A stack.peek() into the Silicon Valley Bubble and Thoughts on Imposter Syndrome

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Tracy in San Francisco

The dominate culture in the Bay Area is tech. Unless you can live under a rock, the tech culture is omnipresent and inescapable.

As a quick day-in-the-life, I head out around 8am and walk towards my shuttle stop. I pass by startup offices on Castro Street, the heart of downtown Mountain View where cute restaurants line the street, people code in every coffee shop, interns hangout, and Google Waymo tests occasionally stroll by. My shuttle stop is right next to the CalTrain station, a popular public transit for getting to San Francisco. People inside the train type away on their laptops and phones, coding and responding to emails. Station billboards and train posters advertise software services and apps and rings of company shuttle services owned by Apple and LinkedIn zip by. I look for the Amazon Lab126 shuttle.

I step into my shuttle marked by an orange logo. As we drive through South Bay traffic, I look out the window to see tech offices, large and small, such as Firefox, Y Combinator, and Coursera. My company campus is a bunch of tall glass buildings interspersed with sidewalk and grass, surrounded by other glass buildings labeled HP, GoDaddy, Google, Microsoft Research, etc. and parking lots with Tesla’s and sports cars I’ve never heard of. I sit on the fifth floor of my building, where my kitchen has a view of a large field shared by NASA AMES Research, Moffett Airport, and Google for landing private planes and more Waymo testing.

Besides the fact that I just name-dropped a dozen or so tech company names, tech is the lifestyle, not just a profession. It’s normal for me to see engineers wearing T-shirts and slides to work, or walk past people discussing Node.js modules at the park, and overhear conversations about startups on the train. I’ve even had Uber drivers pitch to me their startup ideas and Lyft drivers asking me what coding languages, version control, and deployment systems I use at work. There is also something called a work-life blend, in which working overtime or at home is often expected, and being reachable for work issues outside of office hours is normal. Silicon Valley is a great place to be if you can handle the pressure to perform and the expensive cost of living.

This summer I was fully immersed in tech, a great learning experience, but not without some pressure. I was excited to be surrounded by so much innovation, knowledge, and productivity, but I felt stressed because I had to learn a lot in a short amount of time to finish and deploy my intern project on time, while navigating the jungle of internal systems, security, last minute changes, and presentations. 

Already during intern orientation, I started to feel a little bit of insecurity. I was surrounded by mostly CS guys from competitive universities who seemed as if they had been coding since elementary school. I, on the other hand, learned what computer science was my freshman year of college. At times I would have doubts of whether I was recruited on accident. Even while working on my project, I was hesitant to ask questions because I didn’t want to bother my mentor or seem less capable. I later realized that some problems could have been avoided earlier had I been less hesitant. After realizing this and changing my timid mindset, I started grasping things faster and getting the hang of things.

Now that I have finished my internship, I’ve come to some conclusions. One of the most important things I learned from my summer internship is to be confident in my lack of confidence. After I’ve tried my best on an issue for a while, there’s a point where I need to ask for help, because continuing alone would be inefficient and sometimes along the wrong path, especially at companies with tight security or infrastructure at a scope that new hires aren’t fully aware of. It’s better to be confidently unconfident than unconfidently unconfident. Be clear and upfront about what you do and do not know, and what you’ve already done or are struggling with. Directly ask for ways to improve and demonstrate initiative. Sometimes figuring out what you don’t know or what you need to know is an important step and even an accomplishment.

Imposter syndrome is a common feeling in the tech industry that people shouldn’t feel insecure about. The tech industry changes and grows quickly; there will constantly be a learning curve to stay in the industry, and more often than not there will always be someone better than you at what you are doing. If you are at a point that is too comfortable, it means you aren’t being challenged. Embrace the uncertainty. Be flexible and thank the people who help you.

Instead of focusing on the imposter feeling, I find it better to focus on the opportunities to learn new things and to be surrounded by smart people who can answer your questions. Even with the struggles, it’s a privilege to work in the tech industry. The innovation is exciting, fast-paced, and a launch point for the rest of the world, and we get to learn and be a part of it.

For now, I’m ready to stack.pop() the bubble and return to Duke.

Tracy Lu
Class of 2019
Major: Mechanical Engineering
Minors: Computer Science and Visual Arts
Internship: Amazon Lab126