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Imposter Syndrome and the Inherent Cruelty of Silicon Valley - Elf M. Sternberg
Imposter Syndrome and the Inherent Cruelty of Silicon Valley
I was thirteen when I got my hands on my first computer. It was three cubes, each bigger than a clothes washing machine. In 1980, by luck (and a quixotic alumnus), my high school was the only one in the US to have a DEC PDP/11. It was also a boarding school where I didn't have much to do in the evening, and I was one of those kids who would go on to be "a nerd."

I was "good" with computers. In my junior year, programming was topically wedged into the chemistry curriculum; I ended up writing a 3D engine to catelog and display molecules. I had to come up with the storage format myself and type the molecules in by hand from Von Nostrands, because there was no Internet and no public databases. The teacher looked at everyone's programs, except mine. To me he just said, "I assume you know how this all works, right?" I assured him I did and showed him the photocopied sheets I'd made of ACM papers on 3D displays from a visit we'd made to Princeton.

When I went to college in 1985 all my friends and colleagues either had a PC or one of those brand-new Macs which had come out last year. I waited two years until I convinced my father to buy me an Amiga 2000. Unlike the PC or the Mac, the Amiga came with all of its software available in two massive printed manuals. The Amiga OS was written in C. I bought a C compiler, building pre-ANSI C.

In 1992 I was living in Seattle, doing tech support for customers of an early Internet Service Provider. A woman asked, "Does anyone here know Perl?" I had taught myself Perl a few weeks earlier to make it easier to pull porn off Usenet, so I raised my hand. I was the only one. I ended well-paid as an early professional "webmaster." A lot of my career is like that: A failed startup taught me Webware (an early application server) and Python, which made me a miracle worker when I landed at Isilon. At a security start-up, my knowing both Python and assembly language made me indespensible. My anime habit taught me transcoding, which meant when I moved to the movie distributor I was able to save their business. Converting my stories to e-book format gave me knowledge that made me useful to a textbook startup. And so on.

Today, I get paid what Seattle's developer community calls "The Seattle ceiling," the most money you can make before moving into management. The question on the table is, do I deserve it?

My employer thinks so. Society thinks so. But the very notion of "deserve" is a slippery one: I had a lot of inborn talent, I had a ton of support from my family, and I was incredibly, unbelievably lucky time and again: lucky to go to a high school in 1980 that had Pascal and Fortran, and a working assembler, alongside the usual Basic. Lucky to know Perl at just the right moment. Lucky to know assembly, lucky to know the E-book 2.0 standard, lucky to know transcoding, lucky to understand credit card processing.

I'm a white guy who went to an expensive boarding school and speaks (and writes) better English than most. I also program in two languages exceptionally well and am competently skilled in a half-dozen more. My natural talents, my advantageous environment, my access to sufficient resources, and yes, luck have all placed me where I am today. This is not to say that I didn't work at it: obviously, I love what I do and I work hard to stay current and marketable. But "I love what I do" is clearly, in its own way, a kind of luck. I would probably not have loved being an accountant, which is where my college degree was headed.

What can we say about "deserving"? As Socrates pointed out at his trail, if you have personal gods, you might say "The gods gave me these advantages, in which case what am I that is pleasing to the gods that those not so fortunate are not? Am I pleasing to the gods and thus they bless me, or do they bless me and thus I am pleasing to the gods?" If you have an impersonal god, then you might say that my having the right parents and the right talents and the right luck is an advancement of humanity's overall ultimate objective. Or as Thucydides once wrote, you might say that you "deserve" what you have because you am clever and dominant, and "justice" is just a word the clever and dominant use to constrain and confuse the weak so that you can do what you want, and the weak suffer what they must.

"Deserve" isn't really a good word here. I may have "earned" a place in society, but the escalator I was given as a young man isn't the cliff faced by minority students. I've known women and black men who were far more talented that I am, who nonetheless languished in obscurity because they "didn't fit a culture." I worry that, at my age, I no longer "fit a culture" and my next job search will be much harder.

Imposter Syndrome is the belief that you're not really "good" at your job, and that at any second everyone around you will figure that out, and you'll be fired for incompetence, and you'll never work anywhere else ever again. Imposter syndrome used to be a feature mostly of artists who worried that someday the admiring public would "see through" their skill and realize it was all crap and toss the artist out onto the streets.

My imposter syndrome is fairly strong. Ask my wife. Every time someone compliments me, my response is somewhere along the line of "Yeah, but..." The 'but' is simple: I know how much I don't know. I know where my talents fall short. I also know that there's a million things I don't know, and want to know, and haven't yet learned.

Imposter Syndrome is fairly common among software developers. Kent Beck, who I admire as a developer,

recently wrote about his, and lots of other software developers have the same feeling. I think Imposter Syndrome is a curse of programmers because every once in a while, sometimes for several days in a row, we spend our working hours at the literal limit of human understanding; we hold in our heads so much context about the meaning of all the different abstract things roiling about inside a program that we don't have room for more. Yet when we lift our heads and look at the vast landscape of what there is to know, we realize that we don't know very much at all. Even in our own industry. Even in our own tiny slice of an industry. In some large but specialized fields, like C++ programming or web development, there's that horrible, nagging, "There's so much to this, I'm sure the way I'm doing it is less than ideal." Even if it gets the job done.

I was talking about this with a friend of mine who's a programmer. He said, "I don't want to hear about your Imposter Syndrome. You give me Imposter Syndrome. I don't go home and try to write a whole new programming language from a thirty-year-old textbook. I don't have a github. I just do my job and go home and play video games. You do this and you have, what, a wife and two kids and a house and everything?" He is a very talented programmer, and his people skills mean he's moving up faster than I am.

I believe the inherent libertarian cruelty we frequently talk about regarding silicon valley is partially a result of the anxiety caused by imposter syndrome. Every single one of us in this industry "knows" that our skills could be "worthless" in four years. The anxiety to keep up, the fear that we'll pick the "wrong" skillset to concentrate on and end up with unmarketable skills in the next downturn drives us all a little insane.

Worse, all of the "culture fit" bullshit which excludes women and minorities from workplaces is just, we all know, just that: bullshit. Three of the people on my "must reads" programming blog list are women, one of whom is black, another trans. I wish there were more, but this industry isn't kind to women or minorities.

When looking back at how we got here, most programmers have a story similar to mine. They happened to be the family with a desktop PC in the 80s or 90s, when home PCs aimed at kids were explicitly marketed to boys. They were good at it, or their parets pressured them into "the new good job" and they found they could make money at it. More than their peers were making. But they look at just how goddamn much money they're making, and how it involves sitting in a comfortable room while sodas and snacks are provided, and they wonder, like I do, "Do I deserve this?"

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." But it's not true. Some of us have skills that are scarce, and the more skilled you are, the more the people with money want to reward you. In a just system, though, no one deserves special reward because their skills are scarce. The only real justification for paying us more is that it's a way for institutions to attract and retain talent that's efficient at producing growth.

As Socrates would tell you, that's not an argument for justice. That's an argument for entitlement.

It's this combination of in-the-moment entitlement and on-the-horizon anxiety that makes silicon valley so cruel. Part of it is simple self-justification: a way of saying "the world is structured thus, and I'm on top, and so I am entitled in ways the poor, the homeless, and the unlucky are not." Part of it is the anxiety: "This could all disappear in a heartbeat, so I must make the most of it now and to hell with other people. Let Bill Gates save the world. I can barely afford my $3000/mo apartment."

In the end, we must all make excuses for our lives. We have not given up everything to go begging, as Buddha wished, or surrendered our possessions to follow Jesus, or made our pilgrimage to the Kabah, or even joined the Peace Corp in retirement.

My younger daughter goes to a public high school where she ends up feeling incredibly guilty sometimes because she has a reliable house in a quiet if run-down neighborhood, two parents who get along, who aren't drunk or high all the time, who manage on one income, and who have lots of time for her and for each other. Her friends don't have these luxuries: most come from broken homes, many are latchkey kids with absent parents, some are fighting homelessness. She also feels anger: many of the kids in her junior class just don't seem to care about their futures. They were never taught by their parents to look to the future, to care about it, to nuture yourself for it, and to have a sense of empathy toward your future self. She feels guilty because she didn't earn any of the things she has; she had parents who gave her those things.

I told her that her duty wasn't to tear herself down and be as miserable as they were. That would only increase the sum total misery in the world. Throwing away her foundation would only leave her as lost in the sand as her friends. If she feels that way, her moral duty isn't to tear herself down, it's to be strong, make her foundation as solid as possible, and then reach down and pull up as many people as she could. And yes, that's a life-long job, but I told her I'm sure she's up to it. One day at a time. We could do worse than say "Be excellent to each other!" We don't always succeed, but at least we should try.

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2 comments or Leave a comment
sirfox From: sirfox Date: December 11th, 2016 05:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm in Biotech, MS and BS, 15 years experience, and i still get the imposter effect in my life. Two web-designer/artist friends of mine get it as well.

Honestly, i think any field where your efforts end up directed towards a place that is to most people, at best theoretical in existence and meaning, everything gets very subjective, and the Artist's Dilemma of knowing every single flaw and shortcoming applies to that.

Your daughter's perspective pokes something in my mind from terry pratchett's discworld. Granny Weatherwax the witch knows about Narrativium. It's an element you only detect by its influence on all the others. It's what makes stories go. It's why a Third Son will succeed on a quest his two older, bigger, stronger brothers failed at. Stories Happen to People, but occasionally Granny Weatherwax Happens to a Story.

Back to our world, it's the reason we buy a lottery ticket. We tell ourselves the story of The Working Class Schmuck Who Won It Big In The Lotto. The fantasy is that we deserve the winning ticket, because that's how we WISH the story would go. That's a cheap fantasy, costs a dollar to try and live it.

Life is something that Happens to People, and most people just let it roll over them, because Humans are Human and Change is Hard. Some people have the perspective to look ahead and see where there stories might go, and make decisions to make sure the one they want, Happens. That said, some folks are born with many more stories in front of them, often with an easy downhill coast involved for a lot of it. Other folks get to chose which mountain range they scale this morning.

Regardless, the people who Get Narrativium, in whatever way you define it, are going to do a better job of defining their life's circumstances and outcomes by being proactive.

So... how do we get more people, more young people, to do that. maybe we need the right Stories?
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 28th, 2016 04:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
More often than not, what we consider "luck" as applied to success, is merely a combination of skill and hard work that filters opportunities out of the white noise of random events.

Two children may be born into the same circumstances, be exposed to the same opportunities and challenges, yet one may be successful while the other isn't. The difference? Skill, and the willingness to work hard and make sacrifices to achieve success.

Reading your blog (in hopes that you will find some room in your life again one of these days to resume publishing fiction, if truth be told) I envy your apparent continuing ability to learn. As you wrote in a previous blog post: you have the one skill that matters. Learning. Your mind appears (note how I phrase it) capable of absorbing information in considerable quantity at considerable speed, and process it in a profitable manner. (This is, of course, only my personal impression gained from reading what you publish; nothing more.)

My computer career started at the age of 14 with one hour a week on a Commodore PET 16. (That's all we had at school.) I spent the week writing code, on paper, followed by one frantic hour of entering said code, running it, and debugging it. I was able to absorb text books on programming in a matter of days, and I managed to make the most of whatever education I had available to me. About 99% of all the skills I have used throughout my IT career were self taught.

When I passed the age of 50, I noticed a marked drop in my ability to do the above. It has severely affected my market value as an Internet application and website developer (not that I've ever been at your level to start with). While one keeps one's mind "fit" by exercising it daily, genetics and overall health do seem to play a role here.

Having said that, I continue to do the best I can, until natural selection or retirement catch up with me. One either exploits opportunity through skill, or not. It's a matter of attitude and capability more than anything else. Luck may be a factor (for example I never had access to the sort of education that you appear to have had) but then again, I suspect you worked harder at getting where you are now than I have, so your achievements are, well, achievements, and therefore well deserved.

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