January 23, 2018

Motorcycles, Imposter Syndrome, and riding through it.

I’m learning to ride a motorbike; well, I say learning - it’s more riding about on empty roads dreading the inevitable stall as I approach the next junction! Despite getting to grips with clutch control, passing my theory test with 100%, and completing the mandatory basic training… it’s all a bit duanting.

It’s a bit like starting a new role.

Legally speaking, to learn to ride a motorcycle in the UK, you simply have to attend a one day class that provides you with the skills to continue learning in a safe manner.

Although you’re restricted to a smaller engine, it’s simply a couple of hours riding around a car park, followed by two hours on the road, and then you’re allowed to go your merry way on the road independently. No need for any prior road experience, nor any real theoretical knowledge.

When it came to getting on the road for the first time - unguided - I was oddly terrified. I felt alone, surrounded by potential hazards, constantly questioning my own abilities and skills. Does that sound familiar?

Is it Imposter Syndrome?

When I got my first non-agency development role, I found myself immersed in the world of healthcare technology. Suddenly I found myself grappling with a whole plethora of new acronyms like HL7, PACS, DICOM, and EHR, and I was trying to traverse the largest and oldest codebase I’d ever worked on. I was scared.

It seemed like any work I performed had the potential to go wrong - and this wasn’t a fear that was going to be alleviated by a few test cases either. I often found myself pondering whether I was really “cut out” for a career in software development. For all intents and purposes, this was my “motorcycle moment”.

Riding through quiet roads in the dark

Just like I find riding through dark and desolate streets as a confidence booster, safe from many of the hazards that come with being on the road, I found confidence in isolated tasks free of side effects.

I found myself doing database profiling and optimising complex queries, I also performed a few UI modifications; despite conducting this work safe in the knowledge that I wasn’t going to break anything, I finally began to feel “useful”.

Naturally, this step allowed me to slowly delve deeper in to the codebase, and I eventually began implementing new features or fixing (often obscure) bugs. It wasn’t long before I became known as a bit of a specialist with certain areas of the codebase.

Spark plugs, chain lube, and design meetings

After buying my motorcycle, I bought a Haynes manual, and I tried to grasp how the machine actually worked. Despite sounding complex, I soon discovered that the working of a motorcycle was actually surprising simple - theoretically it could be quite complex, but in practice everything seemed quite understandable.

Alas, I soon found myself discussing the topic to a good friend - a motorcycle mechanic no less - and I found myself being bamboozled with terminology and unintuitive (and peculiar sounding) part names. How could I take an active role in a conversation like that?

I resolved to work my way through the various maintenance tasks that my Haynes manual described - chain tightening, brake adjustments, oil changing, spark plug replacement, battery voltage checking - until eventually I could describe the different parts correctly, including their function. Suddenly, I found I could actually hold a conversation about the bike, as well as discuss basic troubleshooting techniques.

Let’s now rewind to that time where I found myself gasping for air whilst adjusting to life developing medical software. I’d often find myself in design and planning meetings, and like a discussion with my motorcycle enthusiast friend, I’d find myself a little lost. I’d hear the words, and I’d recognise most of them, but I couldn’t quite make sense of what I was hearing.

Yet by taking a more active role in the review process, as well as browsing different areas of the codebase and their associated tickets, I soon found the terminology (in addition to the functional understanding) that allowed me to take a more active role in discussions.

Alas, this isn’t really about motorcycling.. nor is it about Imposter Syndrome either.

Of course, the risk profile and required mentality of motorcycling differs greatly when compared to software development. Yet, like most new endeavours, the feelings are very similar.

The first time I attended a photography meet-up, everyone else seemed to speak in the “vernacular of photography” - with impressive knowledge of concepts like exposure, depth of focus, and techniques like light painting. Once again, I found myself feeling like an imposter.

Similarly, last year I ran my first 5K at an event for the British Heart Foundation. I was shocked to find my fellow runners were calm and relaxed, meanwhile I was struggling to even put my t-shirt on correctly..!

It’s natural to compare yourself to those around you, and feel frustration at their competency compared to your own - and although this can be problematic, it’s certainly nothing to worry about when you’re starting out in a new industry, role, sport, or even hobby!

Articles describing the worst case scenario, chronic “Imposter Syndrome” which persists with an individual throughout the course of their career, have become commonplace. That’s a real issue; but not an insurmountable one. Via something like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, it’s possible to challenge the thought patterns which cause this phenomenon.

However, when confronted with a picture of a severe issue - one that has the potential to ruin a career, or prevent you from fulfilling your potential - it’s human nature to consider yourself within that context. Yet I want to present an alternative viewpoint, one that describes what most people feel when beginning a new role, one that is perfectly natural, yet is often confused with “Imposter Syndrome”. It’s simply called “Being New”.

© Fergus In London 2019

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