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Or, being front-end developer on the project of a lifetime while struggling with imposter syndrome

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is defined as: a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’. It can be split into five subgroups:

  • The Perfectionist
  • The Superhero
  • The Natural Genius
  • The Soloist
  • The Expert

Being honest with myself, I can see elements of me in many of them. I definitely have strong expectations for the standard of work that I produce, and I relate to feeling like I don’t know enough, like I haven’t earned my place at the table.

First steps to becoming a woman in tech

I totally stumbled into front-end development. My academic background is in the biological sciences, but after finishing university I took the first job I could find to pay the bills. That was in a call-centre for a pet food manufacturer: cue copious renditions of Who Let The Dogs Out !

My next job was marketing assistant, when I got involved with updating hand-built static websites for veterinary practices in the days of framesets and using tables for layout. These were mostly content edits to begin with, but then I found out how to change colours, fonts and how things are presented on a web page.

I could only get so far with the few bits I had picked up, so I did some research and bought myself a couple of books by Dan CederholmWeb Standards Solutions and Bulletproof Web Design. I read that first book from cover to cover, and I’m so glad that I did because it exposed me early on to the importance of semantic HTML, web standards and the work of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

By now I was hooked. The years went by and as I learned more about HTML and CSS I got more creative with my work. I wanted to leave the marketing behind and focus on front-end development, but I had doubts. JavaScript was starting to dominate the scene, and I found it far harder to work with than HTML and CSS. Was that because I was self-taught? Was I only ever going to be some kind of ‘professional hobbyist’ without that formal Computer Science background?

At the same time, front-end development seemed to be getting way more complicated and involved, with tools like Git, npm and Node.JS, frameworks like jQuery and MooTools, and methodologies like BEM. We weren’t using any of these for our client sites, but they seemed to be taking off in the wider world. Was I falling behind already? Was I really a developer if I had never touched the command line?

I found myself at a frustrating point. To stay would give me limited room to progress my skills and challenge the status quo. But it felt a whole lot safer than leaving and being exposed as a charlatan.

Taking a leap of faith – in myself and my skills

Eventually, I took the plunge and applied for a role at Studio 24, hoping but not expecting to hear anything back. Thankfully, I did! Within a few years of joining I gained so much experience, and was working with clients like UK Parliament and the Cambridge Film Festival. While the start of each new project was tinged with the same old doubts and fears, my confidence was gradually beginning to grow with the support of my colleagues.

And then came the opportunity of a lifetime – rebuilding the website for W3C. W3C!!! Here I was, being asked to join a Zoom call with people like Bert Bos (co-creator of CSS), fantasai (specwriter for the CSS Working Group) and Léonie Watson (W3C Advisory Board member and co-author of Inclusive Design Principles), to explain why they should consider using our own front-end starter kit, rather than an established framework like Bootstrap. Talk about teaching granny to suck eggs!

As it turns out, that nerve-jangling conference call has been among the least daunting parts of this project; they’re a friendly group of professionals and my nervousness abated as we talked shop.

I’ve found it more challenging working in the open on such a high-profile project, wanting to do my best and not let anybody down, and having to acknowledge that my code will be scrutinised by a wide range of people; from those who consider themselves specialists to junior developers just starting out.

At times I’ve agonised over what seem like the smallest of decisions, trying to weigh up the pros and cons of different approaches. That’s when my self-doubt has been at its worst. How come it’s me making these choices? Am I the right person? Am I making the right call, for the right reasons?

Standing my ground

In trying to break that paralysis I’ve been forced to measure my present work against what’s gone before. The temptation is to compare myself with the people around me, but by focusing on my own journey I’m better able to appreciate how far I’ve travelled, and reassure myself (to degrees!) that I deserve to be where I am. There can be many approaches to tackling a problem, and with each step I take I become more informed and able to defend my decisions.

Coupled with the aforementioned sense of responsibility is a feeling that what I’m doing is in no way ground-breaking. Rather, I’m cherry picking the best practices of a lot of other people who have put in countless hours of effort and have already done a lot of the groundwork.

I’ve found it helpful to reframe my role in this project as a curator of front-end best practices, collating the valuable work of my peers and hopefully bringing it to an even wider audience thanks to the reach of W3C. Indeed, it feels good to be part of a community where, on the whole, people share and collaborate rather than trying to trip each other up.

Social media can be a great place to pick up developer tips, articles and videos and find out about new specifications that are being worked on. It can begin to feel overwhelming, given the rapid progress of tech, so I find it helpful to focus on the things that are natural extensions of my current skill set and interests to help keep the imposter in check.

This also helps me to avoid the darker side of tech-related social media: divisive soundbite posts that are little more than self-promotion; pile-ons for questioning or disagreeing with the latest framework or tech stack; and blatant misogyny, questioning whether women in tech really know what they’re talking about – even whether they have written their own code. It remains a sad fact that this behaviour continues to happen, and I do tend to keep a lower profile as a result.

While undoubtedly daunting, working on a website (and in the open) for W3C has given me an opportunity to help people who are new to the industry and set them on the right path, just like Dan Cederholm did for me. If that – and even this article – can support others struggling with imposter syndrome and encourage them to take up front-end development, especially women in a male-dominated industry, then I reckon that’s a good result.