hearts broken. We’ve been hurt. Exposed. Rejected. That’s why we have walls. To protect us.
But there are an extraordinary number of wonderful human beings that walk this planet. Those are the people I’m asking you to be vulnerable for. Those people are good and kind and trustworthy. They deserve to know you.
The real you. Nobody is better at being you than you. Seriously. Your authentic self is a 1000% better than you acting like someone else. If you spend your time thinking you need to be different, you’re cheating yourself — and the world — of something amazing. You.
The freedom you will feel when you are authentically you is flabbergasting. Plus, the rest of us get to know someone pretty freaking cool.
If you haven’t read Mindset by Carol Dweck, I really can’t recommend it enough. It’s a life-changing book about growth mindset and enthusiastically learning new things without fear of being “bad” at it.
It rejects the notion that we are limited to our god-given talents and instead focuses on the ability to learn new skills. Even if we’re initially pretty terrible at something.
I think a great way to exercise this concept is to constantly try new things and take lessons in random subjects. I have a friend who takes improv and another who’s in salsa classes.
A few years ago, I decided to get my motorcycle license. Will I ever own a motorcycle? Probably not.
But, much to the chagrin of my mother, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I showed up to a classroom of adrenaline-junkie 18-year-olds and one recently retired man. I didn’t exactly fit in. But guess what? It was a blast. It didn’t matter that I looked like an idiot. And, to be clear, I definitely looked like an idiot. But I had fun and I learned something new.
You all are here, which means you care about learning and growing. Never let that be extinguished. If learning fuels you, make sure you make it a priority. Which brings me to...
Negotiate an educational stipend. When you start a new job, ask what the budget is for conferences. And don’t accept “it’s as needed” as a response. It blows my mind how many of my peers have to beg their boss for a $150 ticket to a local conference when sales and marketing regularly spend $2000 on booze for potential clients.
Developers must adapt to changing technology. That means constantly learning and absorbing information. Your job isn’t to pump out 40 hours worth of code every week. Your job is to be a subject-matter expert and continuing education is a huge contributor to your success in that role.
Take Small Risks
If you want to learn a new technology or implement a change at work, do it. It’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission. Create a proof of concept and then advocate for it.
And don’t be afraid to fail. Everyone in this room has or will bring down the site at one point in their career. That’s awesome. Because that means you’re trying. You’re doing something. Keep doing that.
And when you do fail, publicize it.
This is admittedly a weird one. But start sharing when you screw up is especially a great idea for those of you who are senior or principal engineers.
It’s the best thing you could do for your team. When people I respect tell me their mistakes, it sends the signal that it’s okay to take risks and fall flat on your face. And you’ll be amazed at the response. You’ll see your team share lessons learned and become more collaborative.
A culture of being “right” all the time is toxic (and all too common). Collaboration will nosedive, silos will develop and people will cover their tracks when something goes wrong.
Celebrate Your Successes
I like to keep a “Yay Me!” file. Whenever someone sends me a nice note or emails my boss about what a great job I did on something, I save it in my “Yay Me!” folder.
The alternative to this is to keep a gratitude journal. And before you scoff at the image of a diary on your nightstand, hear me out. Taking the last 5 minutes of your day to jot down the 3 things you were most grateful for that day is a surprisingly helpful practice.
Remember negativity bias? We focus on the bad by our nature. Reminding yourself of everything going right in your life does wonders for your mental health.
I’m a fan of running toward the open door until the moment it closes. Perhaps you want to launch a business in a year. Or move to a different city. Or just found out you’re expecting a child. The natural inclination is to start planning, to think a year in advance and have that plan dictate your everyday behavior at work.
Don’t. There’s no reason to treat the next year as biding time. Just keep going and figure everything out later. Avoid planning in detail so far in advance — it only causes you to slow down and not take opportunities that you normally would. Anything could happen, plans fall through. Just keep going, but...
Burnout is real, folks. I’ve been in this industry a year and I can already feel the reaper coming for me. If you’re ambitious, the hardest thing to do is to recognize that careers are marathons, not sprints.
Embrace work/life balance. Make it a priority.
I went through Turing with a 6-month-old. Which meant my schedule was pretty intense. I woke up, got her to the nanny and went to school. I left school at 4:00, ate dinner and put her to bed. Then I did homework from 6:00 – 9:00 before going to bed (more like collapsing). That routine was my life for 7 months.
It wasn’t easy. There were a lot of tears and wine involved. But my daughter was a critical part of my success in school. She gave me balance. Demanded I stop. Take a break. Play. Read books. And say goodnight. She gave me a break from coding and school provided me a reprieve from being a mom.
Don’t answer emails after dinner. Don’t look at your phone the minute you wake up. Don’t work on the weekends.
Play is not just a different kind of work. Find what you love and embrace it with child-like joy. Eat great food. Spend time with your families. And pick up that hobby you’ve been thinking about for the last few years. We get one life. And we all deserve to enjoy the shit out of it.
Don't Be an Asshole
It’s golden rule time, folks. I’m amazed at how small of a world it really is. And people truly matter. They’re really all that matters.
It’s easy to go full Frank Underwood when you’re in a position of power. When you have the advantage. But take a step back. Be kind.
I believe we get what we give. You can’t control the behavior of others, but you can definitely control your own. Empathy is a powerful tool. Use it. You have absolutely no idea what someone else is going through.
Embrace Your Humanity
You’re not a snowflake. Neither am I. Who’s left a crappy job and thought, “Good luck, you won’t last two weeks without me!” Only to find out the business kept on chugging along. The future of the planet doesn’t rest on your shoulders. Nor mine. And think about what a relief that is! I feel less stressed just thinking about it. We’re humans. We’re fallible.
Here’s the cool thing. The more human you are, the more vulnerability you show, the more people will grow to trust you.
None of this is to say you can’t make an impact. Quite the opposite. You will leave your footprint on this world. Whether it’s with the people you love most, your community or the globe. But you can let go of the pressure that you’re critical to everything. People will pick up the slack if you let them. Relax. Let go.
Value Old Friends
Hold onto your childhood friends. The people who knew you when you were young are the most honest friends you’ll have. They don’t expect anything of you. They don’t see you as fancy or special or important.
To them, you’re still the scrawny kid with glasses who sucks at kickball. And they love you anyway.
They’ll kick your ass when you need a dose of reality and they’ll sit beside you in silence during the worst moments of your life.
They’re not perfect. None of us are. But they’re worth more than gold. Make sure you tell them that.
Make New Friends
Create a small group of trusted peers. I have two groups like this. One is more for shooting the shit with people I like and the other is focused on goal accountability.
The former is a small group of wicked smart, ambitious, female developers. They’re strong, resilient and full of grit, which means they inspire me and lift me up when I need it.
The latter is called Wine + Goals because we literally drink wine and discuss goals. (No one said we were creative.) One Wednesday a month, 7-8 of us from varying industries and career paths sit down to discuss our highs and lows of the month and our goals for the next. Then we’re randomly assigned an accountability partner for the month, who checks in on how things are going. It’s a small, friendly kick-in-the-ass.
Embrace the Suck
Some days are going to suck. Nothing will go right.
You’ll get decaf coffee and a fork with your oatmeal. It’ll take you 3 hours to debug a method only to realize you reversed a boolean value and should have figured it out 2 hours and 59 minutes ago. Not that that’s happened to me. You’ll get in a fight with a loved one and hit every single red light on the way home.
Want to know what I do on those days? I break out a bottle of wine — yes, I drink a lot of wine — run a bath and turn on Real Housewives.
What I don’t do is start evaluating my life choices. Let bad days pass by. Look forward to the morning. Start again.
Stop comparing yourself to others. I know, I know. Easier said than done. But one of the most detrimental things you can do yourself is compare your bloopers to someone else’s highlight reel.
I’m a great example of this. When I give a conference talk, I know every time I say "um" or "so," miss a bullet point or get off-track. But it’s not nearly as obvious to the audience (hopefully).
Remember imposter syndrome? It would be very easy to look at me and assume that I must know more than you. But I don’t. I promise. You know things I don’t. And everyone has something to contribute.
Focus on what you can give. Forget about what the person next to you is doing.
Life is Short
But it’s also long. Many of the choices you make won’t matter. Some will matter a lot.
Live your life. Enjoy every moment of it. Friends who make you feel bad about yourself aren’t friends at all. Drop them. Surround yourself with people who inspire you, challenge you and love you.
Play. And laugh. Show humility. Never stop learning. Be kind. And remember…
"You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go."
YOU are what makes your code great. I believe in you. And you should too.