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Gmail engineer: Women must overcome the impostor syndrome

Google site reliability manager talks life, success and motivation at the Women in Advanced Computing conference

By , Network World
June 13, 2012 04:49 PM ET

Network World - It's been a long, interesting journey for Google site reliability manager Sabrina Farmer, who talked about work, success and overcoming self-doubt at the Women in Advanced Computing conference in Boston.

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For one thing, her goals have changed substantially. After high school, "all I wanted to do was have my own apartment."

"I had no intention of going to college," she said. However, a visit, with a friend, to the University of New Orleans, convinced her otherwise. An innate comfort with computers - "I had once sat down and programmed a little guy to run across my TV screen, in BASIC" - saw her join the computer science department there.

Self-doubt and overeager self-criticism, Farmer said, can be crippling to women in the tech industry, where they are almost always in the minority. And she encountered plenty of it herself during her college years. By the time her first class had winnowed itself from 60 students down to just 20 by the time of the final, she was the only woman left.

"That was the beginning of the impostor syndrome for me. ... 'What did I miss?' 'I don't belong here,' 'I don't fit in...' so I started to be really conservative. I never talked in class. I never shared with my peers," Farmer said. It turned college from a great experience into an exercise in isolation.

The impostor syndrome, as Farmer noted, was originally documented in psychological literature in 1978, and was first applied to highly accomplished women who nonetheless felt as though they had achieved their success through luck or fraud.

Three questions

Regardless, Farmer quickly began to succeed far more completely than she had anticipated. Within a year of graduating - again, as the only woman in her class - she was working in Silicon Valley and making twice what her mother made after 20 years of work as a legal secretary.

Her appetite for a challenge grew. "If a problem seemed impossible, I wanted to do it," she said of her early days in the valley. And when the familiar specter of the impostor reappeared, Farmer used three questions to maintain an even keel.

"What's the problem? What's the worst thing that could happen? And is what you're feeling real, or just your perspective?" she said.

Nor did she confine her use of the technique to her professional life - she used it to talk herself into completing multiple triathlons and even trying to run a marathon.

"I will not try that again," she said, to some amusement. "The 'worst thing that could happen?' It's bad."

Farmer went to Google after 10 years in the industry.

"I wanted to see if I could be an individual contributor at one of the top companies in the Valley," she told the crowd. "And it was awesome. The problems were hard, but I could do them. The people I worked with were great, and they thought I was good too."

And then, kids.

Not much changed after Farmer got married - "I told my husband if he ever told me to choose him over my career, he was going to lose," she said - but parenthood was a different story, forcing her to change her priorities for the first time in a while.

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