Date: 06/15/2015

Last month I was given the opportunity to attend the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) in Boston and spend two days listening to presentations, seeing demos, learning about the latest and greatest microprocessors, and networking with bright engineers that are in the same industry as myself. The entire trip was a memorable experience and it opened my eyes to just how much is going on in this industry and how much more I have to learn!

In those two days I attended the following sessions:
- Understanding Google/Nest Thread
- Writing Reliable C/C++ Code
- Teardown of the Apple Watch
- Why Empathy Driven Development Is Not Just Some Touchy-Feely, New-Age Fad
- Practical Techniques for Embedded System Optimization Processes
- Rapid Prototyping of Cloud-Connected Applications Using Open-Source Modular Hardware
- Accelerate Your Next Connected Device Prototype: A Review of Three Prototyping Environments
- Squeezing the Most Out of Battery Life Using ARM Cortex-M Processors
- Network Insecurities: Simple Hacks of ARM Cortex-M Devices
- RTOS Smackdown

If you look at this list carefully, you might notice that the title for one of these talks doesn't quite "fit" with all the others. While all the other sessions focus on some specific technology, protocol, or programming language, "Empathy Driven Development" sounds more like a talk you'd expect to be given by the HR department rather than a high-ranked engineer. When I told my coworkers I was going to attend this, they began to imagine that I was going to sit around a campfire and sing Kumbaya...

However, the presentation given by Chris Svec (Senior Principal Software Engineer @ iRobot) was incredibly insightful; so much so that it prompted me to write this blog post about one of the concepts he briefly covered. You should go check out his blog, where you can find the slides to the presentation he gave at ESC.

What is the Impostor Syndrome?

In its simplest definition the impostor syndrome is a sentiment, psychological phenomenon, emotional state, etc. in which someone is unable to internalize their accomplishment, often experiencing feelings of inferiority or believing that they are frauds. People who experience the impostor syndrome typically associate their success or achievements to luck rather than their competence/intelligence/etc.

Although it was originally thought that the impostor syndrome mostly affected high-achieving women, a lot of psychologists believe it appears equally in men and women.

I had never heard this term before Chris' talk, and when he asked the audience to raise their hands if they've ever experienced some form of the impostor syndrome, I was shocked at how many people did so. His point was that even people who have been working for decades sometimes experience this psychological phenomenon. For some reason this clicked with me and my experiences in college.

My first encounter with the Impostor Syndrome:

One of the greatest challenge that I remember facing at Cornell was the realization that I was no longer near the top of my class. Everyone there was smart, worked hard, had a competitive edge, and was incredibly driven. Many of my close friends have, at some point of another, admitted to feeling "inferior" or "dumb" in comparison to some of our peers.

I remember feeling that way my freshman and sophomore years. I specifically remember getting stuck on problem sets, going to office hours, and often hearing other students say something similar to "You got stuck on problem #2? That one was actually easy for me... Wait until you get to #7".

I would come out of those office hours flooded with thoughts of "How did I not figure that out? How were they able to do it so quickly? Am I missing something?"

At that time I was convinced that other people were simply smarter than me, and that I would just be playing a game of catch-up for the rest of my school years. I was experiencing sentiments similar to what I now know to be called the Impostor Syndrome.

Then between sophomore and junior year something changed. I forget whom I got the advice from, but I remember expressing my frustrations to someone close to me and having them reassure me by saying something along the lines of "Don't stress out. You will find out that most people are just pretending to be far smarter than they actually are!". And this stuck with me.

For the remainder of my college years, whenever I sought advice from other people, my focus was no longer on trying to understand why I didn't know as much as they did but instead try and figure out how much they ACTUALLY knew. When I asked for help I wouldn't just ask "how" they got to the solution, but would instead focus on "why" they went through those steps to get to the solution. The more I did this, the more I came to realize that my peers didn't know the "why". Everyone knew how to recognize patterns and brute force their way to a solution (using the same types of steps they saw in the book or in lecture) but no-one could tell me why they went through that process.

I was no longer intimidated by a lot of the people I had originally deemed smarter than me. I came to see that some were just engaging in a theatric process where by using fancy words and saying condescending remarks they could elevate their self-esteem. I believe now this was perhaps their defense mechanism to their own experiences with the Impostor Syndrome - oh the irony!

How it has changed my interaction with others:

Since ESC and discovering the existence of the Impostor Syndrome, I have been able to identify it (in varying degrees) in both myself and people around me.

For example, I have seen my friend experience the Impostor Syndrome both at school and at work. When I told her about what it was, I could see that she immediately identified with it and began doing more research on the topic. She is a detail-oriented, high-achieving person and often becomes frustrated when she doesn't produce the same output as her supervisors. She sets very high standards and goals which are difficult to realistically meet. All of these are reactions to the Impostor Syndrome.

At work, I have seen a few of our new hires experiencing the Impostor Syndrome. When they come in to the job fresh out of school it is easy for them to be overwhelmed with the codebase and feel like they know a lot less than everyone else. Some have even approached me since they started and told me that they don't like when I code review their work because they think I'll find out that they are frauds and don't actually know how to write code (which is absolute non-sense). Since Chris' talk I have been better at identifying when my coworkers are showing signs of the Impostor Syndrome and try to reassure them that their feeling of self-doubt or frustration are normal and understandable.

Just knowing that there are many people who experience the same psychological phenomenon and that it is a fairly common thing has helped take the first steps at preventing Impostor thoughts from having any significant influence in my life. I am able to more carefully rationalize my thoughts whenever any of those sensations arise.

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