Gmail engineer: Women must overcome the impostor syndrome
- 13 June, 2012 21:23
It's been a long, interesting journey for Google site reliability manager Sabrina Farmer, who talked about work, success and overcoming self-doubt at the Women in Advanced Computing conference in Boston.
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For one thing, her goals have changed substantially. After high school, "all I wanted to do was have my own apartment."
"I had no intention of going to college," she said. However, a visit, with a friend, to the University of New Orleans, convinced her otherwise. An innate comfort with computers - "I had once sat down and programmed a little guy to run across my TV screen, in BASIC" - saw her join the computer science department there.
Self-doubt and overeager self-criticism, Farmer said, can be crippling to women in the tech industry, where they are almost always in the minority. And she encountered plenty of it herself during her college years. By the time her first class had winnowed itself from 60 students down to just 20 by the time of the final, she was the only woman left.
"That was the beginning of the impostor syndrome for me. ... 'What did I miss?' 'I don't belong here,' 'I don't fit in...' so I started to be really conservative. I never talked in class. I never shared with my peers," Farmer said. It turned college from a great experience into an exercise in isolation.
The impostor syndrome, as Farmer noted, was originally documented in psychological literature in 1978, and was first applied to highly accomplished women who nonetheless felt as though they had achieved their success through luck or fraud.
Regardless, Farmer quickly began to succeed far more completely than she had anticipated. Within a year of graduating - again, as the only woman in her class - she was working in Silicon Valley and making twice what her mother made after 20 years of work as a legal secretary.
Her appetite for a challenge grew. "If a problem seemed impossible, I wanted to do it," she said of her early days in the valley. And when the familiar specter of the impostor reappeared, Farmer used three questions to maintain an even keel.
"What's the problem? What's the worst thing that could happen? And is what you're feeling real, or just your perspective?" she said.
Nor did she confine her use of the technique to her professional life - she used it to talk herself into completing multiple triathlons and even trying to run a marathon.
"I will not try that again," she said, to some amusement. "The 'worst thing that could happen?' It's bad."
Farmer went to Google after 10 years in the industry.
"I wanted to see if I could be an individual contributor at one of the top companies in the Valley," she told the crowd. "And it was awesome. The problems were hard, but I could do them. The people I worked with were great, and they thought I was good too."
And then, kids.
Not much changed after Farmer got married - "I told my husband if he ever told me to choose him over my career, he was going to lose," she said - but parenthood was a different story, forcing her to change her priorities for the first time in a while.
"I knew things were going to have to change ... but I never thought I'd have to put my goals on the sidelines," she said.
After giving birth, Farmer said, "I came back to Google, to a new manager, to a [re-organized] team, all-new projects. ... I was ill-prepared. I was not able to maintain my productivity."
Nevertheless, she continued to work a grueling schedule and care for her child - which took its toll.
"All of a sudden I thought, 'this is why women leave!' I never understood it ... I thought I had it all figured out," Farmer said.
However, that's the reality for women in tech, she said.
"We're going to change throughout our careers," Farmer said. "You don't have to sacrifice your goals, you don't have to give up on them. But you do have to be open to changing the path to get there."
With that insight, she said, it's been easier to handle all the challenges in front of her.
"I had my daughter, I also had my son. And I've been promoted twice at Google since. That's no small feat, for anyone unfamiliar with Google," she said.
She's also had some further insights on working in production, since joining the Gmail team.
"You know when you're responsible for production, if nobody's talking about you, you rock. If people are talking about you, shit's broken," Farmer said, eliciting laughter. "[And] with Gmail, when something's broken, it's in the news."
Too often, according to Farmer, the isolation of being one of comparatively few women working in technology becomes a problem. That's why mentoring and professional relationships between women in tech are so important.
"If you don't have people that you can go to and talk to - not just your friends and family - but people who understand ... the role that you're in, you're really missing something," she said.
"In this field, obviously, ... it's not uncommon to be the only woman on a team. It's not uncommon to experience that impostor inside you, despite all your success. ... but it's also not uncommon to achieve success that you can't even imagine," Farmer said.
Email Jon Gold at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.
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