Heather Devereaux
May 27, 2021
6 min read

“Imposter Syndrome” or Just in Need of a Pep Talk?

Overcome ordinary fears and use your capabilities in tech

The concept of imposter syndrome dates back to the late 70s. In 1978, Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes published an article titled “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”. They interviewed 150 successful women — universally recognized by peers for their skills and competence; all with accredited degrees, awards and high standardized test scores. Drs. Clance and Imes discovered something quite shocking: Despite substantial external validation of their abilities, the women in the study described feeling like ‘frauds’.

In the more than 40 years since its publication, advances for women in business are better than ever before. Without a doubt, the women interviewed for this research have long since retired. Yet we continue to talk about imposter syndrome as if it is a permanent fog — still surrounding women who progress their careers. The belief in imposter syndrome is so prevalent that if someone has any doubts at all, we instantly apply the label.

Even I thought I had it…

But the more I contemplate the concept of imposter syndrome, the more I believe the focus on it is outdated. Knowing what you know — and more importantly, what you don’t — isn’t a self-defeating character flaw one needs to overcome. Self-reflection and the ability to seek help when needed are the cornerstones of strength, not weakness. Labelling these feelings as a syndrome makes it feel like a disease.

While I’d like to reevaluate the concept of imposter syndrome, I do believe there is a fear which must be overcome in order to address inclusion and diversity in tech. The pervasive fear that I encounter most is the fear that it is “too late”. I personally know several competent, capable, and intellectually curious people — who could contribute so much to the technology leadership landscape — express the fear that they’ve missed their chance.

For those of you that need to hear this: It’s never too late.

I speak with some authority on this subject. I studied Engineering for the first few years of university. I was a solid student, but certainly had to work very hard. Frequently, I was one of the only women in my class and felt intimidated. And I was young. I graduated high school at 17 and was approximately a year younger than most of my peers.

Through a combination of incidents and accidents, I decided to change my major to Art History. When asked by my father what I would do with such a degree, I joked: “I’ll open an Art History store”.

I don’t regret changing my major. I loved those years focused on all things art and humanities. But giving up on math and science halfway through my university education had lasting consequences; consequences that 20 year-old Heather didn’t have the capacity to foresee. As the years went by, a career related to STM felt distant, if not impossible.

But I never stopped loving technology.

When I started my career in the early 2000s, the digital transformation had taken hold of many industries, including scientific publishing. For more than 15 years at Elsevier, a leading information analytics company, I volunteered for every project and product that would bring me closer to the intersection of technology and people. I have always quite strongly believed that technology would transform the way people work. From data and analytics to help make sales teams more effective, to AI-powered drug discovery, to leveraging machine learning to facilitate lead generation and increase marketing ROI, I loved translating tech-to-business (and business back to tech).

I was thrilled when JC Heyneke asked me to join Slimmer AI to build AI B2B ventures together. We seek opportunities where AI will transform the way people work in order to create market-leading businesses with extraordinary founders.

I lead the AI Innovation team — a team of nearly 30 engineers building cutting-edge AI technology for use in industry. I can’t say that I’ve never had a moment of doubt about my ability to lead the technology team. But I do not feel like an imposter, because I am not an imposter. There are many skills that are needed to bring technology to life that go far beyond coding.

There is no better time than now to jump into tech and tech leadership.

I have put together a few tips to help you make the leap. And while I wrote this thinking about my experience as a female leader in tech, I hope that it will be useful to anyone and everyone who needs to hear it:

1. Focus on what you’re good at: There are many reasons why this is important, but the most important reason is that it is much easier to go from Good-to-Great than go from Bad-to-Great (or even to go from Bad-to-Good). The older you are, the more true this is. Turn your strengths into superpowers, and your early successes will build confidence.

For example, I more naturally grasp concepts of machine learning and AI strategy far better than systems architecture and devops. So even though I am responsible for all of these technical areas, I have invested in — and built more muscle — where it was ‘easier’ for me to do so, helping to establish credibility faster.

2. Lean on experts: I feel silly admitting this, but I actually picked this up from American motivational speaker Tony Robbins. I am paraphrasing a bit, but he basically said, “It’s ridiculous to believe you could — or even should — know everything. If you need help with your taxes, you hire an accountant. If your car breaks down, you seek a mechanic.” But for some reason at work, we believe we must be an expert in all things or we’re not qualified to lead. And this fear seems compounded when tech is involved.

While there may be a few off-the-charts genius leaders who know everything about everything, the most successful people in the world find experts to help them solve the biggest issues they face. And so should you.

3. Never be intimidated: Since the day you were born, you’ve been constantly learning. There were things you didn’t know, then you learned those things — building on that knowledge as you’ve gone through life. That is true for everyone else too. All of the people that seem so smart and so much further along the tech path than you: They didn’t know; they learned; and now they know.

Certainly, you can’t immediately possess the knowledge of a PhD in computer science in the span of 6 months (or ever…). And without a doubt: building deep technical capability and credibility takes time.

But could you: Understand the essentials of applied-AI to see how it could transform your business? Design a data strategy for your team to make them AI-ready? Identify a workflow problem that could be solved with technology and build a product from it? Of course you could! There is a huge opportunity for all of us in technology, and there are several ways to contribute to the story.

Shake off the ‘syndrome’ and get involved.

Artificial intelligence is poised to transform the way we work, just as it has transformed many other experiences such as entertainment, shopping, driving and more. Over the coming decades, it will transform every industry and nearly every function. The most innovative technologies will be developed by diverse teams with diverse backgrounds and views, and there is a role to play for all types of talent.

Come on in, the (tech) water’s fine!

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