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For the last two years, I’ve been going to the conferences the Ada Initiative has put on for women in open technology and culture. It’s a really awesome experience to be in a room full of hundreds of techie, geeky women. There’s everyone from open source developers to security analysts, hardware hackers to fan fiction writers. Heck, I even met a documentary producer at the last AdaCamp in San Francisco.
One of the most important things I learned at Ada Camp was how to combat impostor syndrome. It’s basically the feeling that you’re not really that smart, that your accomplishments are just luck, and some day, someone is going to find out, and you’ll get humiliated/fired/shunned. It’s surprising the number of highly successful tech women who experience this feeling. I used to have the worst case of impostor syndrome, until the women at AdaCamp taught me how to fight it.
It took me years after submitting the USB 3.0 driver to get comfortable saying, “I’m a Linux kernel hacker.” For the longest time, I would just say things like, “I work on USB.” My friends who introduced me would roll their eyes at my shyness and pronounce, “Sarah’s the reason that Linux had USB 3.0 support before Windows.”
I didn’t feel like a “real” kernel hacker because I hadn’t been doing it that long, and I “only” knew how to write device drivers. I was afraid someone would start asking me about the scheduler, or file systems, or real time Linux, or any of those “real” kernel subsystems. I was embarrassed by the fact that I really hadn’t run Linux at all until my second year in college, and I didn’t know perl or python or bash, or the standard Unix file system locations. I was just a woman who knew how to write Linux drivers in C. And that USB 3.0 driver? Well, I actually wrote it because I was hired by Intel through a series of “luckily” connections to the Open Source Technology Center (OTC). These are the half-truths I told myself, the creeping “I’m not good enough” feelings that I had to deal with.
Working with people at AdaCamp that also experienced impostor syndrome, I realized how destructive these feelings are. They were making me down-play my accomplishments and not ask for raises for the awesome work I was doing. I avoided asking questions so that I wouldn’t seem dumb, because I thought “everyone must know this, and I don’t want to interrupt the conversation.” So I worked with the people in the AdaCamp impostor syndrome session, and had a long heart-to-heart chat with myself to improve my inner narrative about my work.
I don’t have to know everything. Of course I didn’t know everything about the kernel! No one person knows the deep innards of every part of the kernel, not even Linus Torvalds. In order to be an expert in something, you have to focus on exploring your area. That means you may only have an outline of how other areas work, or even just a vague sense. The point is that you should network enough to know which experts to ask about their field, and be brave enough to ask for help when you need to understand something new.
I am smart. I got straight got A’s in high school, and I was one of four valedictorians. My SAT score was a perfect 800 in verbal and 650 in math. I graduated with a B.S. in Computer Engineering at Portland State University with Magna Cum Laude honors. The most important thing though, is that I’ve taught myself how to learn. I can pick up a technical specification or datasheet and find the important details. I’m now past the phase where I avoid asking questions to not seem smart. I’ll happily interrupt a conversation and ask experts to explain something, even when I think everyone else in the group gets it. (Most of the time there’s at least one other person who didn’t get it, but didn’t want to speak up, so it’s a worthwhile skill to learn.)
I earned my job as a Linux kernel hacker. I got my job at Intel because I networked with kernel developers, I worked on a Linux kernel driver as a college project, I presented at an open source conference on the project, and most of all, because I proved to the folks at Intel OTC that I was smart enough for this job.
Writing the USB 3.0 driver was “real kernel work”. My xHCI host controller driver is as important as the code that manages the filesystem on your USB external drive. Without my code, you can’t type on your USB keyboard or move your USB mouse on newer Intel systems. There are no “fake Linux kernel hackers”. Everyone participates towards a common goal: getting the best support for all platforms and all hardware. Each piece of code, every bug report, every patch, and every documentation update is a step towards that goal.
Thank you, Ada Initiative, for sponsoring AdaCamp, and thank you to all the women who participated in the impostor syndrome workshop. If you want to find out more about impostor syndrome and how to combat it, you can take a look at the Ada Initiative’s impostor syndrome training page.
If you think impostor syndrome sessions or allies tracks are awesome, you should donate so that the Ada Initiative can continue to put on AdaCamps.