June 17, 2012, 7:36 AM — 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.
THE TECH WORLD'S PROBLEMS WITH GENDER: ASUS apologizes over sexist butt tweet
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.
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.