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Me: “I think I’m not good enough at my job.”
Other person: “Oh, yea, imposter syndrome is tough.”

I’ve had this dialogue a few times with various people in the course of my engineering career. It never sat right, and in this blog post I’ll pick apart why I think the term “imposter syndrome” is harmful, and suggest some alternative ways of thinking of the bundle of feelings it describes.

First, a disclaimer and a definition.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. I am a violinist and a career changer software engineer. This blog post is based on personal experience, not actual research.
Imposter Syndrome (official definition): is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. [Wikipedia]
Imposter Syndrome (as I have seen it applied): a catchall term for socio-performance work anxiety. Annoyingly, sometimes used as a humble brag (in my opinion).

TL;DR: what’s bad about the term “imposter syndrome

1. It pathologises a normal developmental stage.

2. It risks hindering people with actual medical (mental health is medical) issues from accessing appropriate care.

3. It puts the blame for feelings (e.g. anxiety) on the individual, not on the surrounding people or system – this can be especially harmful for under-indexed folks who are potentially being gaslit.

So let’s talk about each of these individually, and then how situations can combine to create what we call “imposter syndrome”.

1.Normal developmental stage

At the risk of stating the obvious, when you’re new to something, you’re less good at it. More specifically, you have a lot of known unknowns and a lot of unknown unknowns. Known unknowns are fine – you can make a list, prioritise them, and learn them. But when you’re junior, there’s a vague feeling of “stuff I should know but I don’t know what it is and here’s this long list of stuff I know I should know so how do I have time to find more stuff to put on that list?”

This is a normal developmental stage. Over time, you remove items from the known unknowns list (or stack, or queue) as you learn them, and then you add more items as you discover that there’s something you should know about. Items can even return to your known unknowns as you learn about them, but forget the details.

(If you’re interested, I deliberately chose “list” because a list is a data structure whose items you can access at random, whereas stacks and queues are LIFO and FIFO, respectively, and I assumed you’d throw items into your list whenever you found them and need to take them out at random order when the need arose. And I had to look up which of stacks and queues were LIFO or FIFO – they were in my known unknown, or perhaps known semi-known, list.)

This normal developmental stage can feel a lot more problematic for career changers: you are used to operating with many knowns, some known unknowns, and few unknown unknowns. You forget the times when you were a beginner at the thing you used to be good at (especially for musicians, because that time is usually when we were young children). My suggestions are patience, kindness to yourself, focusing on getting items into knowns and known unknowns, and finding the right senior (not necessarily at your workplace) for reassurance and guidance.

2.Actual Medical Problems
Ok so you have your knowns, your known unknowns, and you’re pretty sure your unknown unknowns list isn’t too big. But you still doubt your ability and fear being exposed as a fraud. I’m not a medical professional, but this sounds like a really great time to access medical support to deal with whatever underlying issue is manifesting in this sort of anxiety.

3. Systemic Issues
Your workplace should give you timely, actionable feedback on your performance (feedback is a whole book so I’ll just say that it can take many forms, official and unofficial). Without that feedback, you have no way of knowing how you are perceived to be doing. Sure, you have your (un)known(s) lists, and your own assessment, but you need to calibrate your own assessment against an external marker. Without that calibration, unless you’re incredibly self-centered, you will worry about whether you are doing your job well enough.

And hey, because this is all about how others perceive your work, turns out if you a member of a marginalised group, you’re likely to worry a lot more about how others see you – because there is your own experience as well as (likely) hundreds of years of documented evidence of people seeing your work as less good and you as less human, and with much graver consequences. (Want to read more about this? Try Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson if you want a long read, or this post on intersectionality for a short read.)

Combinatorial Explosion

So I’ve teased out 3 separate elements to the Thing Formerly Known As Imposter Syndrome (TFKAIS, pronounced “tiff-kais”, second syllable “eyes”). But of course, it’s very easy for 3 to appear in combination with each other. This is not great, and solutions will vary depending on individual circumstances. One word of advice I’d give, though, is that systemic change is hard, and it’s even harder when you are more junior. It can be worth gently pushing on the door of better feedback, but if nothing happens and you are suffering, it’s often better to leave if you can.

Alternative Terms

I said I’d offer some alternatives to “imposter syndrome”, so I’ll end with these. I am not going to coin a new phrase to replace “imposter syndrome”, because my whole argument is that we’ve jumbled a bunch of potentially similar feelings with very different causes together, and we should separate them out. So how about using phrases like the following?

“I have the feeling that I have a lot of unknown unknowns, so I am in an earlier stage of my knowledge on this subject. I am actively working to discover these unknown unknowns, but I’m also working with a more senior colleague to ensure my lists have the right stuff on them.”

“I have anxiety about my performance at work. I am going to talk to my manager about improving the feedback system, but I am also going to seek medical help because the anxiety is really impacting my life.”

“My workplace doesn’t set clear expectations so I don’t have anything to benchmark myself against. This makes me anxious, as I am a woman in tech and know about implicit bias, so I am going to look for a workplace that has a clear set of responsibilities and progression. I do not currently believe that I need medical help as I think a change of environment will improve my anxiety, but I am willing to revisit that decision if needed.”

Photo credit: Ruby Somera

What is your current programming and musical life?


I lead the Acoustic Research Engineering team at Facebook Reality Labs Research – the organization within Facebook that researches and develops next generation AR/VR technology. Almost all of my programming these days deals with some form of acoustic and audio signal processing or ML for audio. Given that it’s research, the tech stack changes significantly depending on the project I’m working on, but I’m usually working in some combination of Python, Matlab, C/C++, and assorted bash scripting kind of things. Sometimes I’m also working on hardware/software interfacing which can be javascript, .NET, or C# stuff, but that’s significantly rarer.

My musical life has been quiet lately, but with the pandemic I’ve been looking for music making opportunities that I can do easily at home. I’ve been practicing a lot of guitar and attempting to get my jazz improvisation skills from “terrible” to “marginal.” At the intersection of my music and programming life, I’ve done a lot of sound artwork which usually manifests as sound installation projects. I’ve also recently been experimenting with building instrument effects using ML so that has been a fun endeavor at the intersection of music, software, and hardware.

What is your primary instrument and what age did you start learning it? Did you study any other instruments, either as a child or an adult?

The instrument I went to school for was classical percussion. I started learning drum set at around 8 years old and then shifted my focus more towards classical music in high school. I played bass guitar in a few bands in high school as well as in Seattle during my time here and I’ve been focusing on guitar more lately (melodies and harmonies on the same instrument?! GASP).

What was your experience of learning a musical instrument, and how did it differ from your experience in learning to program?

I learned music almost entirely through private lessons and traditional academic institutions. For programming, it’s been a hodgepodge of formal educational learning, self-teaching through projects, and shamelessly asking colleagues to explain things I don’t understand. In some ways they’re very different. Music has this mentor/mentee relationship as well as a pretty linear idea of progress, whereas programming has been much more scattered; deep diving some things, barely scraping the surface of others before moving on and forgetting them, finding resources in a lot of different places. In other ways, I think there’s a lot of similarity. Despite the degrees and the teachers, most of my musical learning was done in a practice room: trying to figure things out in whatever way would get the best results, asking friends for help, watching videos on YouTube, etc. That’s not so different from learning new skills in tech for me. The wallpaper changes, but it’s still a practice room.

How old were you when you started programming? Why did you start programming?

I dabbled on and off in college. Percussionists tend to be tinkerers and when I started doing some work with electronics, I wanted to dive a little deeper and figure out how things worked. I initially started using Max/MSP to do some audio stuff and then when I hit the limits of the in-built tools, I needed to investigate other languages to get things done. It was honestly pretty casual, and I didn’t make a lot of progress. When I went back to grad school to study acoustics, I did much more programming. All my engineering classes required some level of programming, so it became something I was doing daily.

Do you have any specialisms in your musical performance?

I guess the sound art is pretty specialized. Live electronics, generative art, and architectural scale sound installations have all been a big part of my creative life since school. Other than that, it was all garage bands and orchestral playing.

Do you have any specialisms in your programming?

Audio digital signal processing (DSP) and machine learning is where I’ve been doing most of my work for the last few years. Audio signal processing, in particular, is an interesting field to write code, because you often have hard real-time constraints.

Do you hold degrees in music, computer science, or something else?

I have a BM and MM from the University of Michigan and New England Conservatory, respectively, and a MS in acoustics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

What influence, if any, does your musical background have on your programming, and vice versa?

The idea of solving a problem by breaking it down in to small steps that are manageable is something that I learned first in music and applied to engineering. You learn pieces by note, then measure, then phrase, etc. until you’ve learned the whole thing. Sometimes you can do that all in sequence. Sometimes you parallelize parts of it. You start with nothing and end up with music. Building software feels the same way.

Aside from music and software, what other hobbies or pursuits do you have?

I’m lucky to live in Seattle, where it’s reasonable to be outside every day of the year so I do a lot of running and I used to bike commute before the pandemic. My wife and I have also recently gotten into playing tennis which has been another humbling episode of trying to learn an entirely new skill from scratch.

What would you say to a musician considering a career change into programming?

There are a lot of great resources online to try it out to see if you like it, but try to go beyond a web-based tutorial like Codacademy. Part of the job is writing code, but you also spend significant amounts of time on documentation, environment set-up, testing, version control, debugging and refactoring. Make sure those parts are at least tolerable. It doesn’t need to be a big thing, but try something from the ground-up once.

I’d also say that programming is a HUGE field and can look very different depending on your company or field. Working at a start-up will be different than working at a FAANG company. Insurance companies and airlines all need software developers whose jobs will look very different. IC1 at a small company will have very different responsibilities than IC1 at a Fortune 500. It’s important to keep in mind that the portrayal of software engineering in the media or on blogs or youtube is only a tiny slice of things, if it even exists at all.

And finally, what advice would you give your younger self when you started programming?

Program to solve a problem you care about. I wasted a lot of time hemming and hawing about learning C vs JS vs Python and doing tutorials that weren’t really practical. The activities that have been most educational have been the ones where I can contextualize WHY I’m learning the things I am and how they can be applied.Also, seek out people you trust that you can ask for help (this is good advice for my current and future self too).

What is your current programming and musical life?

I am a junior software developer with a tiny startup. They were only two when I got there, now they’re 5 including me, with two colleagues in Tunisia and Philippines. Primarily I’m getting my teeth into data architecture, building systems for small businesses and automating processes using PHP. I’m also bedding in with the front-end, building vanilla JS websites for the small businesses.

Musically, I’m a viola player with some experience playing in orchestras and chamber music when I was younger. For the last 10+ years I’ve been composing using a loop pedal/sampling. I love the epic sounds you can make with one instrument and the viola is ideally suited for it, as its range sits in the middle of the orchestral instruments. My other love is to jam and improvise with other musicians. I’ve played with DJ’s, Kora players, ambient electronic artists and singer-songwriters.

What was your experience of learning a musical instrument, and how did it differ from your experience in learning to program?

Primary instrument is viola but started on the violin when I was 8 years old. Moved to viola when I got bigger (around 13 years old) as my violin teacher rightly predicted that it would be a good fit!

I’ve studied piano but never got very good at doing the two hand thing. Guitar and ukulele are my other pick up instruments. ‘Study’ might be a stretch, self-taught.

How old were you when you started programming? Why did you start programming?

I started programming just over 1 year ago, making me 33 years old. I started because of my wife, who was, at the time, a data scientist. She encouraged me to pick it up, get into tech and live a more flexible life with a better career progression than teaching, which becomes more paperwork with each rise of the rank.

Do you have any specialisms in your musical performance?

I’ve become quite well practised at improvisation, so long as the chord structure isn’t too out there. My own compositions and performances are often used as soundtracks to film.

Do you have any specialisms in your programming?

No, not yet! I’d like to become more specialised in React and get good at front-end development at this point. So I’m spinning up projects in my free-time to get some solid projects.

Do you hold degrees in music, computer science, or something else?

I hold a degree in music and teaching, not in computer science.

What influence, if any, does your musical background have on your programming, and vice versa?

Mostly, my knowledge that I’m able to learn something and that when you start, it’s always really challenging, but as you build skills, knowledge and context, you become more confident and able to understand and tackle problems. I think learning an instrument gives me the confidence in the learning journey ahead and my ability to learn.

Aside from music and software, what other hobbies or pursuits do you have?

I love camping, walking and generally exploring. I used to live in Brussels, where you can get so many places on a train so it was a great location to bounce off to new cities or towns/villages.

What would you say to a musician considering a career change into programming?

It’s no walk in the park but if you’re ready to get stuck in, then you can start to feel more and more able to build something on a computer. Which is a very cool feeling.

And finally, what advice would you give your younger self when you started programming?

We’re now talking 1 year ago. So what would I tell my 1 year younger self? Keeping chipping away at it, that’s all everybody is doing in this business. They’re all chipping away and stashing a few more experiences in their locker. But they all need to google, they all forget basic things. So keep chipping away and you’ll have a better idea of the ‘big picture’ by connecting as many dots as you have come across.

It’s all good!

What is your current programming and musical life?
I just started as an Artificial Intelligence Apprentice at LinkedIn in July, so I’m working and learning full time. Outside of work, I am still studying Machine Learning on my own, so programming and Data Science occupy a large portion of my days. I still make music most nights of the week and weekends as well, which is a nice balance so far.

What is your primary instrument and what age did you start learning it? Did you study any other instruments, either as a child or an adult?
My primary instrument is violin, which I started to learn at four years old. I went on to study Classical violin in college, so that was my specialization for a long time. I can also play some piano, guitar and a few percussion instruments, but I did not train for those. Besides traditional instruments, I also compose and produce music, a lot of which is drum-machine- and synth-based on my laptop.

What was your experience of learning a musical instrument, and how did it differ from your experience in learning to program?
Learning a musical instrument all the way to mastery is an enormous challenge but is worth the effort if you have a passion for it. It does take years upon years of consistent effort and an acceptance that progress can be very nonlinear. However, the end result is that you have a means of expression and artistic identity that is something to cherish.

Programming has felt more predictable to me and with that comes a sense of comfort that I oftentimes didn’t have in music, at least until recent years. This is not to say that it’s easy‚Ķ it’s anything but! However, I have found that whenever I encounter a tough concept/problem in programming (which happens on a daily basis), I can find enough resources to help build my intuition around it or learn from someone else’s approach. I can then incorporate the solution in my arsenal, which helps me grow for the next problem. That transfer of information and knowledge happens in music as well (through one-on-one music lessons, for example), but for me it has felt more natural in programming.

Another difference is that in music, more often than not there is no right answer. That’s a beautifully human aspect that doesn’t transfer as much to other areas. I have spent countless hours rewriting songs, or working out different tones for just a few notes in a Bach Fugue, and that is a uniquely subjective process.

An important commonality between music and programming is the ability to visualize complex processes in your head. In both disciplines, you have an overall vision (an aesthetic or a story in the case of music and an engineered solution or system in programming) that guides the smaller decisions. Being able to build and follow that vision is a key aspect of both and requires imagination and intuition.

How old were you when you started programming? Why did you start programming?
I began programming in April 2020, when I was 36. Initially, it was due to economic hardship due to COVID-19. However, it quickly turned into a new love, something that I look forward to learning and working on every day.

Do you have any specialisms in your musical performance?
I would have to count the violin, production, media composition, and teaching as my specialties.

Do you have any specialisms in your programming?
Data Science and its subfields, particularly Analytics and Machine Learning. I also work with Databases, have done Data Mining and I’m getting more and more comfortable with Data Engineering, time series analysis and traditional Statistics in general.

Do you hold degrees in music, computer science, or something else?
I hold Bachelor and Master’s degrees in Music. I also hold a Bachelor’s degree in Math, which I never intended to use but is now coming in handy, to say the least!

What influence, if any, does your musical background have on your programming, and vice versa?
The discipline and determination to work through tough problems (say learning and performing a Concerto) and the ability to incorporate feedback and (constructive) criticism on a regular basis are two skills that transfer to programming. Also, having been a part of dozens and dozens of teams (chamber music groups, orchestras or working with sound engineers and producers) have prepared me to more easily fit in any team for projects big and small. In music, it’s an everyday challenge to learn/practice/compose/perform with people of different backgrounds and with different personalities in high-pressure situations and that’s an invaluable skill to have in general.

Aside from music and software, what other hobbies or pursuits do you have?
I dedicate any free time that I can to my son. Together, we go out and explore, play soccer, video games and jam on drums and guitar. I also enjoy going out with friends, exercising and going on long walks with my dog.

What would you say to a musician considering a career change into programming?
To try it! Everyone is wired differently, but they might find a new field that engages them just as much as music (this was the case for me) and that may help them lead a rewarding, productive life. Most musicians, by the very nature of the discipline, are well prepared to teach themselves new skills, learn well from others and work in scenarios that require imagination and vision.

And finally, what advice would you give your younger self when you started programming?
To turn off any doubts and negative voices (there are lots of “Is Data Science dead?” types of articles out there) and just enjoy learning. It can be a fantastic journey to grow in this field and we’re quite lucky that we are able to learn from countless resources and that more established folks in the business are usually generous with sharing their time and expertise.

Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas

What is your current programming and musical life?

I’m currently in the post-bootcamp job-hunting world – on a late-stage interview with one company at present – and am also onboarding for some TA work with General Assembly. Music-wise, I’ve had a surprising amount of session work recently.

What is your primary instrument and what age did you start learning it? Did you study any other instruments, either as a child or an adult?

I started cello at the age of 12; I’ve also dabbled in piano, voice and bass guitar.

What was your experience of learning a musical instrument, and how did it differ from your experience in learning to program?

My experience differed significantly depending on who was teaching me – I’ve had inspiring music teachers, and I’ve had soul-destroying ones! I’d say the biggest differences I’ve found between learning music and learning to code are the ready availability of free code study resources, and a greater acceptance of errors in coding – they’re virtually encouraged, in ways that they really aren’t in music.

How old were you when you started programming? Why did you start programming?
I was 35. As for motives, I’d be lying if I said the pandemic wasn’t a contributing factor; but I also wanted a more meaningful way to help people, and could see that tech could be a powerful avenue for enabling this.

Do you have any specialisms in your musical performance?

Years of freelancing have steered me towards a kleptomaniac mindset; however, I have also been known to dabble with gut strings and Classical bows from time to time. Oh, and dad jokes.

Do you have any specialisms in your programming?

I started with JavaScript, so I guess it’ll always be my first love; with that said, Python is giving it a serious run for its money! Oh, and dad jokes.

Do you hold degrees in music, computer science, or something else?

Both a Bachelor’s and Master’s in music, I’m afraid.

What influence, if any, does your musical background have on your programming, and vice versa?

Music has definitely given me a whole bunch of transferable skills – I even wrote about it at on my blob! As for the inverse, programming has taught me to be much more forgiving of myself when I’m rehearsing, recording or performing, which can only be a good thing.

Aside from music and software, what other hobbies or pursuits do you have?

Things I can do with my son easily – stuff like baking, or proper hardcore gardening. I also try to keep fit and do yoga. Oh, and dad jokes.

What would you say to a musician considering a career change into programming?

You already have a bunch of the necessary skills, so don’t talk yourself out of it! Do make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into though – do your research, and dip a toe or two in to see if you enjoy it.

And finally, what advice would you give your younger self when you started programming?

Find ways to engage with the tech community now, so that you don’t have to figure out how networking works when you’re actually trying to get a job. And don’t feel awkward about bringing a lack of knowledge to the table when you do – a lot of developers are surprisingly keen to help.

More info:

Portfolio: https://patricktapiojohnson.com/
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/patrick-tapio-johnson/
Medium: https://algo-rhythms.medium.com/