My Life as a Tech Impostor

Before I even knew there was a term, I thought I was an impostor. Not in tech mind you, but in life. I was 11 years old. Over the summer I had visited my first Head Shop, ushered in by my older and ostensibly wiser cousin. I didn’t know what a bong was, or what all these dancing bears were about. The whole place stank of some unknown odor, which I would later be able to identify as a mélange of patchouli, sandalwood, and pot. Mostly pot. What I could dimly sense – as a budding, rebellious teenager – was that this place was cool, and I wanted to be cool. My cousin explained that the dancing bear was in fact a totem of The Grateful Dead, and I vaguely recognized the name from MTV. That would, of course, be the Touch of Grey single that served as an introduction of The Dead to many of my peer group.

The name was good, The Grateful Dead. The bear was cool. And the baja poncho bearing the emblem was also cool. Therefore – my eleven-year-old brain sang with glee – purchasing the baja and wearing it make me cool. QED. To show how cool I was, I wore that poncho unchallenged for the remainder of the summer. Claiming to be a Dead Head, and humming Touch of Grey, mostly because I didn’t know any other songs from my theoretical, favorite band. It wasn’t till the first day of school arrived that I was called on my bullshit. A schoolmate who was an occasional friend – more often a nemesis – challenged me to name another Grateful Dead song. If you’ve followed along so far, you won’t be surprised to discover that I couldn’t meet his challenge. And he called me what could easily be the most damning name an aspiring cool kid could hear, “Poser.”

That label, however accurate, stung deep. That very night I disposed of my poncho and the glamour I thought it had worked upon my status. I had been found out! I was a poser, a fake, a wannabe. And I was never going to do that again.

That single incident created within me a constant fear; a nagging voice in the back of my head that says, “You’re a fake and a liar, and sooner or later someone is going to call you on your bullshit.”

Fast forward several years, and several increasingly more awkward haircuts later, and I found myself in the tech industry. Getting started was easy, but gaining confidence was hard. Each technology I learned simply showed me how little I knew about the other technologies that radiate away from it. I thought I was a pretty sharp Active Directory admin, and then I dug a little deeper and realized that I maybe knew 5% of what makes up Active Directory. I thought I knew a lot about VMware, and then I started talking to people managing thousands of VMs, and I realized I maybe knew 30% of what makes up VMware vSphere. Same thing with networking, storage, servers, cloud, etc. Each time I gained a certain level of confidence in a topic, I would feel like someone else was calling bullshit. My old fear of being an impostor would rear its familiar, ugly head, and I would scamper away to my corner and lick my wounds.

But here’s the thing. The vast majority of people I met weren’t calling me an impostor. They didn’t think less of me for not knowing everything. Those sages of technology had advanced far enough in their career that they learned a central truth. No one knows everything about a topic. No one. If you think you do, I suggest that you talk to some other people about the topic, or recognize that you might be suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect. So these bastions of tech knowledge knew that they didn’t know everything, knew that no one knew everything, and by extension knew that I didn’t know everything. That wasn’t a point of shame. It was a simple, subtle truth. All I needed to do was accept it, and ask for help. I didn’t need to fear being an impostor, as long as I didn’t claim to know everything. And it only took me ten years to figure that out!

What really opened my eyes was accepting a job as an IT consultant. There were some essential truths I had to acknowledge in order to be a good consultant:

  1. You are surrounded by incredibly talented people who have deep knowledge on specific topics
  2. You are going to develop deep knowledge on specific topics, share accordingly
  3. Clients have an expectation that you are the expert, and you need to prepare for that
  4. There’s no shame in not knowing something, provided you do something about it
  5. You are going to be bombarded with a constant stream of new technologies, prepare for that too

Accepting these truths has been difficult at times. I still struggle with the feeling that I am in some way an impostor. Each new area I engage in brings that old familiar feeling back. It doesn’t matter what level of accomplishment I have achieved in a given area, that nagging voice is never entirely quelled.

To a certain degree, that nagging voice is a driver; a source of motivation pushing me to learn more, do more, achieve more. It’s part of the reason that I got my Microsoft MCSE back in 2007. I didn’t need to for work. There was no significant financial remuneration for it. My hope was that in achieving the MCSE, I would no longer feel like an impostor. After all, Expert is in the certification for goodness sake! This is the same force that pushed me to try and become a Microsoft MVP, and a Pluralsight author, and probably some other nonsense in the future. It’s not the only reason, I don’t mean to imply that. But it is a contributing factor that helps drive me forward.

When I received the invitation to join Cloud Field Day, I was surprised. I had heard of Tech Field Day, and I knew some of the impressive people who were previous delegates. I considered many of these people to be celebrities of the tech industry, or at least my corner of it. People that I looked up to, and I thought had things “figured out”. How do I qualify to be invited to such a gathering? My friend the impostor syndrome raged forth in full force. Once again, I had to remind myself that I may not have everything “figured out”, but neither does anyone else. Those who claim to are probably operating under a delusion that reality will only be too happy to dispel them of. When I take a step back and look more objectively, it turns out that I’ve been hanging out in the tech industry for the last 16 years, and in the full course of time, I might actually have a bit of knowledge to share.

So if I’m an impostor, then we all are. And if we are all impostors, then nobody is. Know what you know. Learn what you can. Be generous those willing to learn. Learn from those willing to share. We’re all in this together.

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