Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

Imposter Syndrome Ep. 1

aka when I knew what I was doing, but forgot I knew what I was doing, so had to remind myself I knew what I was doing

1. the situation at hand:

I was seated across from a man more than twice my age. After a brief introduction on my part, I found myself on the other end of an interrogation. It could not have been more than 5 minutes since I shook his hand, and exchanged the usual formalities. He had taken no time at all to flip the script and grill me, baiting me to defend my background and my qualifications.

“So,” he drawled, once I confirmed that another executive would not be joining the interview. “What’s your take on TCP-IP-protocol-complementarity-hyper-V-nucleosynthesis-applications-IIS-clustering-architecture-wave-particle-duality-console-blah-blah…”

It was clear from the abuse of technical terms that he was testing me, sure he had called my bluff. This wasn’t new. When you don’t fit a certain mold, you grow accustomed to re-framing every situation and resetting power dynamics on the daily. I’m not sure why I expected this scenario to be any different, especially when I was very aware that he would have 10+ years of professional experience on me.

It was the third or fourth round of interviews for a Sr. System Administrator. After countless phone screens, technical screens, and phone interviews, we had narrowed down the pool to two final candidates. It would be their first onsite interview. The arduous search was drawing near an end, and the team couldn’t wait.

I was terrified.

2. the situation in my head:

This hiring situation is the clearest memory of “imposter syndrome” that I can recall. I had looked on in disbelief at the dates on the submitted resumes a few weeks prior. The candidates all had careers that began while I was in diapers. Or in some cases, long before I was even born!

Yet these details didn’t faze me. I had plenty of time to prepare and I knew what I was doing. At least, I thought I did. Whatever it was that I expected, I can tell you that I was not at all prepared to be handicapped by the sudden flash of insecurity. What came to mind before this interview was a list of facts I knew I would not be able to hide:

I am significantly younger (unfortunately, I look even younger than my actual age and my high pitched voice certainly didn’t help matters).

I am not a technical person (I don’t have a formal technical background).

I am a physically petite female.

As a younger leader, I’ve always considered myself to be an underdog. On good days, this fact made me feel badass for consistently overcoming the odds and accomplishing all that I had. But more often than not, I felt like a fraud. A fraud that held a spot on the executive team — fooling everyone — and somehow convinced the masses of my competency.

Interestingly enough, I actually love the process of speaking with candidates, finding what makes them tick, and weaving their combined strengths into an all-star team. I was truly no stranger to recruiting or making executive hiring decisions. So why did I suddenly find myself intimidated — ahem* scared shitlesss — after going through this process hundreds of times?

Perhaps it was the fact that this specific candidate held a senior role at a Fortune 500 tech company. It made my management position at the 40 some person startup feel trivial and meaningless in comparison. Whatever the reason, I had to get a grip and get over it.

3. the situation played out:

The interview was late in the afternoon. And I could not, for the life of me, shake this anxiety that gripped my gut. It was almost nauseating. I’m ashamed to say I actually spent the entirety of my morning rehearsing how to tactfully pass the responsibility to my CEO.

The candidate is coming in. I’m working on urgent thing XYZ and don’t think I’ll wrap up in time. I’ve already spoken with him multiple times and believe he’s qualified. The [remote VP of Engineering] has tested him and agrees. Since [the CEO] hasn’t met the candidate, why doesn’t he conduct the interview instead?

Casual. Direct. Convincing. It would work. I stopped my boss when I caught sight of his figure walking past my office. My story was recited flawlessly, and my voice even held a bit of disappointment for good measure. Nevertheless, his clipped “no” came without missing a beat.

“Why not?!”

I still cringe when I remember how I jumped out of my chair and rushed to catch up with his much larger strides, very much like a child throwing a tantrum. Not my proudest moment, that’s for sure.

“He is going to take one look at me and leave laughing — do you want your company to be seen as a joke?”

My CEO didn’t spare me a single glance until he stopped inside a conference room, clearly unfazed by my dramatics. His retort came calmly, with an unsympathetic look, as he shut the door in my face without waiting for a response. I can still remember his words verbatim.

“If you cannot interview him, how do you expect to manage him?”

“So, what’s your take?” he drawled, testing me.

I resist the urge to roll my eyes and replied that it wasn’t my area of expertise, that my role was X, my goals were Y, and I’m looking to see if he was the right person to contribute Z. Despite my efforts, I’m sure I still looked tense and out of my element. I couldn’t help it. The voice in my head whispered that despite breaking stereotypes, I would not be accepted. It was an innate fear of being disrespected — of not being good enough.

However, I cared a great deal about this company, and I knew we desperately needed to fill this position. I could not let this become a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. So even as my cheeks flushed, I found the determination to remain professional.

It struck me that I had spoken to this very person on the phone countless times, and had in fact, interviewed him behind a receiver. I recall the almost scripted responses he gave whilst trying to impress me. Clearly, he wouldn’t be here if I didn’t know what I was doing. And that gave me a sense of calm. Enough to regain lead of the conversation.

We didn’t end up hiring him, but I think back to this incident quite often. Many, many hires and 2 companies later, I still consider this moment as one of my biggest learning experiences.

We’ve all encountered such a situation at some point or another — where despite your credentials, your track record, and all your accomplishments, you are made to feel very small. And if you allow that feeling of intimidation to dissolve your confidence, you will shrink smaller and smaller until you drown in irrational self-doubt.

“Sometimes, sitting here in the dark, slowly slowly creating strategy, she wondered if she was only fooling herself to think her plans were clever.” — Vernor Vinge

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