Carol Smith manages PROGRAMS, COMMUNITIES, and partnerships. SHE IS A PROGRAM MANAGER IN MICROSOFT’S OSPO AND BOARD DIRECTOR AND SECRETARY OF THE OSI. She previously worked at GitHub AND Google. She has a degree in Journalism from California State University, Northridge, and is a cook, cyclist, and horseback rider.

Imposter Syndrome and Why Project Management Isn’t a “Real Job”

You know those parents who told their children that their art degrees were never going to get them a “real job”? There’s a part of me that wishes my parents had told me that my job as a project manager would not be a “real job” either.

Granted, if we’re simply defining a “real job” as a job that pays nicely, has a career ladder, and that we can talk to our friends about, then it’s fine. But if we define (or we believe society when it tells us we should) a “real job” as something that at the end of the day produces a tangible, physical result, maybe we’re setting ourselves up for Imposter Syndrome without even realizing it.

Imposter Syndrome is that now well-understood problem where “people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved.” Women suffer from this more than men, of course. But I think tech workers suffer from this disproportionately in other industries, because the actual physical evidence of “doing a good job” is no longer there.

It used to be that our jobs produced cars and food. Those jobs still exist, of course. But now we have jobs that don’t necessarily produce tangible results at the end of the day, or even the end of the year. Even software engineers, who arguably produce the most in tech, are ultimately just pushing bits around on a screen. The world we live in day-to-day has become removed from reality. Now we look at pictures of nature on our computer screens instead of taking hikes. We farm bits on our computer screens instead of growing apples.

Project managers’ jobs are about moving around data. Even the human component of it, which I talk so much about, is really about producing more bits. At the end of the day I don’t sit at the dinner table at home and show off the widget I made at work to my family. So this is why we have to find other ways to remind ourselves that our work is important. We also have to find ways to remind ourselves that we are meant to be doing it if we’re doing it. We are in these jobs because we’re competent and we should recognize that.

I remind myself that I’m in the right job and not an “imposter” in a few ways:

  1. There’s very little “chance” to getting jobs nowadays. Employers don’t typically just look at someone’s resume and say to themselves, “eh, might as well. He’s not qualified, but what the heck could happen?” If we’re in a job function, it’s probably because people believe that we are qualified and can do a good job at it. Granted, there’s a lot of false negatives. If we’re out of a job, it doesn’t necessarily mean the reverse, that we’re not qualified. That’s more of a numbers game.
  2. We all have to make stuff up as we go along. If we’re in roles that aren’t well-defined and we have to pave our own way, or even if we’re just in a role that requires some improvisation, that doesn’t mean that someone else in that position would have all the answers. Making stuff up as you go along is a sign of competence, not incompetence.
  3. The jobs of today are important and meaningful, but in a much different way than jobs from the rest of human history. We are paving a new path in our evolution that is creating new job markets in fields that have never existed before. That’s going to take some getting used to. Our society is slowly understanding that this is the new world we live in, but humans can sometimes be slow to adjust and adapt.


Project Management for the Rest of Us