Can I do this? - Doubt and Imposter Syndrome


Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you are a fraud in your job role. Somehow you got your role through sheer luck and at some point it will all going come crashing down.

Do I feel this? Not as much as I used to. Earlier in my career? Definitely. I still feel doubts whenever I encounter a new technology that I have little to no experience with, but these go away quickly (usually after working with said technology for a little while)

I have found that doubt and imposter syndrome are not necessarily equal, as often there can be one without the other. One frequently fuels the other though, making it feel like there is no way out of the situation.

Here’s my long and rambling story.

My background

I do not have a traditional CompSci background. Computers were always around from a very young age, but I wasn’t a teenage programming prodigy or a network expert. The first time I had a mini LAN party with a friend, my dad had to come round and put in the IP address details. Given where I was a few years later, this seems alien to me now!

My teens

Up until my mid-teens, I was convinced that I’d become a programmer. I would go to university, study Computer Science, and go and build things. At this time, my father was a SysAdmin, in the days of Novell Netware, Windows NT4.0. I had been around computers from being a toddler. Being in something to do with computing just made sense.

Then I got into music, and I mean REALLY got into it. Plans changed. Out went the Computer Science degree path. Out went the (admittedly terrible!) web design I did in my free time, in came practicing guitar for hours a day. Much to the chagrin of my parents.

When it came to choosing my degree, I chose Music Technology (recording music, and everything related to it)

My degree

During my degree years, I had my first encounter with imposter syndrome. In my secondary school years, I achieved consistently good grades. I was a good student. I thought the step up to a degree wouldn’t be too different.

However I was now surrounded by people who had been playing and recording music for years, in some cases over a decade. Before going to university, I could barely record myself and I had only played guitar for about 2 years.

After 3 years of this degree (with a lot of doubts) I still somehow managed to come away with a decent grade. To this day I cannot produce the same level of polish and professional-sounding recordings as some I heard from my fellow students, so I thought the grade was pure luck. This was my first experience of imposter syndrome and doubt.

I left university feeling utterly unsatisfied with what I had done, and only hoped I could improve.

First job

After university, I spent months trying to find a job. I first tried to find jobs in recording studios, but they were all overburndened with candidates, or usually someone running a studio in their bedroom!

I gave up, and took a job in a call centre working for Orange Broadband. This is where I entered the real world, so to speak. The doubts about my future crept in.

Working in a call centre is what a lot of people now go through as their first job. For me though, I’m naturally an introvert who tries to avoid confrontation. These two traits are the antithesis of working in a call centre. Even worse, it was for (at the time) the lowest rated ISP in the UK. The dreams of a life in music dwindled.

I spent most of my hours outside work looking for new jobs, playing guitar and trying to get Linux working on a fairly decent (at the time) HP laptop. Bad memories of ndiswrapper come to mind…

I would regularly apply to 100-200 jobs a month (sometimes significantly more), and would hear nothing back. Was I stuck in this job?

While there, I also applied to be on the Team Leader development programme. Looking back now, I find this weirdly funny. I’m not a natural manager, and have never worked towards a management role since. At the time though, it was the only way I could see making a step up.

A chance?

After months of searching, a NOC Analyst role popped up. The company specialised in transaction processing and connectivity for retailers, primarily using Linux as a platform and Cisco for networking, which seemed very interesting. However, due to my self-doubt at the time, I did not present myself as a very capable individual, I downplayed all of my skills to make sure I wouldn’t get “found out”.

Despite having some hands on knowledge with Linux (around 18 months to 2 years in my personal time), I portrayed myself as being barely above a beginner. The only thing I could make any genuine reference to were the systems I used at my current job (for managing broadband customers). I came away assuming I didn’t get the job. Why would I?

Technically I was right. I didn’t get the NOC Analyst role. Instead, they offered me a role on their ADSL/Broadband support desk.

Beginnings of my career

Within weeks of starting this role, I realised that my Linux skill level would have been good enough for the role. In fact the one who had gotten the job had barely used Linux at all! Still, I was sure in my head that I couldn’t have been ready for it.

In hindsight, I would have been ready, and I did myself out of a higher salary and more interesting role, simply due to not wanting to be “found out”. Doubt and the fear of being the imposter.

I did what I could to learn off people there, but I never felt ready to be part of the NOC. I always believed if I got the job, and made even the tiniest of mistakes, that was it. I’d be sacked.

Working my way up

Despite my doubts, the company took another chance on me, and made me a NOC Analyst. I learned a lot, but it was primarily a monitoring role. It had a lot of downtime, due to long nightshifts, or long weekend shifts, waiting for alerts to come through.

As the company was heavily into Linux and Networking, I felt that my networking knowledge was lacking. I started to look into the Cisco CCNA to help.

I read up and made notes on my night and weekend shifts, and started to try commands out on Cisco simulators. After more than a year of studying, I felt confident enough to take the exams. That I failed. Badly. I was an imposter again, I wasn’t good enough.

Try again!

I wanted to give up with the CCNA. I felt like maybe I had reached the limit of my abilities. But I convinced myself to keep going, because the job role was starting to affect my health.

The erratic shift patterns (12 hour night shifts, followed a few days later by 12 hour day shifts, some weekends etc) were taking their toll on my health. I had no sleeping pattern. Often I would be in work at 7am, having been unable to sleep until 5:45am, before getting up at 6:30am to go in.

I needed a new strategy. In searching around the internet, I realised I had not done enough labbing so the fundamental networking concepts were not sinking in. I had also relied entirely on what was in the certification guides. I didn’t check the Cisco exam topic reference to see if I had covered everything. Also, the sheer breadth of what the CCNA covered was a lot for anyone.

Cisco had (and still have I believe) two ways of taking the exams. You could do two exams, ICND1 and ICND2, with ICND2 have more advanced concepts than ICND1, and ICND1 driving home the fundamentals. You can also do a combined exam which covered both. Originally, I had done the combined exam. This was too much for someone who was still getting to grips with some of the concepts.

Strangely, I was actually better at the ICND2 topics anyway. I found them more interesting (basics of routing protocols, spanning tree etc), whereas the fundamentals were (while important) difficult to get excited about.

I split the exam, focussed on the fundamentals (ARP, IPv4 and IPv6 basics, OSI Layers, Subnetting), and passed ICND1. I then went to ICND2 feeling better, especially as I felt more confident in the topics anyway. I passed, and became a CCNA.

Certifications?

Certifications are not always important. They definitely do not make up for a lack of experience. What they are useful for though is showing a base theoretical knowledge in a subject. This is helpful for recruiters obviously, but it is also helpful in troubleshooting too.

Knowing how something should work means that you aren’t relying just on what you’ve done before, and you can work on systems or procotols that have you not used before.

Also, more pertinent to this post, they can help give you confidence. I felt like at minimum, my base knowledge must be better now. I may still be “found out”, but I would be able to get higher up in my career before I did.

Trying to see daylight again

Now with my experience and my CCNA in tow, I thought I should be able to get out of the current role. No more long shifts, I might get a sleeping pattern again. So I applied to lots of jobs. And more. And more again. Nothing. I at least got a couple of interviews, but my trait of downplaying myself was still there. I did myself out of jobs again.

Instead, I found a role within the same company, an implementations engineer role.

The new role

This was a kind of production line/BAU-style role. Cisco router comes in, find and replace some terms in a template, apply to the router. Test it, send it out. It also involved making some changes on our Linux estate (which were less cookie cutter and template driven thankfully).

I quickly reached the limit of this role. I had also gotten bitten by the certification bug, and was working on my Cisco CCNP during this role (as well as Juniper, partly because of their free study guides)

CCNP

I didn’t learn from my previous mistakes. I still only used a single certification guide, I didn’t check the exam topics, and then failed the exams when I took them. One of them I didn’t pass until my third attempt. Doubts increased, and I felt maybe I had reached my limit again. Then I realised.

I remembered the issues I had with the CCNA, and yet somehow I was trying to do the same thing again? What a baffoon!

I paid more attention to the exam topics, labbed everything heavily, and used multiple study guides (and online resources were a lot better by now too). I passed the routing exam (BSCI at the time), and while it took me two attempts to pass the switching exam (known as BCMSN at the time), I just got back up, worked on it and tried again. I took the TSHOOT exam, and passed first time. I was a CCNP!

I started to feel more confident in my abilities, and began looking for a more challenging role. I found it as a Second Line Support engineer in the same company.

Not the challenge I was thinking of

I moved to the new role. The teams remit was “If you can fix it, do it. You are not siloed”. After working only on BAU implementations, or only monitoring part of the network, this role opened up my view on how the core network and supporting services actually worked, not just what I was allowed to see previously.

However, the team also came with a manager who others had found challenging or difficult. I had hoped that this was just a clash of personalities with people, or simply misunderstandings with people. It was not.

Needless to say, even the most minute of mistakes were on parade to the entire company, and often you felt like the worst engineer in existence. Even bugs in vendor equipment were somehow your fault. I had never felt like this much of an imposter. I could not shift the feeling. Any time I built up any confidence, it was wiped out at the next morning call.

Admittedly I also made some big mistakes while in this role too. My level of monitoring wasn’t adequate during changes, which was something I needed to improve. I would rely too much on people’s view of their technology I was supporting, rather than knowing it myself. I also still had a fear of confrontation, so wouldn’t challenge people when I needed to.

I have never entirely gotten over this role. In some ways it has helped me, because my monitoring now goes overboard. I also have to know every system I work on inside out. However, I still do get nervous whenever a manager wants to speak to me, as I assume I’m about to get roasted (which thankfully has never really happened since).

Hope

During this role, I got involved in the networking community online. By chance, someone who frequented the same forum I posted on happened to work in the same city. The company he worked for had a vacancy for a Network Engineer, and he invited me for an interview.

I went to the interview and made the best account of myself as I could (despite my low view of myself with my current role). To my surprise, I was offered the job during my second stage interview with the company.

This did not go down well with my current manager, but I felt a sense of relief that things might get better. I still had my doubts, and wondering if I was good enough, but I hoped.

New company

I started at the new place, and was greeted with my new Linux workstation, running Fedora. I could get used to this, I just hoped they would keep me on. I shadowed the Senior Network Engineer (the guy who found me on the forums) and got a feel for what the place was like.

Towards the end of the first day the company had an outage, while I was shadowing.

A good outage?

We discussed the problem, with me looking at the configuration of the network over his shoulder. I had a theory that the outage was due to Equal Cost Multipathing (i.e. trying to forward to an IP address over two or more routed links rather than just one) across two core interlinks. This isn’t normally an issue, but one link had MPLS enabled, one didn’t.

When MPLS traffic tries to cross a link that doesn’t have MPLS enabled, it just drops the traffic. It was initially assumed that the second link wouldn’t be used, due to it being in a non-backbone area in OSPF (OSPF being the core routing protocol in the company). However MPLS doesn’t care about OSPF areas, just what routes are in the routing table.

My theory turned out to be correct, at which point MPLS was enabled on this link, and the outage was fixed, and then avoided in future.

This was a massive turning point for me, because I had managed to point out a problem, that someone who (in my head) was vastly more knowledgeable than me hadn’t realised. Suddenly, I started thinking “Wait, am I not a fraud? Am I capable?".

Am I good enough?

Through the years of working at this company, my confidence in my abilities grew. Some days I still had my doubts. As more time passed though, and the more I dealt with the people at this company, I realised that everyone has the same doubts, Almost everyone has some form of imposter syndrome, a lot just hide it well or ignore it.

I finally realised that not knowing every single last thing about a technology was not the end of the world, and saying “I don’t know” is actually an acceptable answer to a question.

I credit this role with restoring my confidence in myself and my abilities. The realisations I had during this time made me more able to deal with any future doubts I had. I never really felt like an “imposter” again.

Aftermath

Since then, I have worked in other jobs. Some had their issues (big and small), but it was more down to company culture. I never experienced the level of doubt that I had previously.

I always viewed myself as on an equal footing with my teammates. I no longer questioned whether I was good enough, or whether I was going to be “found out”. I finally stopped feeling like the cause of all problems. I stopped believing that a single minor mistake could cost me my job.

Career change?

After a decade in the networking industry, I decided to move into the DevOps world instead. The networking industry is fairly stoic, and has a lot of companies and people who still trying to get beyond managing equipment manually.

In one of my roles, I had the chance to work with things like Ansible, Kubernetes, Jenkins, and started to build tools of my own in Python. While I still stayed in the networking industry for a few years after, I eventually decided that I’d done all that I wanted to in the networking industry. Automation, development, the cloud and Linux as a primary focus, this is what I wanted to do.

I’ll expand on the career change in a future post. In making the change, I did briefly feel some of the familiar feelings of doubt.

Was my confidence all about my knowledge in the networking industry, or could I cut it here too? The first couple of months were a bit of a whirlwind, but I got up to speed quite quickly. The feelings of doubt disappated quickly. I am happy.

Summary

I have rambled on in this post, so I thought it would be best to summarise a couple of the main points.

You may not think you are good enough for your role. You may feel like you’re seconds way from being discovered, and everyone working out you’re a fraud. You are not. Everyone has doubts, some people just hide it better.

You may not think you are capable of learning new skills, at least to the level you believe is required. You’ll be surprised how many people think the same of you. Also, when a company introduces a new technology, is everyone an expert instantly? No, it takes time.

You are not alone in feeling this, don’t feel like you are the odd one out. Imposter syndrome is everywhere, it’s not just you!

Life is short. There will be setbacks, and some days you’ll feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. That’s normal. Embrace it, use it as an opportunity to learn.

The mantra of “better the devil you know” only works if you enjoy your job. If you change to somewhere and it doesn’t work out? Great, that means you just move on, but with more experience and knowledge of the industry. If it does work out? Perfect!