A couple of events happened over the course of last two weeks that got me really thinking about how much I’ve grown and learned since I started working at my new company, which was about 9 months ago.
In the past 9 months, I’ve learned so much from working with a lot of technologies and tools that were new to me, and I’m really happy about the opportunities that I’ve had so far. But the area of growth that I’m most proud of is a change in my mindset when facing uncertainties and an increase in self-confidence in my skills and validity of opinions.
I don’t know what it is specifically about working in STEM, but a lot of women in the industry, especially early on in their careers, have a tendency to have lower self-confidence levels compared to other men they work with. I also definitely felt that way when I was first starting out my career; I would have times when I didn’t want to speak in meetings because I didn’t think my ideas were that great or times when I would let someone else take my idea and present it in front of people because I was worried that if I did I would expose the gaps in my knowledge or understanding of how something works.
It also didn’t help that I was one of the two women on the dev team at the time, and I was often passed up by managers when looking for people to lead bigger initiatives or work on projects with higher visibility to upper management, despite my repeated attempts to have more responsibility at work and requests for bigger opportunities. Both of these things perpetuated a negative feedback loop where I felt frustrated about being glossed over by management, which would then make me believe that they were right in thinking that I wasn’t good enough to work on bigger, more complicated things, which in turn just made me feel worse about myself and my competency.
But now I don’t feel or think that way. Granted, there might be times here and there where I find myself hesitating before saying something or making sure I have all my ducks in a row before doing something, but that’s just part of who I am and what makes me feel comfortable. But rarely do I find myself doubting my own self or comparing myself to others and thinking that I’m not good enough to contribute to discussions or meetings.
There are lots of different factors that have helped me reach the state that I am in now, but I would say that most of them boil down to two main things:
None of my coworkers make me feel like I have to prove myself or feel dumb for asking questions; instead, they’re always willing to teach me things or explain concepts, specifically in the way that I learn best.
My company has a culture that’s really focused on life-long learning, which means that everyone is always curious and interested in something. It also means that at any given point, there are going to be people who are really knowledgeable about a certain topic that others aren’t, or people who are interested in learning about something and looking for some mentorship from experts in the field at the company.
A big aspect of our learning culture is actually about being a coach to others through teaching or mentoring, and there’s a big emphasis in coaching others in the way they would best understand it. So if someone is a visual learner and you are trying to explain system architecture, draw it out! Or if someone prefers face-to-face communication but you personally prefer messaging over Slack, go talk to them and explain things in person!
The reason for this is because we want to maximize the efficiency of learning and communication; after all, you can say or do all the things you think you should do, but if the recipient just isn’t getting it then what is it except for a big waste of time?
This sort of culture has really helped me feel comfortable in being open about things I don’t know or asking for help with things I want to know, and everyone has been so great about taking the time to teach me or explain how things work to me, something that I’m super grateful for.
Not only does fostering a culture where people are not afraid to say they don’t know something and feel comfortable in asking for help really go a long way in making sure everyone feels secure, it also helps senior devs and managers fill in the gaps in understanding of the people they mentor since now they’re privy to the extent of understanding of their mentees.
I’ve met many other people who were vulnerable and told me that they’d felt the same feelings of self-doubt and low self-confidence, but most importantly, I heard this from both other women and other men.
I didn’t realize how much this helped in boosting my self-confidence until I really thought about what I wanted to write in this post, but let me tell you, it really, really helped.
Prior to working at my new company, I’d never met anyone who said they had the same worries and fears that I had regarding their competency and confidence in themselves. I’d always felt like everyone knew what they were doing, or if they didn’t know exactly what they were doing, they at least had a pretty good understanding of the basic concepts underlying different things.
At my new company though, suddenly I was hearing a lot of phrases like “I’m not following your explanation, could you say that again?” or “Did that explanation make sense to you? Let me know if anything didn’t make sense and we can try to go over it again.” I was also hearing a lot of encouraging remarks from senior devs and mentors, such as “Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know something; our job is to help you grow and succeed at your job, so if we don’t know what you don’t know then we won’t be very good at helping!”
To give a very concrete example, I had a 1-on-1 with the manager of my project, and when I asked him for some feedback on how I could continue to grow on the project, he said something like:
“To put it bluntly, don’t let your inhibitions get in the way of achieving things. I know you think Bob and Larry (names edited for privacy, lol) have more technical expertise or knowledge than you, but that doesn’t matter! There’s a lot more to being good at this job than being the most technical person in the room or being the “smartest” person in the room; I know you can do it so you shouldn’t let yourself hold you back >:(“
I’d already been feeling pretty good about my current state of mind and level of self-confidence, but hearing something like that from him was so nice to hear and I really appreciated his trust in my potential 🙂
If you are a woman in tech, or in any industry, really, and feel uncertain in yourself from time to time, I think that’s totally normal and isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it may motivate you to expand your understanding of something or pursue knowledge of a specific subject, both of which are awesome things! But if your lack of confidence in yourself prohibits you from voicing your ideas or makes you feel negatively about yourself, I really really want to emphasize that what you feel, other people feel too.
True, you may not know everything about everything or be an expert in anything yet, but that’s totally fine! Nobody! is an expert about everything in everything and there are a ton of people out there who don’t know what you know or have what you have, so feel proud in your achievements thus far and switch your focus to appreciating the knowledge you do have and maybe on the things you want to have 🙂