Beginner’s Mind, Imposter Syndrome and Andrew Weatherall
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“When you were in the studio doing Loaded, what were you doing?”
“I have no idea.”
Andrew Weatherall wasn’t lying when he described the process of remixing his first song. One of the band members from Primal Scream liked the records he played at a nightclub and asked if he’d remix it for 500 pounds. Weatherall had never been in a recording studio before.
“I wanted to tear it apart, but I didn’t want to upset anyone,” Weatherall said. “I was new to this game… His words were ‘just fucking destroy it man.’ I was really afraid I was going to be found out.”
The end result?
Weatherall’s remix of Loaded turned into the standout track on Primal Scream’s album Screamadelica that won the first Mercury Prize, which is the British equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in music. Loaded filled thousands of dance floors and spawned the Big Beat genre. Don’t believe it? Set your life aside for 7:03 and listen to it. Daft Punk wouldn’t exist without Loaded.
Weatherall’s initial experience is often referred to as imposter syndrome. And that term needs to go away. It’s a boot on the throat of a great idea. For those that don’t know, Merriam Webster defines imposter syndrome as: “A false and sometimes crippling belief that one’s successes are the product of luck or fraud rather than skill.”
The root word — imposter — is the problem. MW defines imposter as: “One that assumes false identity or title for the purpose of deception.” The root word reinforces a problem when the whole intent is to free people from it.
The first time I heard the phrase imposter syndrome was at the Hack Reactor Bootcamp, which I took in the fall of 2015. I was 39, the only parent in a class full of 20-somethings and… on my second bootcamp. Yes, a second bootcamp. Re-enrolling in bootcamp was humbling, but I knew enough about life to recognize that:
- Software fascinated me and I couldn’t stay away from it. I had to get better at it as fast as paying the bills and parenting would allow. Software was what I tinkered with mornings, nights and weekends.
- The first bootcamp I attended was one of the first ones and, looking back, no one knew what they were doing. There was no pre-course work, all 20 of us had different skills and the nine-week program resulted in (I think) one person hired after graduation who went to work for the teacher’s dev shop. (That was not me.) Still, the hook was set in the corner of my mouth.
Hack Reactor — which referred to itself as the Harvard of bootcamps — was unquestionably the hardest to get into and known for being brutal. It produced produced actual software engineers who earned money. (See stats below.) Once I passed the admission test and started, they talked constantly about imposter syndrome.
Accept it. Acknowledge it. Understand that everyone on earth is going through it. Be compassionate to others when you see them going through it.
That didn’t stop them from repeatedly trying to get me to withdraw when I struggled. They had published statistics to maintain (99% placement at $105k average salary within three months) and I threatened to drag those down. I was the worst student there despite the prep material. During every heart-to-heart with the founders who pressed me to quit, I told them I didn’t care about graduating or belonging to their alumni network. I told them (and myself) I was there for the material and I’d figure out how to use it afterward on my own. To their credit, they saw how much I loved the material, one particular teaching assistant took me on as a project and… they let me graduate (HR32) anyway. Mettle matters and I had that.
Imposter syndrome was so firmly embedded in the Hack Reactor curriculum that they required students to publish weekly blog posts to help others learn from our struggles. This blog came about from that program. Check out the first posts. Heroku dynamo timeouts and recursion explained anyone?
Even after graduating from Hack Reactor, I still felt like a hardcore imposter. Getting that first engineer job is notoriously paved with rejections. Hack Reactor career advisors told us to apply to 120 jobs > which turned into 20 technical assessments > which turned into five onsite interviews > which, if timed correctly, resulted in a bidding war that raised your salary by pitting companies against each other. It was brutal, shameless and worked.
When I wasn’t applying for jobs, one of the side projects I built was a sentiment analyzer for Kanye West’s tweets. This was back when he was melting down on Twitter. Was it possible to predict his manic episodes? I forked a project that used 6,000 positive and 6,000 negative words as a basis for analyzing text and mapped his tweets against it.
Weirdly, the term imposter doesn’t show up in that list. Needing a good scientific fallback this morning, I asked my 13-year-old son for his opinion.
“Is the term ‘imposter’ a positive or negative word?”
“What about the term beginner?”
“Positive, I’d say it’s a positive idea.”
Zen Buddhism has a term called Beginner’s Mind that represents the same idea as imposter syndrome. If both phrases describe the experience of being a novice, one is more approachable and safer than the other. Beginner’s Mind encourages exploration and Imposter Syndrome reinforces self doubt.
Hack Reactor preached the importance of crossing a mythical two-year anniversary when imposter syndrome would fade away. We’d feel comfortable resolving merge conflicts, our code would be running in production apps and… true to their Machiavellian core, they said we’d feel confident quitting our first company (that took a chance on us) because that’s when recruiters would begin offering other jobs with a 20% pay increase.
Like all Hack Reactor grads, I longed for the day when imposter syndrome was a memory rather than my daily reality. I stacked my offers like they advised, only I took the one that torpedoed their stats. My first gig turned out to be a support engineer at CircleCI, which paid $60,000 less than a $140,000 annual contract refactoring the City of San Francisco web site into Angular and Drupal. CircleCI was (and remains) far more challenging technically. Plus they just seemed cool. As much as I needed the money, a one-year contract meant I’d be looking for another gig 12 months before that elusive two-year finishing line.
I felt like an imposter answering tickets at CircleCI even though they did an amazing job creating a learning environment. How could I not feel like a phony when one of the original authors of React can’t get his Docker builds to work and he’s asking me for help? That happened.
Then, after three months, I veered off the Hack Reactor two-year path and turned away from software engineering.
Our CTO published a security engineer job that listed all kinds of amazing requirements: penetration testing, threat modeling, secure code reviews, etc. This mythical person raised visions of someone who would come in with smoky wafting off their boot heels. As someone who went to Defcon on my own dime, I couldn’t wait for this person to start so I could pick their brain. Maybe years from now, when I actually understood Docker, could I explain how to break it. In the interim, I gladly answered every support ticket about security questions because everyone else loathed them. And, selfishly, I saw them as an opportunity to see what scared our customers. I was curious about that type of thing.
The security engineer posting stayed up for months until one day, the CTO booked a meeting with me. It went something like this.
“Are you interested in that security engineer job?”
“Yeah, I can’t wait for them to start.
“Do you want it?”
Repeat Hack Reactor outcomes mantra.
“I need to spend two years writing code first… And I literally have none of the experience in those bullet points.”
“You can learn all of that if you want. We need a security engineer and no one thinks about our stuff like you do.”
“That’s a terrible idea.”
“You’ll do fine.”
It was Primal Scream and Andrew Weatherall all over again.
He assured me I just needed to handle anything coming in related to security, make sure things got resolved and… start with a 25+ page security addendum to a legal contract from a huge new deal. Sigh. A little part of me died when I bought a license for Microsoft Word instead of Burp Suite Pro. It all turned out for the best, though.
Now, you might think I was triumphant about having been promoted to Security Engineer. In reality, I was terrified. This was literally what Hack Reactor told me not to do. That very first weekend I spent hours reading through Glassdoor.com security engineer job questions, added them all to a text file and began plowing through them.
It was my own version of Leetcode exercises that most software engineers solve obsessively to prep for technical interviews. In hindsight, most of that material was immaterial to my day-to-day job securing CircleCI. Learning how to set up Okta, an MDM and offboarding process for 50 people was far more important than drawing out Cisco firewalls on a white board.
The experience has a great long tail. My vulnerability (ohmygodI’mnotasecurityengineerIfeellikeanidiot) turned into something that helped others. That security_engineer_interview_questions repo has more than 150 stars, 50 forks and occasionally surfaces as a Twitter wave. Just a few weeks ago, a college grad in India retweeted how much he liked it so I offered to do a mock interview with him for a job leading up to a GitHub security engineer opening. We became friends.
When they say everyone experiences imposter syndrome, that’s true. My son, who is obsessed with cars, told me last week that he couldn’t work at one of the big German brands because I’m not raising him as a wrench monkey around race tracks. I reminded him that Elon Musk didn’t come from that either. Remember when Elon was a beginner at cars?
My dad, an accomplished businessman and music fanatic, has listened to Mexican radio stations for years trying to learn Spanish. Son jarocho? “You can’t be in a bad mood listening to that.” Just this morning, he told me he finally felt okay trying his Spanish because a store clerk responded encouragingly when he cautiously responded in Spanish. They made him feel safe to experiment as a... beginner.
We’re all in this together. As beginners. Not imposters. Beginners. So where does that leave us? Call it what it is. Beginner’s Mind. Beginner’s Syndrome. Just don’t call it imposter syndrome. And never quit acting like a beginner.
Just before his death last year, Weatherall summed up his approach to work after 30 years of remixing music.
“I try and avoid having musicians in the studio.”