Solve the Problem In Front Of You

While teaching a web development bootcamp I had an opportunity to observe budding developers and see what helped or hampered learning. One of the greatest dividers was focus.

One student spent most of our time together wrestling with a particularly thorny case of imposter syndrome. He feared he didn’t belong there, so everyone would soon find out. He must be wasting time and money. He was going to be a failure to his son, his family and himself.

This was the mental narrative he struggled with daily. Every time he sat down to learn a new concept, he first had to do battle with this story in his head and the result was that often he missed things. Missing one step can cause a lot of frustration & self doubt. As it turned out, he was able to overcome this and went on to find the job he wanted anyway. Hurray!

Sometimes an incredible problem-solving brain can be your own worst enemy. Rather than using precious time and mental cycles to learn, your brain tricks you into solving unsolvable riddles, such as “why am I here if I don’t belong”. Often this kind of thinking leads to a vicious cycle. “I don’t belong here, I can’t do this work” absorbs all your focus so in the end you can’t do the work and you never feel at ease. So you miss obvious things.

Things move very quickly in the boot camp world. This is good preparation for work in a fast-moving field that has little patience for existential crises. A lack of focus can ruin your ability to stay on top of learning new things. The only constant in tech is change. The minute you master everything that is the current hipness, there will be new things to learn. It’s what we all love/hate about it.

Whenever this student began to go down his ruinous mental pathways in our 1–1 sessions, I would take time to hear him out but not reaffirm his belief. Then I would take the reins to guide him towards a focus on the problem that was in front of him. If only I could heed my own advice!

Working with this student was amazing learning for me. I’ve long struggled with a sense of imposter syndrome. I am the only person in my family who went to college. My dad did a little this and that (he spent 5 years in the big house for “that”) and my mom was a waitress or receptionist, when she could find work. I grew up in a biracial family in New Mexico. I was always the kid with a weird name who never fit in. I learned to overcome a lot of my oddball syndrome through extreme friendliness <insert guitar riff>. Put me anywhere, in any situation, and I will befriend someone. It’s my superpower.

“The Nonconformist”, silkscreen by Feather Knee

After leaving home at 16, I put myself through college. For years I worked full time during the day and attended community college at night. I never had a computer (so fancy!) so I became a fixture at my school’s computer labs. One day a lab assistant said I should try a CS class. That summer I made extra money during my internship, so I bought my first computer.

Right afterwards I enrolled in CS 101, and it was life-changing. After years of indecision I immediately I knew I wanted to write code all day every day. It was the best thing I’d ever done. It was not easy, but the challenge was so satisfying. Plus I could build things. It was like being a magician. Yes, with a similar dork factor.

Later, when I found myself in the corporate world working as a software engineer, I realized that although I shared a passion with my peers, there were giants rifts I could not bridge with all the friendliness in the world. The land of tech can be so overwhelmingly homogenous. It was terrifying. I’ve always felt more at home with other oddballs. Add to that I’m somehow always the only woman on my team, and much discomfort ensued.

Maybe you don’t always want to salmon, it’s just how your brain works.

So, while I loved the work I eventually left it behind to pursue art. After doing that for several years, I longed to return to writing code full time. Returning was rough, and I was pretty sure it would be an epic failure. But I noticed things had changed a bit. Plus I was lucky and got recruited to teach a web development bootcamp. There I got to see all kinds of people learning to code, and witness the things they struggled with. Like focus. “Solve the problem in front of you” has now become my inner mantra. I chant this to myself when I find my mind wandering down darkened corners.

Of course things still get to me. I’m not a robot. Recently I was in a meeting with a guy who repeatedly talked over me to explain things in a way that made me feel so small and full of self-doubt that it occupied my mental real estate for the better part of a day. Self doubt crept in. Later, I did a mental rewind of things he said and realized they weren’t even accurate. Clearly, I was triggered. Apparently I’m not alone.

Men making women seem uninformed &/or unintelligent in meetings is a thing & it’s been happening since forever. Will this change overnight? Nope. Does it cause women, or anyone else who doesn’t fit the mold, to lose focus because they fall into some kind of awful narrative trap whereby they doubt themselves or get super frustrated/feel like they’ll never win? Most definitely. I know for certain this is often why women leave tech. It’s not always just to have babies or explore other interests. They get self-doubted out.

Can I do something about it? That’s what I’m doing right now. Dear fellow imposters, please don’t let it get you down. I hear your anger and frustration and feel your pain. Please keep solving the problem that’s in front of you. It’s the only way to get to keep doing what you love. Trust that things will change. They already have. Also, be friendly to people, even those who may not deserve it. They could come around, eventually. Even if they don’t, you still get to be yourself, no matter what.

Thoughts on code, climbing, and DIY. JavaScript, Elixir, and other fun stuff.