18 June 2015

"I'm not a technical person, but..."

Impostor syndrome seems to be emerging as a theme in posts and comments this #blogjune: both Kate Davis and Kathryn Greenhill have written great pieces about this. I appreciate people's willingness to share their vulnerabilities in this way. There is something reassuring about knowing other people feel the same way, even if it's a little dismaying to see how these feelings hold us back from contributing fully in our workplaces and developing as professionals.

A few months ago I spoke to my supervisor about some insecurities I had about my new role. My place of work has a fully converged library-IT structure, so much so that we do not even have "the library" as an organisational division, just library services that are delivered out of different groups  in ways that (hopefully!) maximise the use of central infrastructure and encourage innovation and collaboration by different types of information professionals. As a middle manager within this unusual organisational structure, I'm expected to contribute to operations, planning and strategy for systems and services that are well outside my own area of expertise. This was implicit in the position description for my job but it has still been a surprise and a challenge.

Although the primary focus of my team is on library systems, scholarly repositories and publishing platforms, I represent my director and my portfolio in a range of forums where IT infrastructure, application and support across all areas of the university is discussed. In these forums I often feel nervous about speaking up. I worry about making a fool of myself and about making my director or my colleagues look bad and this can affect the way I contribute. What I had observed, and what I talked to my supervisor about, was a tendency to start any comments I was making with something along the lines of "I'm not a technical person, but..." Obviously if you want to build credibility, being tentative and giving people a reason to dismiss what you say before you even get started because you obviously don't even believe in it yourself is not really a great start.

I know that this is not rational. I know that I have successfully managed complex projects with technical aspects and have learned enough of the lingo to be able to effectively work with software developers, business analysts, systems administrators, storage analysts and other types of IT professionals. I know that I have skills and experience that other people in these groups do not, including an understanding of critical legal and regulatory requirements like copyright, recordkeeping and privacy. I know that there is a need for people who can build bridges between hard core IT professionals and other groups of users and stakeholders, and that is one of my strengths. I know that IT managers come from a variety of backgrounds and cannot have in-depth knowledge of everything, and that by the time they reach middle or senior management their technical skills must necessarily give way to other types of expertise anyway. I know that succesful IT programs need more than just technical understanding and that the soft skills that librarians have can make all the difference. And I know that my seat at the table has not been given to me by accident because someone failed to notice I am a complete fraud.

But knowing all this doesn't always make me feel any better, and I am trying to understand this so that I can change it.  I do think that diversity is part of the problem: I went to a meeting this week where I was the only woman and there were eighteen men: I have joked in the past that this will be the closet I will ever get to feeling like Julie Bishop! Librarianship is a female-dominated profession and being visibly in the minority in workplace situations rather than in the majority must affect me somehow. Being an introvert makes some of these situations challenging, and being a perfectionist can also lead to unconstructive behaviours like failing to speak up for fear of making a mistake.

Anyway, here's what I am doing to try to address this. I would love to hear from you if you have any strategies of your own that you think I should try!
  1. I've acknowledged this is a problem that I need to address. I've talked about it with my supervisor and other colleagues and I'm talking it about it here. No regrets.
  2. I've identified this as a professional development need and am considering how best to build my IT skills and knowledge through internal training courses, external events (the CAUDIT Leadership Institute might be a possibility) and self-directed learning.
  3. I am preparing for meetings well in advance, so that I can think through and write down my concerns rather than try to verbalise them on my feet during the meeting. If you are responsible for organising meetings, please people, send out agendas and papers in advance to help everyone make their best contribution.
  4. I've had positive feedback from a senior staff member about my participation in at least one of these groups, and I have tried to take this on its own merit, and to consider that how I come across to others and how I feel on the inside could be quite different. I've realised that I can help others that might be feeling like me by preparing them for what the meetings will be like, trying to make them feel comfortable during the meeting (it isn't hard to give someone presenting to a committee a warm smile and your attention) and providing positive feedback after meetings about the contribution someone has made. Doing this for other people helps me be less hard on myself too.
  5. And finally, I'm removing the phrase "I'm not a technical person, but..." from my vocabulary. I am a technical person, and I need to start seeing myself that way and presenting myself that way to others.