(Yes, I made the Among Us reference. I’m not immune to memes.)
Yesterday, I had a job interview. Well, it was really just the introductory phone screen that starts the interview process, but I’ve only once made it past that point, so it’s as good as the real thing for me. I’ve done about ten of these things in the past two and a half years, ranging from lengthy phone conversations to orientation seminars to code tests. Every time, I have the same problem: I feel like I don’t belong.
I know, I know. That’s strange to hear. You would think a guy who’s been writing code since before most of the interviewers were even born would be able to project confidence. The wisdom of age, if nothing else.
As I’ve stated many times before, I suffer from a cocktail of mental problems that add up to what’s called Impostor Syndrome. Put simply, it’s the feeling that I’m only pretending to be what I claim. In my case, a programmer. (I prefer that to “developer” when describing myself, as I’d rather write code than worry about infrastructure, marketing, PR, UI design, and all the other things under the developer umbrella.) I started learning this trade when I was 8. I started doing it seriously around age 13. I have nearly a quarter century of experience at this point. Maybe not all professional experience, but my mind doesn’t allow me to take it casually. Every line of code I write is serious business to me.
Yet the same thing happens every time I try to talk to someone else about it with the aim of getting paid to do what I love. I second-guess myself. I waver. I panic. Because these people have been in the business world, while I make a string of half-baked, half-finished toys. They spent tens of thousands of dollars on a degree. I’m self-taught; my formal programming education consists of the occasional BASIC lesson in elementary school.
If that sounds self-deprecating, well, it is. That’s how I get when my anxiety kicks into high gear. I begin to think that they’re thinking, “This guy is a joke. Why would we ever hire him?” I can’t compete with the imaginary “perfect hire” my mind has created. And if I know I’m going to lose, why bother trying in the first place?
I do have some serious accomplishments. I know I do. Look at Agena. Look at the little queue service I wrote for my brother’s Twitch stream, which he still occasionally uses after three years. As unprofessional as it may be, I can even point to a certain, ah, unsavory forum he used to administer: for the better part of eighteen months, I kept it running and even improved it. Without access to docs or even, in some cases, the server itself.
It’s just that…I can’t point to these when it’s time to step up. I get too scared that someone will think they aren’t real enough. “Oh, he wrote 50 lines of PHP. Wow.” And so much of what I feel makes me a good programmer is intangible. There’s no space on a résumé for passion, drive, and focus. HR doesn’t care about those; they want to see a BS in computer science and 4-5 years of DevOps.
Worst of all, this is a self-reinforcing problem for me. Each rejection only proves, in my mind, that I’m not good enough. If I were what I claimed, wouldn’t I already have a job? So that feeds the Impostor Syndrome, which makes the anxiety even worse for the next time around.
Short of actually getting hired (or somehow starting my own business, a near-impossibility nowadays), I don’t know how to break this cycle. Maybe, if I had more exposure, I could cope, but even getting to the interview point is hard enough. As I said, ten in two and a half years. And that’s from about 1500 applications.
I know I’m not the best at what I do. I also know that I’m a lot better than many people already working professionally in this field. I’ve found and even fixed their bugs, so that’s not just Dunning-Kreuger talking. So why is it that, when push comes to shove, I feel like a pretender?