Nobody expects the lady code troll:

As you might have noticed, this is my 5th post this week! I’ve been trying to figure out how to get back to writing more regularly and sharing more of the ‘stuff’ I’ve been consuming in my spare time. The general idea is to do at least one quick and easy post per day about something I’m interested in. So far it’s motivating me to write more, but I’d love to hear what people are most interested in hearing about!

In light of that, I’m reviving another ‘old’ post series of mine ‘Listening To‘: I started it with the intention to share what music I’m enjoying, but am expanding that to include podcasts, audio books and concerts!

imaginary_worlds

For today’s post I wanted to highlight a podcast I started listening to recently: Imaginary Worlds. It describes itself as:

“Imaginary Worlds is a bi-weekly podcast about science fiction and other fantasy genres — how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief. These are the backstories to our stories.”

It’s my new favourite podcast and in the past 2 weeks I’ve listened to the majority of their archive (it goes back about 2 years)! Imaginary Worlds gives us a glimpse behind the curtain of some of my favourite geeky books and shows: Star Wars, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, there are a ton of different geeky topics that get covered, often with perspectives that I hadn’t considered before. Pretty much anyone that enjoys geeky stories should try out this podcast!

Current favourites episodes: Fantasy Maps about the work and detail that goes into creating them, 1977, a look into the state of the world and pop culture when Star Wars came out, and Beware of Cyber City about a three-dimensional model of a town that the military uses for cyber war games.

Two weekends back I bought this adorable necklace of a rain cloud and since then I’ve gotten so many comments on it! It’s so cute and seemed appropriate given I organize an event called Thundercloud.

The necklace is made of laser cut perspex/acrylic and comes with a 22″ silver plated chain. You can get it for £24.95 at Little Moose.

raincloud

The store where I got this only had that one necklace, but turns out Little Moose has so many other cute designs and I kind of want them all! Here are my favourites:

Jurassica – £24.95

dinosaur-necklace

Space Unicorn – £24.95

spaceunicorn

Panda Family – £44.95

panda

Cheshire Cat – £34.95

cheshirecat

Alpaca – £34.95

alpaca

To check out more designs from Little Moose, head to their website.

How To Brainstorm Talk Ideas

November 21st, 2016

I’ve been doing a lot of talks lately in which I encourage people to share with the wider community what they do (see my Employee Evangelism post). Be it through blog posts or talks or workshops, I believe everyone should be finding a way to teach others the things that they’ve learnt or they’ve done.

One of the most common things that I hear from people though is that they’d love to do more of this, but that they don’t have anything worth talking about.

And that’s absolutely not true.

Everyone has something that’s worth sharing with others. Every person knows something that others don’t. It’s very easy to undervalue the things that we know, and that we assume are common knowledge. You might not be the “number one expert” in something, but honestly you don’t have to be to be the one talking about it. In some areas actually being a non-expert might give you a different and perhaps a more relatable perspective, allowing other non-experts to easier understand the topic.

But how do you discover what you should be talking about?

I thought I’d share some tips and tricks of how I approach coming up with my talk (and blog post) ideas and turn it into an exercise of sorts that anyone can start with.

A framework for thinking about talk ideas

Now the way my brain works is that I like having structures and frameworks in place for me to interpret and think about information better. So before we jump into ways of brainstorming ideas, I want you to consider this:

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I think with every talk you do, you need to consider and balance these three elements: the Location, the Format and the Topic. Here’s what I mean with each of them:

Location: where are you doing this talk? Is it at a specific conference or meetup? Is it internally at work? Who is your audience? What is their background? What do they know already?

Format: how long is the talk? Is it a lightning talk or a longer talk? Are you live coding or demoing something?

Topic: what is the talk about? What message do you want people to take away from it?

Each of these elements need to be in equilibrium with other, making sure that all three matchup. For instance, a lightning talk about dinosaurs might not be appropriate for a specific technical conference, or an in-depth talk about encoding might not work as a lightning talk.

When it comes to brainstorming talk ideas, I find that using the above structure allows you to approach the problem of finding a topic in two different ways: start on either the Location side or the Topic side and make your way across. Neither direction is right or wrong, but it allows you to focus your brainstorming. If you have a specific location in mind, it can help you come up with what type of topic is appropriate for it. Likewise if you don’t have a location in mind, you can be more unconstrained in coming up with ideas, and figure out later where you’ll do the talk.

Getting into the right mindset

Next we want to generate as many ideas as possible. The key thing about this though is going into this with the right mindset. A couple of things to keep in mind here:

1. There are no stupid ideas.

Write down every single idea that you can think of, no matter how stupid or boring or uninteresting you think it is for other people. As I said above, we often forget the things that we know and we’ll disregard ideas that we think no one else will care about. When I did this exercise with people at work, people were often surprised that others wanted to hear about some of the “silly” ideas they came up with.

2. Keep track of your ideas.

Use this as the time to start a list of all the ideas you have. Even if some of them don’t feel quite right right now, add them to a list or a doc: somewhere that you can keep track of them. This isn’t about creating a huge list, picking one and throwing the rest away. It’s about creating a repository of all the ideas you have that you one day might want to talk about and revisit. I’ve done talks based on talk ideas that I initially came up with 2 years ago – some talks need time to simmer and evolve.

3. Develop the “that-would-make-a-good-talk” voice in your mind.

Most of the exercise questions below are about developing what I call the “that would make a good talk” voice in your head. Rather than having these specific brainstorming sessions, I tend to always have these type of questions in the back of my mind whenever I’m working on a project or having conversations with people. My natural instinct now is to always consider whether there’s a story hidden within anything that I’m doing (and pointing it out for others when I see they’re doing something). I’m hoping that some of these things will become more natural for you by doing these exercises.

4. Don’t get stuck on the title.

The following exercises are about coming up with ideas for your talks, not the title. I’ve noticed people trying to come up with variations of what to call their talk, which at this point doesn’t really matter yet. You can figure out later what title works and is catchy. Right now it’s about the content – focus on that!

5. Get help from others.

If you know you struggle with coming up with ideas, try to get a group of friends or colleagues together and help each other with these exercises. Discussing and explaining some of these questions with others and having other people to bounce ideas off can help a lot: you might discover ideas that you wouldn’t have alone.

Exercises for talk idea brainstorming

So time to write down some ideas! If you’ve got some things in mind already, that’s awesome, write them down. If you’re unsure where to start, I’ve created a list of questions that you can use as inspiration, grouped by Topic, Format and Location. Start with the questions of the area that you want to focus on first:

Topic:

  • Write down all the topics you’re interested in and you know about. It doesn’t matter how obscure – add it to the list!
  • Think back to what you’ve done the past month. What problems did you come across that were challenging to deal with? What things did you work on that you’re proud of? What did you spend a lot of time on that maybe could have gone quicker if you knew something you do now?
  • Can you remember any long emails, slack messages, git commits, pull requests, internal docs or long conversations recently, where you’ve explained something to someone? Would someone else benefit from learning that?
  • What’s one thing you wish everyone knew or was taught? Why?
  • Think about recent conversations and discussions with friends or colleagues. What topic could you easily talk hours and hours with them about? What excites you? What infuriates you?
  • What’s something that you wish you could know more about? Are there any questions you have that you wish you knew the answer to? Coming up with a talk will give you a push to dive into that topic.
  • Think about your favourite books, music, movies, museums, restaurants, sports teams, famous (or nonfamous) people, cars, anecdotes, countries, food, animals, games.
  • Take a look at talks or speakers that inspire you. What do they have in common? What would your take on it be?
  • Think back when you started your career – are there any topics that you think could have helped you if you had heard about it earlier?
  • What processes/work/things do you do that make your life easier? If other people did it too, would it make their lives easier?

Format:

  • Write down what types of talks you’re interested in. Examples: lightning talk, internal work presentation, small meetup, conference talk.
  • Do you want to do demos? Or live coding? Or making the talk interactive in some way? Think about the type of talk that you would enjoy participating in. Think about the type of talk that you would enjoy giving.

Location:

  • Write down specific conferences or meetups that you’d like to talk at. Does the event have a theme? What type of audience attends? What’s their background?
  • Look at the event’s past talks or their call for papers. Are there specific topics or problems that they are interested in?
  • Look at the event’s past speakers and their talks – do you agree or disagree with any their opinions? What area would you like to see more of? What questions do you have that you‘d like answered?
  • If you were at that event, what talk would you want to see? What talk would be on your must-watch-don’t-miss list?

What next?

Hopefully the above exercises will have given you some inspiration and you will have ended up with a nice list of talk ideas that you’re interested in. The exercise questions obviously aren’t exhaustive and I’m curious to hear what other questions get your mind thinking about potential ideas. I’d also love to hear if these exercises help you, so feel free to email, comment or tweet me about this!

Once you have this ideas list, the next steps are deciding which idea to develop further, figuring out what events are out there and how to create talk proposals for them. In the upcoming weeks I’ll be writing blog posts for each of these topics, so stay tuned!

Great talk from Lena Reinhard, comparing being in tech with being in space.

This Kenzo World ad has been making the social media rounds the last few weeks and I can’t stop watching it! It’s directed by Spike Jonze and the first thing that did come to my mind when seeing it the first time was how similar it felt to Jonze’s previously directed Weapon of Choice for Fatboy Slim.

Of course within a couple of days a mashup appeared of the two videos:

Two weeks ago I gave a talk at The Lead Developer called How To Succeed at Hiring Without Really Trying. This is pretty much the blog post version of my script/speaker’s notes for it! Check out the full slides or watch the video.

Imagine: you’re shopping for groceries and need to buy strawberries. You have two options. The first one comes in this completely closed off box – you can’t look into it, there’s no pictures on the packaging – you have no idea how the strawberries actually look like. The second option: a transparent plastic box with some handy labels on it: you know immediately what the nutritional value is, where the strawberries are grown and you even get some a nice recipe for strawberry pie to try. And you can exactly see what strawberries you get.

Which box do you choose?

Now of course choosing what company to work at isn’t on the same level as choosing which strawberries to buy. But in the same way, we should be thinking about how we expose and promote our teams as places where people want to work. Not doing anything and remaining a black box that no one can look into doesn’t help at all. So how can we be those strawberries that everyone wants to choose?

For the past 2 years, I’ve taken a lead within FutureLearn to do exactly this type of stuff – I’ve been responsible for trying to raise awareness about our company within the tech and design community.

evangelism

How to define what I do?

In the past I’ve always struggled trying to explain what it exactly is that I do and finding the right phrase or word or title that encompasses it. Developer evangelism. Developer outreach. Developer relations. Developer advocacy. All these terms are used within our industry to describe these roles that are much more outward facing, but none of them felt quite right to describe what we were trying to do here.

The way I see it this area typically is about creating a relationship between your company and potential customers – you have a product, be it a platform, apis, tooling – it’s something that you want developers to use. There’s a good overview from Phil Leggetter about the different goals and approaches within developer relations, but in the end all of them are about shaping that space, so you can have conversations with those outside of your company about your product.

And that doesn’t quite work here for 2 reasons: 1) it’s not the product we’re trying to evangelize, it’s our team, and 2) we’re actually not just targeting developers, we’re targeting the wider product team, so also designers, UX researchers, product managers. It’s about more than just developers.

So the phrase I’ve started using recently to capture this is employee evangelism. In the same way that developer evangelism is about creating that conversation between your company and the outside world, employee evangelism is about creating that conversation between your employees and the potential employees outside the company. It is about raising awareness about the team – and comes from the team directly.

Rather than having a single person be the employee evangelist, you want the entire team to contribute to this evangelism, making sure that this loop is constantly happening:

loop

Now we have other people on the team who take care of the hiring process, and I like to think that everyone on our team does awesome stuff, so my focus tends to be on getting people to share that awesomeness with the community. I’ve always seen this as a team role: I’m not the only person in the company going out and talking at all the events, I’m not the only person writing all the blog posts. This has been very much about supporting our entire team to do all this, helping them learn the skills they need for this and helping create the type of environment where everyone feels encouraged to contribute.

How to encourage your team?

So having defined this idea of employee evangelism, what can you do to encourage and support your team to practice this?

A couple months back I read Badass: Making Users Awesome from Kathy Sierra and in it she explains how the best way to get your product being used by people, is understanding that it’s not necessarily about your product, it’s about making your users awesome. If they feel they are being badass, when using your product, they’ll be more passionate and motivated to share what they can do with your product.

Kathy goes on to create a framework of sorts to help your users become badass. And I realised that most of what she describes in there can be adapted to how we can encourage our teams. How we can make our teams badass.

Using her book as a base I’ve adapted it specifically for getting your team to share more, but I think it can applied to a lot of other ways of making our teams better. I want to focus on 4 areas, and I think all of these combined can help you encourage your team:

4areas

Give them a compelling context

This is about creating that right type of environment where people feel like they can share. Start with the company culture first. Now let’s go back to our strawberry example.

Remember the packaging of the transparent box?  The retailer could have put anything they wanted on it – nutritional benefits, the claim that they’re the best strawberries in the world, adorable recipes. In the end though the main thing that matters: whether or not they are good and tasty strawberries. Whether or not they’re the type of strawberries a person would buy again. Whether or not they’re the type of strawberries a person would tell their friends to go buy.

So: be great. The first thing about getting your team, writing or talking about your company is having something that’s worth sharing, something that’s worth getting excited about. If you want potential employees to see what a great company it is to work at, then it does need to be a great company or at least have elements of greatness within it. If there isn’t a single thing that you can think of that is great, that is worth sharing with others, then most probably your focus should be on fixing that first.

The second thing is to be authentic. The stories that your team will tell need to come from them – you can’t give them a script or a brief and tell them to go and evangelise. It needs to have that human voice.

“On their deathbed, nobody will say: If only I’d engaged more with brands.” – Kathy Sierra

Remember this is about employees starting conversations with potential employees. It’s not The Brand having those conversations, it’s actual humans.

Third, be open. Be willing to share information and stories and data about your company. Not every company will be able to share everything – but get a good understanding of what things your team can talk about and share, and make sure they’re aware that they can.

Give them a compelling reason

The second area we need to look at is giving each person a compelling reason. With this I mean look at the personal motivations for each team member. What will drive each of them to share what they do with others? I’ll give a couple examples of what I think are the most common motivations.

Helping others – these are the people that share what they know, cause it will directly help someone else. They might not necessarily want to stand in the spotlight, but they know that if they do, they can make someone’s life easier.

Building confidence in communication – in most of our day-to-day work we rely on communication to others . Doing a blog post or giving a talk or workshop are extreme examples on that spectrum, but becoming a better speaker or writer will help people in their job, and for some this is the main reason why they will want to get better at it.

Building personal reputation – these are the people that want to stand in the spotlight and have the focus on them. A variant of this are the people that want to be experts in a specific thing – they want to show that they have mastered a specific topic.  

These aren’t the only motivations that people have, but I think these are the most popular 3 especially when it comes to getting your team to share what they do. Understanding which of these apply to each team member ties in with helping them actually build the skills they need and understanding what types of stories and problems they want to share.

Help them keep wanting to

Now that we know what each team member’s goal is how do you encourage them to keep working on this? I think there are 2 sides to this:

First: what makes them stop? You need to understand what each person’s fears and blockers are. I often hear things like I’m not an expert, I can’t write, nothing I do is worth sharing. They’re all valid fears and reasons why someone will stop or will never get started. But once you know what their fears and blockers are, you can help them come up with a plan to overcome them.

The flip side of this is: what pulls them forward? Make them set a goal, like speak at a conference in a year’s time or write a full length blog post in 2 months time and help them break this big goal into more manageable chunks. I haven’t quite done this with my team yet, but am in the process of creating some progression paths for writing, speaking and workshops, so that people can pick and choose from these when setting their personal goals with their line managers.

Finally: lead by example. Make sure your team is not only aware of the things that you do, but also how you got there. For instance, when I started this 2 years back, I hadn’t ever spoken at a conference before. Even now I still get super nervous giving talks. So I know the types of fears my team were feeling – I’ve been there – but constantly sharing with them what my journey has been and how I deal with my fears and nerves, it shows my team that this is just as attainable for them as it was for me.

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Help them actually get better

The final and largest area to look at is how to help your team actually get better. How do you help them improve their skills?

The first part of this is perpetual exposure. This is the idea that to become better at something, to become an expert at something, you need to be exposed to high quality examples of the things that you’re trying to get better at. In this case of getting people to share things make sure your team is exposed to good examples of other people sharing.

So to start: have a library. This doesn’t have to be just books, but also blog posts, articles, screencasts, videos, basically any content that is worth sharing with your team. What are good examples of content that other people have created? Besides that we’ve also got lists of recommended material to help people get started with public speaking and writing.

Another thing we organise is Talks We Love – in this we watch a recorded video of a talk together that one person on the team really enjoyed or found useful, followed by a discussion on things we might want to do ourselves.

Beyond highlighting external content, you also need to try to highlight existing good internal content. Our teams are already creating content: just think about good commit messages, or emails or slack messages explaining things. Most of the time it just requires someone pointing out to them ‘did you consider turning that into a blog post? Or a talk? Or a workshop?’. Be that voice that champions the work that they’re already doing.

The second part of helping your team get better – is giving them the time and space for deliberate practice. Rather than throwing them in the deep end – you need to allow them to build these skills gradually. I’ll give a few examples of how we support practice with speaking and writing. They’re not the only things we do, but it’s just to give you a sense of what types of activities and support you should be thinking of.

Lightning Talks: These happen every 4-6 weeks and anyone in the company can give a quick 5 minute talk about anything they want. This is a great way to get people to recognise that they have something worth talking about and it gives them the experience and confidence to do more talks.

Learning Hours: In these one person on the team, teaches something they think other people might find useful. These tend to be more hands-on and workshop like. And these can be about anything – past learning hours have been about command line tools, how to run retrospectives and understanding database indexes better. Rather than learning to speak in front of a larger audience – this allows people to practice these skills in front of a smaller group of people they’re already working with.

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Conference Club:  This is an internal meetup for everyone that wants to speak at conferences to get together and help each other with everything that goes into creating a conference talk. So coming up with talk ideas, helping write proposals, giving feedback on practice runs. It’s making sure that people aren’t doing this completely by themselves.

Collaboration blog posts: We pick a specific topic, like women that inspire us or foreign words that we like, and ask for paragraph submissions. So rather than having to commit to a full length blog post, we get people started with writing small snippets.

Internal Blog: Another thing we have is our internal blog, for sharing problems or stories with the wider team. Again rather than having to publish something immediately for the entire world, we basically provide a stepping stone inbetween.

So give your team the time and space to practice these new skills. These won’t grow overnight and you need to create a supportive environment if you want to get everyone involved.

What was the effect on our team?

So what was the effect of all this on our team? Now when I started this role we barely had anyone from our product team writing blog posts or speaking at events. Here are some stats of where we got to now.

Not including the people that joined our team recently, about 35% of our team have now done an external talk. That percentage rises to 60% when we take into account the lightning talks and to 78% when we add the learning hours. With blog posts we’ve got 75% of our team that have written full length blog posts, and 89% when we include the collaboration posts. And the awesome thing is, if we combine this all, this means that everyone in our team is sharing their knowledge in some way.

Tying it back to the start of this post – from the last round of hiring, 50% of the interviewees explicitly mentioned having seen a talk or read a blog post. This wasn’t us asking them if they had – this is the percentage of people that brought it up themselves in their conversations with us. So the actual number might actually be higher.

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Final thoughts

If there’s one thing you take away from this blog post, let it be this: Every team can do this, but more importantly I think every team should do this.

While I think employee evangelism is great for your company, in the end it’s about making our community great. Embedding these type of practices within every company means that we get more people sharing what they do, and what they love. If we want to see more diverse speakers at events, if we want to see more diverse writers share their stories, we need to support everyone to learn these skills and as tech leads we are in positions to change this.

So I want you all to think about this – the next time you came across something that one of your colleagues have done that could help someone else, help them to share it with the world. And maybe next year thanks to you, they will be somewhere on a stage sharing that story and trying to make the community a better place.

Enjoyed this post and want more? You might like: Blogging tips: How to start writing , How I got into conference speaking and Imposter Syndrome: How we act and work together.

Curious about how we do more things at FutureLearn? Read our “Making FutureLearn” posts.

Tags: Geeky

A couple of weeks back I got invited to share my blogging tips for the Women Hack for Non Profits monthly meetup. I couldn’t make the event, but since I’ve been helping friends and colleagues recently quite a bit with their blog posts, I thought it would be useful to write up some of the advice I found myself repeating quite a bit.

These tips aren’t really about how to get you blogging more often or how to set up your blog – rather, it’s about how to write a long form blog post/article. There’s also a lot of overlap here between how I approach creating my blog posts and my talks: you could easily apply a lot of these tips to creating a talk too!

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What story are you trying to tell?

Before writing anything, I try to sit down and think through all the different aspects of my blog post. For starters, who am I writing this post for? Are they other developers? Users of my product? Fans of a TV show? What’s their background, what do they know? Knowing who you’re writing for frames the entire article – for me, it makes it easier to understand and define the scope of what you’re attempting to write.

Once you know who you’re writing this post for, think about what story you’re telling them. What is it that you want them to take away from this post? What’s the key message? Are you trying to convince them of something? Are you sharing something that you did? Have an idea of what effect you want to have on your audience.

Create an outline

My process of writing typically begins with post-it notes. I’ll start with all the key points I want to make, including some of the answers I came up with to the questions in the previous section. Once I’ve got all those post-its I start grouping them and moving them around to create different sections. What I like about this method is that it allows me to play around with how I tell the story – it’s easier to move post-its around and come up with the structure that works best without being bogged down in paragraphs and paragraphs of text.

When done right, the groupings of post-it notes give me a good idea of the flow of my blog post. I’ll know what points I need to make in my intro and conclusion, plus the groupings will give me a rough idea of headings and their paragraphs. Of course, you might not necessarily have any post-its handy, but I think the main lesson is to think about the overall structure before diving in to write something.

Write the part that comes easiest to you

Once you know what to write, actually sitting down and writing can be quite tough. For me, it depends on the type of blog post, but often I’ll find that it’s the opening and intro I struggle the most with. In those cases: I initially just skip it and leave it for last. Start with whatever section is most clear in your mind and write it! There’s nothing stopping you from writing the post in the same order that somebody reads it.

Refactor and rewrite

It’s rare I’ll write something that I’m completely happy with in one go. Typically I’ll have an initial draft and go through it completely again – cutting parts, moving paragraphs around and turning it into a better story. Just like with refactoring code, you need to keep in mind that it’s all about making the end product better. Sometimes I’ll have written a sentence or paragraph that I completely love, but I know I need to cut, cause it just doesn’t work.

It will never be perfect

Finally, the main thing I’ve had to accept is that whatever I do none of my posts will ever be ‘perfect’. It’s sometimes super tricky to hit that publish button on something that you feel could be better, yet at the same time you can’t keep every single post in a drafted state forever.

Even now, just looking at this post, I feel as if maybe I’ve forgotten something, maybe there’s something else that should be included in this list. But it’s been hanging around in a draft state for about 2 weeks now and I haven’t made that many changes.

Waiting for perfection just gets in the way of sharing you know and helping others.

Tags: Geeky

This 10 minute talk by David Marquet got shared last week at work and I just love the ideas behind it. David tells his story of when he became captain of the USS Santa Fe, and started treating his crew as leaders, not followers:

Marquet has also written a book about this topic called ‘Turn The Ship Around!‘, which goes into more detail on how to apply Marquet’s approach to create a workplace where everyone takes responsibility for their actions. I’ve just started reading it and so far it’s great.

2016-03-02 18.11.07

Today it’s Time to Talk Day, a campaign to make people aware of mental health issues and to get people talking about them. I’ve dealt with a lot of anxiety in the past 15 years or so, but have to admit I’ve never talked to a professional about it or even really considered it a mental health “issue” I have. Looking back though I’m realising maybe I should have – maybe I could have made it easier for myself if I had. I guess part of me just thought that this is what being a grown-up means, that everyone experienced these things but I just wasn’t good enough at coping with them. And that in itself is why I’m writing this – if it helps only one single person out there, that alone means this post was worth writing.

This time she spotted me

Being “perfect” and Imposter syndrome

I think my anxiety started in the final years of high school. Before those final 2 years, I thought school was pretty easy. I’ve got an awesome short term memory, so memorising stuff for exams wasn’t very challenging, and I always considered myself in the top of the class. In those final years though, things changed – I still was getting high marks and performing well, but it took way more time and effort than it did before and I put a ton of pressure on myself to be that ‘perfect’ student again. I started feeling anxious and bad whenever I got a bad grade, leading to me putting even more pressure on myself, creating this continuous loop of pushing myself maybe a bit too hard.

And that only got worse when I went to university. I decided to study Computer Science without having programmed anything before in my life (well, except for my graphical calculator) and I was overwhelmed by the amount of stuff my peers already knew. Compared to them, I felt so inadequate – maybe I had made the wrong decision and I should have studied something else? Despite feeling like that, I kept pushing myself trying yet again to be that ‘perfect’ student even though I knew I could never be as good as my peers. And thanks to all my hard work, I did keep getting high marks for exams and assignments. I knew I wasn’t bad, but somehow I felt like it was just luck, that one day someone would expose me for the fraud I actually was.

At its worse, it would come on as full-on episodes of anxiety – I’d be sitting in the computer lab with a ton of other students around me, reading through the latest practical assignment and just freeze, knowing I didn’t know how to solve this problem. My chest would go all tight, my face and neck would go all red and splotchy, and the sound of my way-too-loud beating heart would drown out all the noise around me.

I now know that this is what is called Imposter Syndrome, but at the time I thought I was the only one feeling like this. Realizing that most people I know, even those who are way more experienced than I am, have dealt with imposter syndrome was a huge eye-opener to me. Hearing how I wasn’t the only person that has this and talking to others about their own experiences has been the main thing that has helped me deal with this type of anxiety. Knowing that most of us are ‘imposters’ and just trying the best we can has taken away that feeling that I don’t belong.

Throughout the years it’s gotten a whole lot less, but I’ll still have days where I don’t feel good enough – that I’m not doing the best I can. I’ll get stuck in loops of self doubt and blame for not having done more. It’s not quite Imposter Syndrome, but it still is anxiety about how I assume I should be. Especially after a day that hasn’t gone quite as I thought it would, I’ll get easily stuck in thinking of all the other ways I could have done something, replaying events over and over in my head.

The Worst Case Scenario Thinker

Tied to that is that there’s always this part of my brain that for any situation will try to come up with all possible outcomes – going down every path, be it good or bad. I’ll imagine all the ways past conversations could have gone, or how future conversations might go and (from a code perspective) come up with most edge cases before it’s needed. It’s a great skill to have (especially for work and board games), but only when I can reign it in and actually turn it into something I can act on.

In the worst case scenario though my worst case scenario thinker will focus way too much on the negative, coming up with a ton of unlikely and bad scenarios, causing me to freeze up and get massive panic attacks based on ‘what might happen’. I’ve had lots of sleepless nights where my mind has gone down the rabbit hole of doom and dread, conjuring up the worst things I can think of.

Nowadays it mainly happens to me when I’m doing stuff not part of my routine, like when I’m going on holiday. I’ll get super anxious just thinking about all the things I’ll forget to pack, how I’m going to miss my flights, how the airline will lose my luggage, how my flat will be burgled while I’m away, how the pet sitter will forget to feed my cats, how I’ll get lost and not find my way back to my hotel, how my bag, passport and money will be stolen, how… etc etc. I know most of it is unlikely and won’t happen, but it’s so easy to get trapped in thinking of all the negative that ‘could’ occur.

Understanding, compartmentalising and reflecting

For me, there have been 3 things that have helped a lot with how I deal with anxiety. The first is understanding. Identifying when I’m having a panic attack and understanding why it’s happening and what has triggered it, means I can try to stop my mind from going down the rabbit hole. I find the psychology of emotions fascinating (my master’s thesis was on facial expression recognition), and being able to learn what our brains do when we experience anxiety has helped me a lot (I find a good place to start is Emotional Intelligence from Daniel Goleman).

The second thing is compartmentalising. I’ll always have these parts of my brain that will pipe up at completely the wrong moments and I’ve accepted that they will always be there. I’ve realised though that I don’t always have to listen to them at that moment: I’ll acknowledge they’re there, then mentally shove it in a box and put it aside to open up later. I’ll never completely forget about that box though, and I will always get around to dealing with those thoughts and issues, but I’ll do it at a time when it works for me (rather than say in the middle of the night when I’m trying to sleep).

The third is reflecting. I wrote an entire article about doing personal retrospectives for 12 Devs during Christmas, so won’t go into too much detail here. Reflection for me is sitting down and taking the time just to think about all the things I’ve done and what I could have done differently. It’s a time to open the box with all the thoughts I had and to go through them. The main thing is doing it when it feels right to me – when I feel I have the right type of mind to deal with the issues.

I know these are just the things that I do and I have no idea whether or not they will help anyone else, but it might help just hearing how other people deal with stuff. I also know my version of anxiety isn’t as extreme as it can be for others, yet it will be more than what most people typically encounter. Anxiety is something that I know I need to deal with on a regular basis, and I know it will never fully go away for me. But talking about it, however hard and embarrassing and weird it might be, does help.