Overworked, overwhelmed: Why imposter syndrome is so prevalent in IT

Over the last several months, I have run across multiple articles claiming that the “imposter syndrome” is rampant in the IT industry. The statistics in those articles vary widely, but even by the most conservative estimate over half of IT pros suffer from imposter syndrome at some point in their career. For those who might not be familiar with the imposter syndrome, it is a condition in which someone feels completely inadequate in their career, especially when compared to their colleagues. In other words, the person feels like an imposter who somehow got a job working alongside others who are far more qualified. The imposter syndrome is not unique to IT but seems to be especially prevalent among IT professionals.

Before I get too far into the discussion, I have to confess that I am often plagued by the imposter syndrome. Sometimes it’s a feeling of not knowing enough. There have been multiple occasions for example when I have felt completely lost during one of the sessions at a tech conference, while everyone else in the room seems to know exactly what the speaker is talking about.

Other times the imposter syndrome manifests itself as a feeling of total inadequacy. A couple of years ago, for example, I was working on a project in Florida. Half of the people in the room were from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the other half were from NASA. Even though I was an invited participant and performed at the expected level, I felt like I was completely out of my league and kept wondering what I was doing there.

Yes, imposter syndrome is real

imposter syndrome

There are countless other examples that I could give you, but I will stop there. The point that I wanted to make is that the imposter syndrome is very real. The big question, however, is why does it affect so many IT professionals?

Although I do have a medical background, I am not a doctor, and I’m certainly not a psychiatrist. As such, I can’t give you a clinical answer to this question. Even so, I have 30 years of IT experience, and I think that I have some insight into what’s going on.

One possible explanation is that people outside of IT often have unrealistic expectations of what an IT pro is capable of. We’ve all seen those Hollywood films that show a hacker cracking an impossibly difficult system in a matter of seconds. I have had friends and family members ask me how long such a hack would take in real life. After explaining that the entire situation was a Hollywood fabrication that in no way resembled real life, it began to dawn on me that people outside of the IT industry might have a very skewed perception of what IT pros are capable of.

Unrealistic expectations

There are also unrealistic expectations stemming from within the tech industry. About 15 years ago, I attended a tech conference that had a keynote that pretty much defined the word unrealistic. The presenter showed a fictional video in which a tough as nails, no-nonsense, CEO of a large company was trying to close a major deal. As she negotiated the terms of the deal, she had someone from her IT department on the phone. Several times throughout the call, she demanded that insanely complex calculations be performed against vast amounts of business data. In each case, the CEO told the IT pro that they had a matter of seconds to deliver the result, threatening dire consequences if it took the IT department even one second too long to produce the information.

So much time has passed that I can’t remember the exact information that the IT department was being asked to retrieve. At the time though, I remember thinking if I were presented with such a request, that most of my allotted time would be spent just logging into the system. I also estimated that based on the technology of the time, fulfilling the CEO’s request would likely take hours, if not days. Completing such a task in a matter of 15 seconds seems completely implausible, even by today’s standards.

Of course, the video showed an IT pro who dutifully produced the requested information, just in the nick of time, helping the CEO close the deal. The presentation was obviously a product pitch, but I couldn’t help but wonder how many attendees (especially those who had not worked in IT for very long) thought that the video was an accurate portrayal of how IT is supposed to operate.

It seems possible that these types of unrealistic portrayals could lead to some IT pros suffering from imposter syndrome. After all, those types of expectations are impossible to live up to, no matter how skilled and experienced an IT pro may be.

One culprit: Technology’s fast pace

imposter syndrome

I also suspect that the prevalence of the imposter syndrome in IT may stem from the fact that IT is so complex, and is constantly changing. The pace at which technology changes can definitely lead to feelings of inadequacy. Let me give you an example.

When I was a teenager, I was determined to learn everything that there was to know about computers. I spent an insane amount of time reading everything that I could get my hands on and learning all of the intricate details of the systems of the time.

Shortly after graduating from high school, I was hired as a network administrator for an enterprise-class organization. About a month after joining the organization, my boss asked me to travel with her to an IBM conference. I walked into that conference supremely confident in my abilities. Fifteen minutes into the first session though, I was in a full-blown panic.

Even though the session was not over my head, the speaker was talking about concepts that I had never been exposed to before. I had been hired as a networking expert. I was worried that I would be fired on the spot if my boss realized that I wasn’t already an expert on the information that was being presented. What if she quizzed me on it?

Ultimately, that session proved to be a very eye-opening experience. My boss did end up asking me several questions after the session. That conversation made me realize two things. First, even though the information was new to me, I understood it well enough to explain it to someone else. Second, my boss knew far less about the material than I did. She didn’t expect me to be an instant expert. We were there to learn. If we already knew the material then there would have been no reason for us to attend the conference in the first place.

Suffering from imposter syndrome? As yourself why

I suspect that it is probably impossible to completely defeat the imposter syndrome. Anxiety is a part of human nature. It is a survival instinct, and it is only normal for us to sometimes have feelings of inadequacy. At the same time though, it is important not to have a defeatist attitude. Those feelings of inadequacy can motivate us to work harder, and to learn more, and to be the best that we can be.

If you are struggling with feelings of inadequacy, then ask yourself why. If it is because your skills are somewhat weak in a particular area then maybe you can sign up for a class or get some help from coworkers. If on the other hand, your feelings aren’t tied to a lack of skills, but rather to feeling like you don’t belong in IT, then you might consider talking with some of your coworkers. It is normal for people who work in highly technical professions to feel overwhelmed from time to time, especially early in their careers. You will probably find that your coworkers had similar feelings of exasperation when they first started in IT.

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