If You’re The Smartest Person In The Room, You’re In The Wrong Room

T-SQL-Tuesday-LogoThis month’s T-SQL Tuesday invitation comes from Jon Shaulis asking for experiences and triumphs with imposter syndrome

Imposter Syndrome, the fear of being inadequate in your field, is something that has followed me through my career.  I consistently find myself in situations where I feel under-prepared and under-trained compared to my colleagues.  I’m here to tell you that it gets easier.  While it is never a comfortable experience, looking back I believe it has given me a stronger sense of determination to pursue un-deniable expertise.

I grew up in a small town where being talented with a computer was hard to come by.  Sure, our high school had typing classes and some business classes that touched on Excel or Powerpoint, but to go farther meant learning outside of school.  So learn we did.  Some friends and I were experimenting with HTML, Javascript, and even some Visual Basic.  We thought we were hot shit, and in our small town, we were.

…then I went to college.

Imposter syndrome hit me the instant I arrived on campus.  I was surrounded by other students who seemingly had been studying computing since birth.  There were students who had multiple PCs (my family could barely afford my Dell), students who had personally hacked video games, students writing their own drivers for hardware or even running their own software companies.  The classes were even more intimidating.  Java 1 was my first programming class and I was sitting next to students who covered this material in 9th grade.  Even my inadequacies in video games was made painfully obvious.

I almost changed majors, as most computer science majors do, and I’m still not sure why I didn’t.  My best friend was changing majors (computer science to IT), maybe there was some friend-to-friend competitiveness that I was engaging in.  Maybe I knew computer science typically paid a higher salary.  Maybe I sub-consciously admired those that were truly talented programmers.  I’ll probably never know why I stayed but it has been one of the best decisions of my career.  I persevered through college and actually became a competent programmer.  A skill that is paying dividends every single day.

First Career Change

My first job was a jr. developer where I worked on some projects involving relational databases which eventually turned into an opportunity to become a DBA.  The long time DBA was rearing up to quit and they were looking for someone technical (and available) to fill his shoes.  I pursued the opportunity and was quickly immersed in a SQL Server environment that I didn’t understand.  I knew tables and SQL but what’s an agent job?  How are databases backed up?  How do you even install SQL Server?  What in the world is a page?  Before I had time to think I realized I had left my career in development and now I was in IT.

Imposter syndrome reared its ugly head when an agent job failed.  Not just any agent job, an agent job responsible for payment processing.  I’ll never forget the stress I felt that day and how I was sure this was the end of my days as a DBA.  But I got through it and after several years of sink or swim learning of SQL Server, I finally was at a point where I could talk myself into other DBA job offers.  Though I had been building confidence over the years, it wasn’t until my first trip to PASS Summit where I consciously put an end to my DBA imposter syndrome.  At the conference, I found myself sitting in expert sessions and having expert conversations that I completely understood.  I left the conference with the thought in my head: “I don’t know everything, but what I do know, I really know.”  I came home, restarted my blog, and started speaking at SQL Saturdays.

For me, shedding imposter syndrome brought on a new kind of stress.  I was somewhat a SQL authority at my employer and I more-or-less knew it.  All I could see were things that were wrong with the environment and the way we managed it.  I found myself constantly waiting for change to happen and it could never happen quickly.  It was a very dis-engaging environment, something had to give.

“Towards Data Science”

Since my first DBA job, I had always been interested in the use of data.  This was around the time that Business Intelligence was the buzzword, which was slightly before Big Data became the buzzword.  I wasn’t just interested in the database tools and the infrastructure, I was interested in data driven decisions.  I was already employing my computer science background for use against database infrastructure (<3 PowerShell) but I was getting farther and farther away from the data.  Eventually, I decided to commit to a field I had been fascinated by for several years: data science.

The data science field is well known for cultivating imposter syndrome, in part due to the high level of mathematics it employs.  Even though I have the programming background and I have been studying the field for years, I fully expected to be overwhelmed with intimidation after taking a data science position.  But that intimidation never came.

Perhaps I’ve been in this situation before and I know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel (even if it’s years away)?  Perhaps imposter syndrome hasn’t set in yet because I’m relatively new?  Perhaps my team is all suffering from it and we’ve subconsciously cultivated a “safe” team?  Perhaps I’m better prepared than I appear on paper?  Perhaps I’ll have to revisit this a year from now?

In Closing…

One thing I know for sure is that ever day I feel smarter and stronger as a data scientist.  I’ve surrounded myself with more talented people, I pursue training that challenges my abilities, and I take on projects that force me to learn new skills.  It’s a situation where I was expecting imposter syndrome but none came.

This leaves me with the uncomfortable notion that you should pursue imposter syndrome.  Find it.  Search it out.  Imposter syndrome only happens around other talented people, find those people and learn from them.  For me, imposter syndrome got easier over time and I expect it will get easier for you as well.




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