Words for Encouragement for the Young, Out-of-Place Developer

I’m proud to be Atomic’s most senior woman developer. Although my not-quite-five-year tenure sounds awfully short on paper, the crucible of Atomic’s ever-changing, ever-uncomfortable consulting environment makes May 2016 feel very far away indeed.

Recently, I had two nearly identical conversations with woman-identifying Atoms, each of whom were in the first few years of their career. Both admitted to looking up to me as a role model. Alarmed Surprised though I was to hear this, it felt like a wake-up call.

Becoming the Mentor I Didn’t Have

Each of my years at Atomic has been challenging, but the first two were particularly so. Being a junior developer is hard, and feeling (for whatever reason) like you don’t quite “fit in” with the stereotype of the tech industry doesn’t make it any easier. However supportive and friendly your colleagues are, it can still feel isolating to be the Only One in the room of your sort, be it background, ethnicity, gender, or any other axis of diversity.

I wanted for a senior developer mentor who looked like me — someone I could talk to completely free of stereotype threat, who knew firsthand what I’d struggled with on my way to this point.

To my surprise, in the time since I arrived at Atomic (feeling a bit incompetent and out of place), I’ve become someone new developers look up to. Those two conversations made me realize that, although I never found the senior woman developer I was looking for, I have an opportunity to be her. I can be there for these two and the new developers that come after them, and perhaps dispel a degree of the loneliness.

So, without further ado: here’s what I’d like to say to the Atoms I spoke to and to any junior technologist of any background who is feeling unsure of themselves and unconfident and just doesn’t feel like they quite have it together.

1. You’re doing better than you think.

One of the junior developers I talked to said:

“People told me that the first six months are the hardest, but I don’t feel like it’s getting any easier. I still feel like I don’t know what’s going on.”

This comment caught me off guard for two reasons. First, I wondered who on earth had led her to believe that the learning curve of software consulting was that shallow. And second, it was incredibly obvious to me that she was positively crushing it at work. I served as the lead on her first project and had personally watched her grow from green new hire to competent, reliable team member in a matter of months. She did this via thoughtful inquiry, meticulous self-reflection, and sheer force of will.

I suspect that this developer felt like she “[didn’t] know what’s going on” because the difficulty of tasks she’d been taking on had been ratcheting up with each passing sprint (due to her demonstrating increasing competence). It’s easy not to notice how much progress we’ve made when each new task is tougher than the last.

Take time on a weekly basis to reflect on your accomplishments. Keep a brag document. Write down positive feedback you receive, and get a mentor or peer who won’t hesitate to support you when you need it (even if they’re not quite the lookalike you have in mind).

2. I don’t know what I’m doing, either.

One of the Atoms I spoke to told me: “I looked up to you when I started. You seemed like you really had it together.” The other asked, “When did you feel like things got easier for you?”

I laughed. And then I felt guilty for having given off the impression that I had any idea what was going on.

It’s true that I’m less stressed about my work than I used to be. And I do know more things than I used to. But both of those things are more a result of my mindset than what I’d always imagined “real” competence would feel like. I still feel like I’m struggling to keep up with my amazing peers on the daily, and I suspect I always will.

It’s possible that I give off an impression of composure and confidence because I’ve simply gotten comfortable with not knowing what’s going on the many uncertainties of software development. I don’t have a foolproof master plan, I don’t know how this project or the one after it are going to go, I don’t know everything there is to know about every tool I use — and after the nth project, those things don’t really keep me up at night like they used to.

This project and the one before it and the one before that were all staffed by fallible humans who were trying their best and matching the knowledge they had at the time to the problem at hand. They all got on fine and learned a little bit more for the next time. And all the while, they felt like they didn’t know what they were doing.

Senior developers don’t magically know how to do all the things. Don’t let them trick you into thinking they do.

3. I’m rooting for you.

When I started at Atomic, there was one other woman-identifying developer in the Grand Rapids office. We became fast friends and soon found ourselves commiserating about the lack of role models available to us. We resolved to be each others’ backup, confidantes, and cheerleaders. We were pushy with praise and quick to talk each other up to our colleagues. We called it being Aggressively Supportive. It wasn’t quite the more experienced mentor we wanted, but it was enough to get us pretty far.

Reader, you may or may not have a senior role model that you can relate to. I may or may not be able to be that person, for a multitude of reasons. Regardless, I’d still like to Aggressively Support you via the magic of the internet.

Whoever and wherever you are, I believe in you. By virtue of being in this field — and by making it as far as you have — you’ve demonstrated strength and smarts and tenacity. I don’t need to know you personally to be sure of that.

No matter where you are in your career, the road ahead will be bumpy, and you’re going to feel incompetent and uncertain and even lonely at times. So if you need a boost, feel free to drop a comment to reach out and say hello.

You’re kicking ass, and I’m proud of you.