dwblog-woman in mask-overcoming imposter syndromeI have a confession: For most of my (gulp) 28 years at IBM, I felt like an imposter. It started in college, where in CompSci classes with few female classmates and no female professors, I felt stupid. Even though I excelled at IBM as an information architect, I felt like the real me might get exposed at any moment.

This notion of “imposter syndrome” doesn’t affect just me. Check out #impostersyndrome on Twitter (the meercat picture is my favorite). Many other women in tech circles are also discussing that the lack of female role models contributes to their feeling like a fraud.

My new management role at IBM changed how I see myself at work (thanks to mentors who pushed me to step up my game – male mentors, btw). My biggest shift has been to become more authentic. For me, authenticity is the antidote to imposter syndrome.

So how do you make it real at work?

Get wildly creative

For most of my life, I identified myself primarily as a creative writer with my tech job being secondary, so I struggled to bring creativity to my tech work.

Bringing a sense of play and experimentation to my job has changed everything.

To get wildly creative, bring your whole self to work – don’t suppress any of your talents. Let go of the fear of being judged for your ideas – just experiment and see how folks react.

For example, my previous manager started each scrum by playing a song – a brilliant way to get the team talking about something other than work and set the mood for a call. Another manager turned an all-hands call into a Jeopardy game.

Stop comparing yourself to others

Honestly, it serves no purpose.  I used to suffer from what I’ll call “geek envy,” where I compared myself to the tech rock stars around me who brought such energy to their technology leadership.

I’ve learned that I have different superpowers. My ability to communicate technical material, my analytical skills, and my ability to motivate people are just as essential for the success of IBM as any technical super star.

Plus, imposter syndrome doesn’t just affect women. In researching this topic I’ve learned that up to 70% of top performers suffer from imposter syndrome. It seems to go hand in hand with being talented in some ways.  Chew on this for a moment:

True imposters don’t suffer imposter syndrome.” (From Is imposter syndrome a sign of greatness?)

While the feeling may be common, it can be a problem if it affects your career goals. For example, do you feel a reluctance to put yourself up for a deserved promotion? Even my rock star coworkers might suffer from this at some point in their careers.

So don’t focus on others, focus on you. What’s your superpower?

Find your passion

To stop feeling like a fraud, connect with some sense of purpose in your work. That purpose could be advancing technology, creating apps that solve major issues like healthcare or green energy, or even something as simple as helping your coworkers.  Some circles claim this sense of purpose is especially important for women, but I think both men and women need to connect their work to some greater purpose.

For many years, I had trouble with this one. I knew that the technology we produce at IBM was solving major world problems, but I was too disconnected from the end result.   Two major things clicked for me a when I became a manager, which completely changed how I engage with my work:

  • I love developing the talent on my team and seeing the world-class results.
  • I care deeply about increasing opportunities for women in technology (I’ll explore why in a future post).

A sense of purpose decreases my overall frustration level; when I focus on what’s important, the everyday hurdles become background noise.

Making it real

Making it real at work involves some risk; authenticity can leave you feeling vulnerable, but that’s better than feeling a fraud.   As women in tech, we can support each other by sharing our stories, gently pointing out any self-deprecating behavior, and applauding each other’s successes.

Ironically, my role as a manager has rejuvenated my interest in coding. My wild creativity gave me some ideas for apps that I want to code myself. Plus, I’m learning new languages to teach at local coding camps for girls.

While imposter syndrome may be common, I’ve found that overcoming it has been fundamental to my overall happiness and well-being. I hope it can do the same for you. I’d love to hear your stories of dealing with imposter syndrome – comments welcome below, or chat with me on twitter.

Learn more about overcoming imposter syndrome:

Learn more about women at IBM, or even become one!



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8 comments on"Imposter syndrome: Conquered after 28 years at IBM"

  1. I’ve never found a way to overcome it. Even when receiving an award for something, it’s “I don’t deserve this.” Instead, I learned not to voice my fears. I’ve bookmarked “21 ways to overcome” and will study it for possible solutions. Thanks for the inspiring story!

  2. Hi Stephny, I loved your feature and many of your thoughts and comments really resonated with me. I have recently launched a new business that will be focus sing not only on mobilising more women into tech with access to coding but also, just as importantly, confidence and a wide range of other life skills – I am looking for an army of ‘authentic’ tech role models and would love to chat to you about how you and potentially some of your colleagues could get involved. If you could follow us on Twitter @fdisruptors I can email you my details and we could link up.

    Again – great feature!


  3. Karen Cameron April 22, 2016

    Thanks for posting this article, Stephny. I’ve been an information developer at IBM for 13 years and I definitely still feel like an imposter. Maybe it’s because I have a non-technical background (degrees in music). I’m constantly apologizing to people for not being very technical. But you’re absolutely right – we all bring our own superpowers to the team. Maybe I have some skills that my more technical colleagues don’t. I’m a lead writer and a squad leader – those things can’t have happened by accident. But I still feel like I’m going to be exposed at any moment. I think that we get into patterns of believing that we’re not good enough from childhood, and it’s hard to break that pattern. But it certainly helps to know that there are others out there that feel the same. So thanks for sharing, and thanks for the useful resources.


  4. Inspiring post, Steph. I can see how you identify with your creative writer side. Your word choice is fresh, even after being at IBM for so many years (you didn’t use the words “agile” or “pivot” at all!). Let me know when you write your first fiction book so that I can read it. In the meantime, thank you for putting into words what so many of us feel at work (and, to be honest, sometimes we feel that way at home with our kids).

    • Thanks so much Kelley! The response to this post has been incredible — showing just how common this “syndrome” is.

  5. […] a heavy load most of us carry. The fear, doubt and despair that drives you to dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Most […]

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