Conference Impostor Syndrome

In IT we’ve all heard of Impostor Syndrome by now. The feeling that you’re not just a lucky person that has no real skills or is skating by on the seat of their pants is a very real thing. I’ve felt it an many of my friends and fellow members of the community have felt it too. It’s easy to deal with when you have time to think or work on your own. However, when you take your show on the road it can creep up before you know it.

Conferences are a great place to meet people and learn about new ideas. It’s also a place where your ideas will be challenged and put on display. It’s not to difficult to imagine meeting a person for the first time at a place like Cisco Live or VMworld and not feeling little awe-inspired. After all, this could be a person whose works you’ve read for a long time. It could be a person you look up to or someone you would like to have mentor you.

For those in the position of being thrust into the limelight, it can be extremely difficult to push aside those feelings of Impostor Syndrome or even just a general level of anxiety. When people are coming up to you and thanking you for the content you create or even taking it to further extremes, like bowing for example, it can feel like you’re famous and admired for nothing at all.

What the members of the community have to realize is that these feelings are totally natural. You’re well within your rights to want to shy away from attention or be modest. This is doubly true for those of us that are introverts, which seems to happen in higher numbers in IT.

How can you fight these feelings?

Realize You Are Enough. I know it sounds silly to say it but you have to realize that you are enough. You are the person that does what they can every day to make the world a better place in every way you can. It might be something simple like tweeting about a problem you fixed. It may be as impressive as publishing your own network automation book. But you still have to stop and realize you are enough to accomplish your goals.

For those out there that want to tell their heroes and mentors in the community how awesome they are, remember that you’re also forcing them to look at themselves in a critical light sometimes. Some reassurances like, “I love the way you write” or “Your ability to keep the podcast going smoothly” are huge compliments that people appreciate. Because they represent skills that are honed and practiced.

Be The Best You That You Can Be. This one sounds harder than it might actually be. Now that you’ve admitted that you’re enough, you need to keep being the best person that you can be. Maybe that’s continuing to write great content. Maybe it’s something as simple as taking a hour out of your day to learn a new topic or interact with some new people on social media. It’s important that you take your skill set and use it to make things better overall for everyone.

For those out there that are amazed at the amount of content that someone can produce or the high technical quality of what they’re working on, remember that we’re all the same. We all have the same 24 hours in the day to do what we do. So the application of the time spent studying or learning about something is what separates leaders from the pack.

Build Up Others Slowly. This one is maybe the hardest of all. When you’re talking to people and building them up from nothing, you need to be sure to take your time in bringing them along. You can’t just swamp them with knowledge and minute details about their life that have gleaned from reading blogs or LinkedIn. You need, instead, to bring people along slowly and build them up from nothing into the greatest person that you know.

This works in reverse as well. Don’t walk up to someone and start listing off their requirements like a resume. Instead, give them some time to discuss it with you. Let the person you’re talking to dictate a portion of the conversation. Even though you may feel the need to overwhelm with information to justify the discussion you should let them come to their place when they are ready. That prevents the feeling of being overwhelmed and makes the conversation much, much easier.


Tom’s Take

It’s very easy to get lost in the world of feeling inadequate about what others think of you. It goes from adulation and excitement to an overwhelming sense of dread that you’re going to let people down. You have to fix that by realizing that you’re enough and doing the best you can with what you have. If you can say that emphatically about yourself then you are well on the way to ensuring that Conference Imposter Syndrome is something you won’t have to worry about.

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It’s Not The Size of Your Conference Community

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Where do you get the most enjoyment from your conference attendance? Do you like going to sessions and learning about new things? Do you enjoy more of the social aspect of meeting friends and networking with your peers? Maybe it’s something else entirely?

It’s The Big Show

When you look at shows like Cisco Live, VMworld, or Interop ITX, there’s a lot going on. There are diverse education tracks attended by thousands of people. You could go to Interop and bounce from a big data session into a security session, followed by a cloud panel. You could attend Cisco Live and never talk about networking. You could go to VMworld and only talk about networking. There are lots of opportunities to talk about a variety of things.

But these conferences are huge. Cisco and VMware both take up the entire Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas. When in San Francisco, both of these events dwarf the Moscone Center and have to spread out into the surrounding hotels. That means it’s easy to get lost or be overlooked. I’ve been to Cisco Live before and never bumped into people I know from my area that said they were going, even when we were at the same party. There are tens of thousands of people roaming the halls.

That means that these conferences only work well if you can carve out your own community. Cisco Live has certainly done that over the years. There’s a community of a few hundred folks that are active on social media and have really changed the direction of the way Cisco engages with the community. VMworld has their various user groups as well as VMUnderground constantly pushing the envelope and creating more organic community engagement.

You Think You Know Me

The flip side is the smaller boutique conferences that have sprung up in recent years. These take a single aspect of a technology and build around it. You get a very laser-focused event with a smaller subset of attendees based on similar interests. It’s a great way to instantly get massive community involvement around an idea. Maybe it’s Monitorama. Or perhaps it’s OSCon. Or even GopherCon. You can see how these smaller communities are united around a singular subject and have great buy in.

However, the critical mass needed to make a boutique conference happen is much greater per person. Cisco Live and VMworld are going to happen every year. There are no less than 10,000 – 15,000 people that would come to either no matter what. Even if 50% of last year’s attendees decided to stay home this year, the conference would happen.

On the flip side, if 50% of the DockerCon or OpenStack Summit attendees stayed home next year, you’d see mass panic in the community. People would start questioning why you’re putting on a show for 2,500 – 3,000 users. It’s one thing to do it when you’re small and just getting started. But to put on a show for those numbers now would be a huge decision point and things would need to be discussed to see what happens going forward.

Cisco Live and VMworld are fun because of their communities. But boutique conferences exist because of their communities. It’s important to realize that and drastic changes in a smaller conference community have huge ripples throughout the conference. Two hundred Twitter users don’t have much impact on the message at Cisco Live. But two hundred angry users at DockerCon can make massive changes happen. Each member of the community is amplified the smaller the conference they attend.


Tom’s Take

Anyone that knows me knows that I love the community. I love seeing them grow and change and develop their own voice. It’s why I work for Tech Field Day. It’s why I go to Cisco Live every year. It’s why I’m happy to speak at VMUnderground events. But I also realize how important the community can be to smaller events. And how quickly things can fall apart when the community is fractured or divided. It’s critical for boutique conferences to harness the power of their communities to get off the ground. But you also have to recognize how important they are to you in the long run. You need to cultivate them and keep the focused on making everything better for everyone.