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How to overcome imposter syndrome in the tech industry

Tech industry insights and research on how to overcome imposter syndrome, manage code review anxiety, and thrive as a software engineer or developer.

May 29, 2024 • 6 Minute Read

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  • Software Development
  • Developer Experience
  • Professional Development
  • Learning & Development
  • Engineering Leadership

Whether you’re new to tech or a seasoned software engineer, everyone struggles with imposter syndrome, code review anxiety, and other psychological barriers. 

Pluralsight’s Dr. Cat Hicks, VP of Research Insights; Dr. Carol Lee, Principal Research Scientist; and Kristen Foster-Marks, Principal Developer Experience Engineer, use their research insights to explain how you can overcome these challenges and thrive as a software engineer (or in any tech role).

Missed Tech Skills Day? Catch up on demand.

Table of contents

What is Pluralsight’s Developer Success Lab?

Scientists in Pluralsight’s Developer Success Lab study how software teams work, learn, and innovate. 

“We are like an open science project for the community out there of technologists, technology teams, people building software, developers, and their partners and product. We study very large topics across the concerns of these teams,” explained Dr. Hicks.

They then turn those research insights into actionable guidance. As Kristen noted, “Understanding this research can really help us change our practices and our behaviors so that we can operate better and more efficiently and, hopefully, even more happily as software developers, both individually and as members of our software teams.”

Tech and culture: How contest cultures spark imposter syndrome

Contest cultures come from a belief that people work better in fierce, competitive environments. These cultures are especially prevalent in the tech industry and can lead to imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome in the workplace refers to feeling inadequate at work. You feel like a fraud or an imposter—someone who doesn’t belong—despite your genuine qualifications, record of high performance, and other external evidence to the contrary. Imposter syndrome in tech can lead to a cycle of self-doubt, overachieving, and anxiety.

“You have to prove that you know the right jargon, you know the right vendor tool,” said Dr. Hicks. “[It’s that feeling of] if you don't use the same keyboard shortcuts that I use, are you even a real developer?

“And what we see in our research, what we know from science, is the long-term sustainable good work, the stuff that's going to last, is a quality game. It doesn't come from this competition [and] dog-eat-dog stuff. It comes from collaboration.”

You don’t need to be a “rock star” or “genius coder” to succeed in a tech career—and teams actually perform better when these terms aren’t used. There’s room for everyone to succeed, so long as leaders encourage collaboration and foster the right environment.

Learn how to overcome imposter syndrome and build your professional self-confidence.

Coping with software development code review anxiety

Code review anxiety refers to the stress or anxiety you experience when giving or receiving a code review. Dr. Lee’s research uncovered two important findings. One, code review anxiety is normal. And two, it’s manageable.

Everyone experiences code review anxiety

“[Our research] shows that code review anxiety is pretty normal. And so, if you feel anxious in these situations, I just really want you to know you're not crazy, you're not weird, you're not unskilled. This is pretty normal,” said Dr. Lee. 

And code review anxiety affects developers at all levels. Many people assume code review anxiety is something only junior developers experience. “The evidence actually shows that this isn’t true,” said Dr. Lee. 

“When you say that code review anxiety is a junior developer thing, you're basically saying, ‘Hey, that current anxiety that you're feeling, don't worry about it. You'll eventually grow out of it.’

“Now you're also implying there's something wrong with somebody's abilities—as if somebody will no longer deserve anxiety once they're a ‘better coder.’ And this is a huge problem because not only does this make people's anxiety worse for obvious reasons, but it's also not true. 

“Anyone can and does experience anxiety. It's not something you deserve, and it's not something you earn. It truly is something that every one of us is susceptible to.”

How to manage code review anxiety

Just because code review anxiety is normal doesn’t mean it can’t impact you and your work. How can you reduce these negative thoughts and feelings? Dr. Lee suggested a process called cognitive restructuring.

“This is basically when we identify and then challenge any negatively biased thoughts we have about the situation,” she explained. “What's really cool is that our research shows that this process doesn't just decrease code review anxiety, but it actually can increase your engagement with code reviews. 

“So, for example, instead of saying, ‘If I make a mistake, I'm so stupid,’ now I might be able to say, ‘Okay, yes, I might make a mistake. And sure, that might be pretty embarrassing in the moment. But you know what? Mistakes are normal, and they don't mean that I'm stupid.’”

Overcoming imposter syndrome and anxiety: 4 essentials for developer and engineering teams

Dr. Hicks and Dr. Lee’s research identified four ingredients people in tech roles need to succeed and overcome imposter syndrome. Dr. Lee created the acronym LABS to remember them: learning, agency, belonging, and self-efficacy.

“We have heard from the thousands of people in our research that these four things really matter,” said Dr. Hicks. “And it's actually not just our research, it's based on a lot of people's research across academic science.”

1. Learning: Does your organization have a learning culture?

Software developers thrive in organizations that prioritize, celebrate, and reward learning. “You are not afraid to show that you are learning. Actually, your peers actively showing learning and making mistakes, the normal kind of making mistakes in the process of learning, [is] counted as good, positive progress,” said Dr. Hicks.

2. Agency: Does your manager value your input?

Developers want to know their input matters when it counts. “People feel great agency when they're inside of a team where, at the right moment, their voice gets amplified,” explained Dr. Hicks.

3. Belonging: Do you feel a sense of belonging as a software engineer?

Belonging is another important aspect of thriving in the tech industry. It’s closely tied to feelings of imposter syndrome at work.

“Do I belong here? Do I belong as a software developer? Do I belong on this team? Does someone like me belong here? It's not the same as people are just nice to me, right? It kind of goes deeper, like into a sense of your value. You're able to show up as a whole person,” shared Dr. Hicks.

4. Self-efficacy: Are you motivated to innovate and find unique technology solutions?

Dr. Hicks and Dr. Lee explained how self-efficacy is the powerhouse of motivation. “It's your ability to say to yourself, ‘Even if things are unexpectedly hard, or there's a challenge I never anticipated, I know that I can solve this, even if I can't see the solution yet,’” said Dr. Hicks. 

Incorporating LABS into your developer experience

If you’re a developer, examine your work environment. Is there anything missing? How can you gain what you need to thrive? If you lack agency, for example, Dr. Hicks suggests looking for areas of joint ownership. “Look for moments where you can start a conversation about how you are being measured and how your success is being defined and position yourself as an ally to everybody around you.”

If you’re an aspiring engineer, look for these elements in prospective organizations. Ask your interviewers if they feel a sense of belonging and are supported when they make mistakes.

If you’re an engineering leader, assess your team and wider organizational culture. Do you make time for learning? Do developers have agency? Are they encouraged to solve problems on their own? Do they feel like part of the team? If not, how can you help?

Thriving as software engineers and developers in today’s tech industry

As Dr. Hicks, Dr. Lee, and Kristen emphasized, everyone experiences obstacles during their tech career—but you don’t need to suffer in silence. Understanding what the science says about code review anxiety, imposter syndrome, and other obstacles can help you thrive as a software developer long term. 

Want more insights from the Developer Success Lab? Check out their research and insights.

Watch everything you missed at Tech Skills Day.

Pluralsight Content Team

Pluralsight C.

The Pluralsight Content Team delivers the latest industry insights, technical knowledge, and business advice. As tech enthusiasts, we live and breathe the industry and are passionate about sharing our expertise. From programming and cloud computing to cybersecurity and AI, we cover a wide range of topics to keep you up to date and ahead of the curve.

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