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Overcoming Imposter Syndrome in Tech

This article is part of a series of posts produced by the Duo interns, highlighting their experiences and the projects they worked on this summer. And be sure to check out our open internship positions.


You’re doing amazing. Thanks, you too.

It shouldn’t be that hard to accept a compliment. But it’s always been easier for me to deflect the attention back to the person complimenting me. Rather than appreciating my accomplishments, I quickly move on wondering “what’s next?”

I struggle with the feeling of inadequacy, not doing enough, or the need to do even more. And after reaching out to others, I learn that this feeling of imposter syndrome is all too prevalent in the lives of others working in tech.

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From their stories, I learned that there are many ways one can experience imposter syndrome. And just as everyone has different experiences, their approaches toward imposter syndrome are equally as personal and unique.

In this blog, I’d like to share with you two different approaches I have learned through the stories of Nick Zolfo and Subha Madaka. In the first account, Nick's introspective approach. And in the second, Subha's collective approach.

The first step in combatting imposter syndrome? Acknowledgement

“It’s a self-love thing. My inability to self-love bled into me not acknowledging the great things I was doing and own them… that they came from me,” Nick Zolfo, design thinking coach at Cisco Security, explains.

Nick Zolfo is also the co-host of the meditation podcast “Catching Z’s: The Millennials Guide to Mindfulness.” I had the opportunity to attend one of his midweek mindfulness sessions where he guided a 10-minute meditation practice. He’s a guy who appears to have found his inner peace, and I wanted to learn how he does it.

But even Nick struggles with the occasional self-doubt.

“At Duo and with my current position, I feel like I have the safety net to tinker and do stuff. Yet, I have imposter syndrome. I think, ‘do I deserve to be here? Do I have the authority to make these decisions?’”

A smiling man identified as Nick Zolfo

For Nick, his struggles are rooted in his core life experiences. It’s an issue which he believes to be deeply grounded in who he is and will always be there. To combat this, Nick makes the commitment towards bettering himself.

“To know what you want and to go after that, is the greatest thing that I have done for myself and can offer up to other people. That is the crucial point I had to say for myself. I spent too long not doing something but was aware. I was upset that nothing was changing. Recognize, you are the one that needs to take control.”

Nick brought up a key point; I have to care enough about myself to advocate for what I want. This is the baseline. You must care about your own wellbeing for any change. Care about yourself and take action.

“It’s always worth exploring what imposter syndrome means to you. Identify what is tactile. Identify what are the inputs.”

It’s always worth exploring what imposter syndrome means to you. Identify what is tactile. Identify what are the inputs.

For Nick, meditation helped him explore his space. Taking a moment to pause and reflect to identify the cause before tackling the problem is one strategy in identifying where to begin. But maybe you need a little more help in navigating those complex thoughts and feelings.

Remember, we are in this together

First, I must make a correction, and I encourage you to do the same. Instead of saying “imposter syndrome,” let’s call it an imposter phenomenon.

It’s an exercise Subha Madaka, engineering manager at Cisco Security, recommends.

“I learned it in a class on imposter syndrome during my MBA program,” Subha shares. “The imposter phenomenon is a behavior thing that everyone goes through, and it’s unique to everyone.”

Syndrome sounds like an illness that you’re stuck with indefinitely. A phenomenon feels less abrasive and more representative of the unique event that just pops up in your life. By switching up the language, we can change our perspective of how we view ourselves and encourage conversation around a problem we all go through.

A smiling woman, identified as Subha Madaka

Subha Madaka’s story began when she first started her career as a software engineer.

“When I was growing up in India, the traditional path for girls was always to get a certain level of education and either get married or find a job. I had wanted to come to the United States to do a master’s.”

Subha Madaka is grateful for her loving family and supportive parents. But her bold decision to move into a new country and begin an untraditional path on her own was a daunting life decision leading her to question herself.

“There are days when I ask myself ‘am I where I need to be today’ or ‘do I deserve to be here?’ But I look back to the decision that I made and believe in the people who trusted in me. I believe in them enough to say ‘yes.’”

But working in America wasn’t always so easy. Coming from a traditional background, Subha was shy and introverted. The imposter phenomenon became more of an occurrence in her life as she went from an engineer to a manager. Lacking the experience and mentoring network, Subha would often question her management abilities.

“At Duo, I work with a really great group of people. It’s like everywhere you turn you meet somebody who you are going to look at and be in awe. And you wonder, ‘how can I be like that,’” she says. “It’s a good problem to have but many times it brings up thoughts like, ‘oh my gosh, there’s so much I need to learn. Do I really belong here?’” 

It’s a common sentiment I hear in tech, and one I strongly felt when I started my internship as well.

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“What can we do about this?” I ask.

“Invest time in building relationships at the beginning of your time here at Duo as those relationships will serve as the foundation,” Subha responds. “It’s not one of those things where you can find a great way to overcome. Instead, it’s about finding the tools to prop each other up and acknowledging its existence.”

It's not one of those things where you can find a great way to overcome. Instead, it’s about finding the tools to prop each other up and acknowledging its existence.

That’s one thing I came to love about working here at Duo. In short, Duo encourages an authentic and collaborative culture where you know you can be supported. We are a community that values psychological safety. We are a community you can rely on when you have challenges. Product designer Sierre Wolfkostin writes about this when she explores Duo’s recipe for great culture.

We are all in this together so let’s ask ourselves, “how can we build each other up?”

Your own story

While Nick and Subha’s experiences are different from my own, it was relieving to hear that there were people I can reach out to and can have this sensitive conversation with. And for me, having those conversations help tremendously in embracing my imposter phenomenon.

As my internship comes to an end, I can say more confidently than before that this is the place for me. Duo Security was my first tech job and corporate experience. I had felt that there was so much I did not know and, likewise, so much I needed to learn to be on par with everyone. I was afraid of making mistakes because I wanted to prove that I wasn’t a hiring mistake.

But I took Nick Zolfo’s advice. I began with acknowledging that yes, I am going through an imposter phenomenon. And because I care enough about myself, I wanted to make a change starting with recognizing that I am deserving of good things.

I also took Subha Madaka’s advice. I wanted to build personal connections with others and have the conversation to better understand the imposter phenomenon within the team.

Due to a word count, I am unable to share their stories, but I’d like to thank Milly Yeh, Chisulo Mukabe, Camille Kapoor, Alice Shih, and everyone who have opened up to me with their stories of what imposter phenomenon is to them. By opening up to my team, I not only received the support I never knew I needed, but also grew more confident in my work.

There’s a lot to talk about and learn from. And for the time being, I will commit to bettering myself – reminding myself and others in awkward times of compliments to think...

Yes, I can be amazing. Thank you.