By Ayesha Saleem
University of Michigan – Dearborn
Computer Science and Mathematics with Honors ’19
UM-D SWE, President
College Democrats, Vice President
Research Assistant, College of Engineering and Computer Science
“Fantastic! Now let’s move on to the technical aspect of this interview.” Hearing those dreaded words, my palms moisten with sweat. I struggle to keep my voice the same professional sounding octave it’s been for the last half hour as I squeak out an “Okay”. I open my laptop to the online whiteboard tool I’m supposed to use, desperately fighting to hide the fear overtaking on me. No matter how many technical interviews I ace, the feeling of inadequacy remains, persistently reminding me that perhaps this time I’d be discovered as a fake.
The world of technology has no room for self doubt. Admitting you don’t know something isn’t celebrated, you’re expected to know everything about everything from the moment you start. According to the The National Center for Education Statistics in the United States, “28% of beginning bachelor’s degree students in computer and information science in 2003-04 had switched to a non-STEM field by 2009.”1 The pace is brutal, unforgiving, and ultimately leaves behind the folks who aren’t quite sure if computer science is the train they want to catch. As an undergraduate student, I was barely given any time to learn the fundamentals of computer science. By the first semester of college, the competition with internships had already begun. You become so engrossed in landing the dream internship at the dream company, you barely have the time to learn. It’s a rat race where sharpening your skill set becomes second to landing a brag-worthy position and proving you belong in the field.
My junior year of college resulted in over 100 hours of internship hunting, cold calls, interviews and anxious pacing. I had spent the previous summer at a well-known Fortune 500, and after a very successful sprint there, I felt the pressure to advance. Every moment felt like a make or break moment. I began to see the ugly side of the tech world, where companies and individuals judge your abilities and worth based on your employment history. I wasn’t judged on the quality of my work but rather my last employer. Interviewers were so bold as to ask me for a list of companies giving me competing offers and what salaries they were offering. These employers wouldn’t take the time to get to know me, but rather leave it to another company to determine my worth and then try to “steal” me with a higher salary. I felt like an auction item, where my bidders didn’t quite want me, but engaged in a bidding war to ensure their competitors didn’t get me either.
“A 2016 study from Harvard’s Women in Computer Science Advocacy Council found that women with up to eight years of programming experience report the same level of confidence as men with zero to one year of programming experience.”2 I have over 5 years of programming experience and still feel just as much as an imposter as day 1. I thought that landing my third glamorous internship would solidify my belief that I belong here. However, all my internships have done is provide me with a brand name to hide behind. The little girl who isn’t quite sure if she’s following her authentic path still exists, as awkward and unsure as ever.
I am not alone in feeling like an imposter. I recently had the privilege to moderate a Women in Engineering panel where a freshman computer science student asked when and how she would know if she belongs in the field. Every woman on the panel agreed that they battle with imposter syndrome on a regular basis. Perhaps a reason why so many young women (and men) are discouraged from tech is because they’re never really given an opportunity to settle. You’re expected to love to code from day one, and if you don’t then maybe this field isn’t for you. In addition, more and more people are getting into the field younger and younger. It’s becoming uncommon for a freshman not to have programming experience before entering college. While introducing programming concepts to a younger audience is great, pressuring or expecting a 17 or 18 year old to confidently commit to a life of coding is problematic. Coding requires practice, persistence and patience; expecting a new coder to immediately appreciate the art is unfair to both the subject and coder.
When the toxicity and competition are stripped away, I remember why I chose the path I’m on. The essence of coding is peaceful, an activity of both solitude and companionship. When each piece fits so beautifully together the euphoria you feel when solving the problem from start to finish is unparalleled. In this euphoria, there’s no self doubt; I’m sure I belong. This summer I’m leaving the flash and unnecessary elitism behind and chasing that euphoria. I doubt my imposter syndrome will be able to keep up.