Imposter Syndrome

Josh Hickling

Managing Consultant

Josh is one of Pentest Peoples managing consultants , coming from a university background, who's heavily interested in the ethical hacking world.

Imposter Syndrome

An industry with a vast amount of disciplines and specialisations is likely to make newcomers apprehensive when starting. An individual may consider the many paths they wish to walk down and become encumbered with feelings of fear and doubt in their abilities. This is a position that many cyber-security professionals are likely to find themselves in. This phenomenon is often referred to as ‘Imposter syndrome’, where a person continues to experience feelings of inadequacy despite evident and measurable success.

How Does Imposter Syndrome Affect Others?

I took some time to speak to a number of my peers about how imposter syndrome has affected them throughout their careers. Their experience in cyber-security ranges from graduate to senior.

One clear theme was noted throughout the conversations I had was that imposter syndrome is not something that disappears, it is something that each person will learn to collaborate with, in their own way. There is no single answer that will work for each individual in every situation. Despite that, there are common misconceptions that should be challenged and doing so may assist in jumping over the first hurdles one may experience when dealing with imposter syndrome.

Quite often people spend time comparing themselves to others. Someone may take notice of a co-worker who started at the same time as them, perhaps a co-worker that appears to be flourishing in the workplace through the success of exams and in-depth knowledge of an area of cyber-security unbeknownst to them. Comparing oneself to others can lead to a cycle wherein an individual feels as though they are not worthy of their position due to the success of others around them.

Not only is this likely to lower one’s self-esteem, which also leads to the exacerbation of imposter syndrome, but taking on this position removes the aspect of personalising ones learning process. This became another major talking point when speaking to my colleagues, individuals have their ways of learning that are bespoke to them. Some may prefer to learn through watching videos, others through reading articles and some prefer more practical methods of learning. Although most people may agree that their learning process embodies a mix of all different styles, it is important to experiment and take note of which methods are most effective. Additionally, the pace at which someone learns cannot be forced, it must be a process of finding the correct methods and ensuring that the topic is one of interest to the individual.

Working With Imposter Syndrome

Experimentation is one of the greatest tools in the process of identifying how to work with imposter syndrome. When first starting as a Penetration Tester there are likely to be several specialisations that will be introduced, web application testing, infrastructure testing, mobile testing and cloud testing to name a few. Instead of expecting to take on all forms of testing from the beginning, specialising in one field will likely offer the greatest advantage.

Specialising aids in building up foundational knowledge but also in developing those foundations to further advance expertise. Building upon foundational knowledge is likely to result in learning transferable skills that will assist in developing other specialities throughout your career. To use a real-world example, starting as a Web Application tester exposed me to the external infrastructure of web applications, this foundational knowledge of web application testing aided my development down the line in internal and external infrastructure testing. It is unjust to go through the trials and tribulations of learning to deal with imposter syndrome without mentioning one of the most powerful tools; other people.

I am lucky enough to be surrounded by industrious professionals and I take every opportunity to learn from them. Learning from others allowed me to ask questions in my way and continue querying answers until I can understand things to a satisfactory level. Although this would be achievable through search engines, it is much quicker to obtain valuable information from a conversation rather than scraping the web for what may start as an ambiguous question. It should be noted that the importance of checking the information you have acquired against a notable source cannot be understated.

Accepting Imposter Syndrome

Accepting imposter syndrome can be an effective way of dealing with uncertainty, it is not easy to admit feelings of anxiety, self-doubt and fear but doing so may allow you to become more aware of your emotions and how they are being processed. It’s equally important to be open to senior members, as those with more experience are likely to have dealt with similar issues and may be able to assist in personal improvement.

Imposter syndrome can be morphed into a powerful tool that enables one to exceed expectations of one’s self. A powerful voice that may have at one time put you off starting a project or taking on a challenging task can be transformed into the driving force behind proving your capability. Challenging the characteristics of imposter syndrome reduces the grip it holds.

As this was my first time writing a blog post I encountered imposter syndrome first-hand and took my own advice to assist in managing anxiety, fear and self-doubt. Initially, I accepted I will create and adapt my style and that I would not make comparisons to others work. Following that, I continued to learn about imposter syndrome, not only through communicating with my peers but also through doing my own research. Finally, I accepted my feelings of anxiety, self-doubt and fear and made a senior member aware of this. Although the emotions were still present, following these steps enabled me to adopt an unfamiliar challenge.

Psychological warfare aside, here are a few habits that may assist in creating a healthier working environment for one’s self:

  • Write your own notes – Cheat sheets are great but writing your own notes will help you retain more information and provides a great resource to go back to should you need a refresher.
  • Review your work every 3 months, the continual development will that you are developing and over 3, 6, 12, 24 months period show you just how far you have come.
  • Ask questions – If you’re feeling uncertain about a subject or assignment, make your feelings known to those who can help you and continue to ask questions until you’re confident in your knowledge.
  • Be open to questions – Your peers may ask your advice on a subject in which they may not be as knowledgeable. This process may allow you to further solidify your knowledge by explaining what may be a complex topic in a simplified manner.
  • Physical health is equally as important as mental health – Remember to exercise often and drink plenty of water.
  • Never stop!

Interested in a career at Pentest People? Take a look at what positions are available and join our growing team!

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