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You Are Not an Imposter

Self-taught programmers

A substantial portion of IBM i programmers are self-taught, and many fell into programming purely by accident. Originally hired as operators to keypunch data into IBM midrange machines, these folks clawed their way into programming one IBM Guided Learning Center course at a time; one IBM SE impromptu tutorial session at a time; one COMMON session at a time; and one RPG report at a time. Over the years, this band of self-taught rogues has done an amazing job building enterprise software that has successfully run thousands of businesses for decades.

Self-Taught Developers

During the dawn of IBM’s midrange computers in the '70s and '80s, computer science degrees were available, but rarely, if ever, were they required for RPG programmer jobs. In addition to reference documentation, IBM also provided tutorials and classes (many free or at low cost) to help new programmers get up to speed. With motivation and a modicum of aptitude, it wasn’t all that difficult to learn how to create a report—or even a simple interactive program—with RPG. Those early stabs at automating manual workflows laid the groundwork for many applications that we both praise and curse as legacy applications today.

Most of us didn’t know back then about formal data structure design, programming patterns, or coupling and cohesion. Source control, networks (social and packet-driven), repeatable and testable deployment schemes, code reviews and testing, and agile technologies were decades away.

Imposter Syndrome

The complexities and challenges of modern systems have raised the stakes dramatically. Most IBM i shops are now multiplatform shops and have teams of formally educated programmers who bring considerable computer science skills to the table. Today, it’s quite challenging for self-taught programmers to keep up—but most have. They know the business, they know the data flows and they have acquired more formal education over the years. Despite keeping up, many of these self-taught programmers suffer from imposter syndrome. They can often go toe-to-toe arguing a complex topic with a highly educated young developer, but deep down the absence of a parchment certificate on the wall proclaiming them as computer scientists tugs at them.

I’ve taught thousands of RPG programmers over the years and have encountered many who suffer from imposter syndrome. This phenomenon describes individuals who are more than qualified for the positions they hold, yet feel as if they’re a fraud. If you’ve ever been in a meeting and thought to yourself, “What am I doing here? These folks are way smarter than I am?” then you likely have fallen into this trap of self-doubt.

Here’s my quick advice to self-taught RPG programmers who struggle with imposter syndrome:

  • Give yourself a break. You’ve been programming for decades and have hundreds of thousands of lines of code under your belt. Businesses have critical dependencies on the apps you’ve developed and contributed to.
  • Formal computer science education alone doesn’t solve problems. Your organization probably has several hoodie-wearing, degree-holding, book-smart programmers, but don’t let them intimidate you. While they may be able to do a mergesort in their sleep, they don’t know the business, its data flows, its processes and its bugs like you do. The value of decades of institutional knowledge shouldn’t be underestimated.
  • Ramp it up. Maybe you have let your skills slip a little. Catch up by learning Python or Git, buying a copy of Rob Conery’s “Imposter’s Handbook” (it’s full of top-level information on a variety of computer science topics) and taking online courses. I highly recommend this free CS 101 course from Stanford University (stanford.io/ 1Atcaae). It’s never too late to learn something new.
  • Don’t agonize over being wrong occasionally. No one can be right all of the time—and being wrong isn’t a reflection of your value and merit. Even exceptional coders are wrong once in a while.

Words of Wisdom

Bill Gates recently tweeted some advice for new graduates, but I think it’s just as applicable for those fighting imposter syndrome: “Surround yourself with people who challenge you, teach you and push you to be your best self.”

I’ve wrestled with bouts of feeling like an imposter many times. But invariably it’s a self-imposed feeling and I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by programmers who are gracious, encouraging and non-judgmental. The only one who can really make you feel like an imposter is you. And you know better, right?

Roger Pence is ASNA’s Product Evangelist and Marketing Director.

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