Imposter Syndrome | Aylin Gunal

cout << ‘Hello, world!’

is the first program you learn to code during a weeklong coding boot camp for girls before your first semester of freshman year. It’s the one universal initiation for all new computer scientists, and it’s the simplest program in the books: it’s just a print statement to standard output. The statement above in particular is in C++, but it can be 

print(“Hello, world!”)

or, 

stdout > “Hello, world!”

or,

<p>Hello, world!</p>

or anything else you like, in any programming language you like. Depends on when and where you learn. But in this case, it’s in C++ in XCode on a giant-screen computer in a university computer lab, and you’re not totally sure what standard output even means. All you know is that you are utterly delighted when you hit the play button, and immediately text pops up in the little black rectangle at the bottom of the XCode window and it says to you, “Hello, world!”

So simple, but so powerful: it’s funny to know that you made that thing happen. You customized that text for yourself, speaking in a language you are not yet fluent in. You did that! You are the God of this computer at this moment in time! 

During this summer camp for beginner coders, you will meet the first of many assholes you will meet during your time in tech. Oh, he’s a prize of an asshole. Smug, unnecessarily bushy mustache, beard, polo shirt and baggy jeans that scrunch up around his shoes because they’re long and for some reason he refuses to cuff them. Real smug asshole. 

Also, he’s a professor. 

“Professor of a class for computer hardware,” he tells your group of quiet girls. “You know, the reason that girls don’t do as well in my class, and possibly across the industry, is because you don’t speak up. In team projects, you need to take charge sometimes and make sure you’re doing the work, otherwise you’re not going to get a good grade on the project, and worse, you’re not going to know the material for the exam!”

He looks certain girls directly in the eyes. He might have looked at you; you don’t remember, years later. You know yourself though, and you know that if he dared turn those asshole eyes on you, you would hold your ground and stare right back. 

“You can’t be shy and just allow men to take charge in group settings. You know, half the time someone fails my class, it’s a girl.” 

You think to yourself: so if half of the failures are girls, which, in this guy’s mind, demographic comprises the other half? 

Everyone in the computer lab is gifted with a small Arduino kit. Arduinos are cute little mini computers and for the next few hours, your task is to work with a partner to make them light up in different colors. You’re paired with the extroverted, fun girl in the group, and she talks the entire time you two are huddled over your baby computer. 

“What is this piece? I do not understand anything that is going on,” she whispers dramatically to you. Her hands disagree with what she’s saying; she very efficiently and very effectively pushes what appear to be the correct pins into the right spots, and the red and green light bulbs light up. “Oh my god, I honestly think I did that by accident!” 

You switch roles, so you’re the one jabbing pins and waiting for the board to light up like Christmas. 

“Make sure everyone’s getting a chance to do the work, some of you need to make sure you don’t step on your shyer partners,” the asshole professor says as he passes by you and your partner. 

Your partner gets a funny look and as the asshole professor moves to the next aisle over, and she whispers: “He kinda poked me in the back while he was saying that.” 

“What?” 

“We’re both doing the work, I don’t get what his deal is,” she says. You both laugh, but your face goes red. Later, when the asshole professor is talking to the group and saying his goodbyes and good lucks to the group at large before he leaves the Arduino session, he shoots looks at certain girls again. Years later, you remember that you refused to look at him in the fear that he would look directly into your eyes, and see right into that shy, stupid little brain of yours. 

When you enter your very first computer science class lecture in the first semester of your freshman year, you sit in the third row. Just before the lecture starts, you look out behind you. The room is pretty diverse; you estimate about half of the students are women. 

It’s a different story a few semesters later, when you’re taking a computer architecture class. It’s a course that’s explicitly required before you’re able to officially declare a computer science major and begin taking upper levels, and it’s one of your least favorite classes ever. It’s boring and tedious and requires intimate knowledge of binary. There must be at least twice more men than women in the lectures, by your estimation.

You sit at the back of the lecture hall and spend heavy chunks of lecture time observing the ocean of men ahead of you. They will interrupt lecture to ask questions that are designed not to further expand their understanding of the material at hand, but to impress the professor with their knowledge –– oh, professor, would you say that the algorithm on screen is the algorithm used in developing the Alpha-Green-Pecan-Pi-867192 supercomputer that you yourself have probably only heard about once or twice in your life? The professor looks confused, but invites a conversation after the lecture has ended. 

During that same semester, you’re taking a class on computer science theory. The subject matter is cool; you get your first taste of cryptography, including an explanation of the infamous Turing machine and how it’s able to simulate unknown algorithms as a method of decryption. But the class isn’t organized well, in your opinion –– there’s no textbook to refer to, and the homework and exams are unnecessarily difficult. 

Oh, and the course is taught by the asshole professor from your days at the coding boot camp before freshman year. 

He doesn’t disappoint. You hear from a friend that a semester or two later, he was sent to sensitivity training due to an incident in lecture. A female student was supposedly involved. You don’t know the details.

In lecture, his gaze sometimes lands on you. It’s not the pointed glare you recall from a few years earlier, and you know he doesn’t remember you from the summer camp before freshman year; he’s just picking a random student to look at while attempting to drive home the concept printed on the current lecture slide. You fear that he may recognize you, and you never look him in the eye, not even when you raise your hand to ask a question.

In the modern computer science class, the open-minded professor will be sure to include a discussion about the ever-lurking Imposter Syndrome. This will typically arrive in a neat little package of five minutes at the beginning of a lecture around exam season. 

In the first minute, the professor will explain that “Some of you didn’t do too well on the midterm.” with a nifty histogram depicting the grade distribution across the class. Your will spot your score hovering just below the class average. 

In the second minute, the professor will explain that “It’s okay to have not done well on this single graded assignment!” and go onto relay a quirky anecdote from their own college days, when they got a single bad grade on a single assignment. 

In the third minute, the professor will – impassioned and possibly gesturing grandly with their hands – tell the class that this single bad grade does not define a student’s overall grade in the class because there are so many other assignments that the student can prove themselves with. “Keep doing well on the projects, and learn from what went wrong on this one for the next assignment! Bring it all to the table for studying for the final exam!”

In the fourth minute, the professor will helpfully reiterate techniques that might be helpful for students when working on the next big assignment. For example, come to office hours! Rewatch lectures! 

In the fifth minute, the professor will mention that Imposter Syndrome is very real and can be very dangerous. It rises like smoke from the ashes of failure, and then curls a little rat tail into students’ ears to whisper lies: “Drop the computer science major. You’re not cut out for this.” But, the professor advises, don’t listen to that voice! 

Seriously, everyone, Imposter Syndrome is real, especially for young women and minorities. Don’t let it get you down. You deserve to be here. Now, let’s talk about the difference between breadth-first and depth-first search algorithms. 

Meanwhile, you sit and ponder your below-average score. You ponder it for the rest of the semester, and begin to study for the final exam a month in advance. You work harder than you did for the midterm; in fact, you walk past the proctor to grab an empty exam unable conceive how you could possibly have fit in any more time to study for this final exam alongside working on the projects and studying for other classes. You end up with a score that’s just slightly above the class average. Defeated, you think that the asshole professor may have had a point all along.

What the professors fail to explain is that Imposter Syndrome comes from within. It is popularly painted as an intruder, the sticky byproduct of one bad midterm. But the voice that Imposter Syndrome bears is that of your own. It disguises itself with a motivational tone: if you worked harder, you wouldn’t have failed, so you will just have to work harder next time! Isn’t it great, to really want success? To be so motivated? But it reveals itself when it declines your redemption, over and over again, forcing you into an infinite cycle of attempts to please.

It would be nice to be able to place blame on some external third party –– that would make it easier to understand and to discard of –– but unfortunately, the whole thing is happening inside your head.

But, you suppose as you settle in for another late night of working hard and tough to prove yourself to the imaginary assholes of tomorrow, maybe time will eventually wash it away.

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