Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

with Alicia Liu

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Alicia's Story

Understand how Impostor Syndrome affects your work and how to overcome it.

Alicia Liu

Software Engineer, Entrepreneur, Writer

Lessons Learned

In my head I held a definition of a good programmer, and I didn’t fit it.

A disconnect occurs when successful images do not reflect or resonate at all with what we look like.

Impostor Syndrome suffers attribute their success to luck and fear being discovered for inadequacy.


Lesson: Overcoming Impostor Syndrome with Alicia Liu

Step #2 Alicia's Story: Understand how Impostor Syndrome affects your work and how to overcome it

I actually read this book called "Unlocking The Clubhouse" which is a book that talks about a lot of the under representation of women in tech, what causes women to drop out of programs like computer science and engineering. It's a really, really good book. And I read it back in 2005 when I was still in university studying computer engineering. The thing is that the book talks about Impostor Syndrome, and it totally didn't resonate and I was like "Oh, I don't have that." It didn't catch on.

But the weird thing was that for many, many, many years all through out school I didn't think that being a software engineer was what I was meant to do. I just didn't think that. I don't know why. And now that I'm a software engineer, and I've kind of come across this process of learning about Impostor Syndrome, and actually identifying with it, now I'm like “Well, why wouldn't I be a software engineer?" Pretty much every step of the way I followed this golden path of becoming a software engineer, a good one.

For the longest time years, and years, and years I thought I should be something else like a product manager or in marketing. I'm terrible in marketing by the way. So it didn't even make sense that I thought I should do these other things. Other than that, women were successful doing these other things, but I didn't see a lot of women being successful software engineers, like going into tech and staying in tech. A lot of women start out as software engineers, they move into management, they move into more people roles, they move into product roles, design. Women can excel at those, but in tech like where you write code that didn't happen very often.

In my first startup, we kind of split the roles, we were three founders and one guy took engineering, one guy took sales, so the thing that was kind of left over was marketing, and I was like "Okay, I guess I'll do marketing, because why not? I can do marketing." No, it was a terrible idea.

I actually picked computer engineering over computer science because engineering had a higher intake average. So I just used that as a proxy to say that "Oh, this must be a better program," which was probably a bad idea. I probably should have gone into computer science where you can take more courses that are not specifically tech-focused. Whereas engineering, they really lay out "This is the entire curriculum, you have to take all these courses" and there's very little leeway for you to take courses outside of that. But I've had a lot of other interests like in humanities and arts and I wanted to take those courses, too, but it was very difficult to jive that with engineering.

So I think throughout my whole education, I felt like I didn't really belong because I didn't just want to do technology, I wanted to do other things. But there wasn't a lot of flexibility to do those things.

I started making webpages when I was a teenager. I took programming and web design class in my high school. I actually went to a high school that specifically was for technology and business and entrepreneurship. Then from there, I went into computer engineering at Waterloo which is called the "MIT of Canada." So a very well-known engineering school. Pretty much every single year, it's ranked the best engineering school in Canada and ranked quite highly around the world.

I interned at major corporations like Amazon. I did relatively well in school; I wasn't the top student, but I certainly did fine in school. Then I founded a startup with other classmates from Waterloo right out of school. All along the way, I did extremely well and I was coding through all that time; I did that and yet, I didn't think that just coding was something that I was supposed to do.

I think it's also to do with the way that it's framed. We attach all the stuff around coding, like what makes a good coder and we kind of have this image in our head. When that image doesn't really reflect or resonate at all with what we look like or what we think of ourselves, then I think that disconnect can really have an effect on what you think you can do.

The response to my overcoming Impostor Syndrome Post has been overwhelming. So many people of all kinds of different backgrounds, different fields saying, "Oh wow, thank you for articulating that, I feel it too.” I think it has been extremely validating for a lot of people to just hear that and have it validate their experience.

There are some negative responses too. I remember one guy he just said, "The only reason a guy would think you would code well is because you are a woman."

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