Impostor syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect in communities

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At OSCON 2016 in Austin, Jessica Rose, developer relations at Dream Factory, will give a talk called Impostor syndrome and individual competence. In this interview, she explains the role the Dunning-Kruger effect plays in open source communities, and offers tips for managers to help them recognize when candidates under- or over-estimate their own skill levels.

I first heard about impostor syndrome after I'd been in my career for about a decade and was also working on a Master's degree. How did you learn about impostor syndrome? And how has learning about it changed the way you think about your own expertise?

For something that's been so ever-present in my life, it's strange that I can't actually pinpoint the first time I encountered the concept of impostor syndrome. It's made me much more gentle about my own skill set and less likely to tear myself down for things I haven't yet mastered. It's also led me to be much more suspicious of those who play up their own skill sets, without a hint of vulnerability. I always wonder if they're just better at faking their way through their fears than I am.

As you point out in your OSCON talk description, people in the tech industry are continually learning. What do you mean when you say that we need to focus on "level-appropriate input"?

The idea of level-appropriate input is something that I've come to value through my background in education. In education and training, offering level-appropriate input is the goal of presenting learners with tasks that are challenging, but completable to maximize opportunities for learning. As technologists, we're always needing to master the next new skill. Looking to assessment to help us find what level-appropriate input is going to meet our needs is an incredible way to learn smarter.

Tell us a little about the role the Dunning-Kruger effect plays in open source communities.

I love the Dunning-Kruger effect. The short version of it is that the Dunning-Kruger effect demonstrates that the least skilled are unable to see their own lack of skill and to see the real skill in others. They're effectively skill-blind. In open source we like to tell ourselves that we run one of the rare, true meritocracies. But recognizing that our open source communities are made up of humans and are challenged by the same biases and frailties that impact humans in every context is one of the big hurdles we need to get over to start building more accessible and equitable open source communities—ones that really do focus more on skill and community contributions.

What questions can we ask ourselves to help determine whether we have impostor syndrome?

I like to step back from the issue that's making me feel like a fraud and take a break to ask myself several questions, whenever I start to feel overwhelmed with feeling like a fraud. Just stopping to examine the feeling can be a great way to interrupt a panicked feedback loop. Asking yourself to articulate what your fear is, what is it about the skill you wish you knew, and how you could better develop the skill you're seeking is an incredible way to focus more on the skill needed instead of the feelings of inadequacy.

What questions can we ask ourselves to help determine whether we're influenced by the Dunning-Kruger effect?

The key findings from the study [Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments] that discovered the Dunning-Kruger effect were that the unskilled are unable to see their own lack of skill, that they can't recognize skill in others, but most importantly that the unskilled can only move past their lack of skill when they recognize their own lack of skill. It's a bit of a catch-22; the terminally unskilled are unable to identify skill and move on to develop it. Honestly, if you're stopping to ask yourself and reflect on if Dunning-Kruger is impacting your decision making, you've probably got enough self awareness that it's not likely to impact you.

What tips do you have for hiring managers to help them recognize when candidates under- or over-estimate their own skill levels?

I love asking employers to talk out in more detail what they're looking for in talent. What will you need your new hire to do in the first two weeks? In the first three months? What kind of communication skills will they need? How important is their ability to grow and learn on the job?

Third-party fixes like GapJumpers can be a great way of pre-loading candidates with a focus on their skills into the interview pipeline. I love the use of short but relevant tests, asking to look over open source or past project code together, or asking interviewees to pair program with a new technology can all be great ways to get potential hires to demonstrate the skills you really need on your team.

What resources do you recommend for team leaders who want to learn more about how to mitigate the effect of cognitive biases on group dynamics?

This is such a great question! So much of the impact of cognitive biases in group situations comes down to the individuals who make up the group being aware of these biases and their potential effects. The resource I would most like to direct team leaders to are the people they're leading. Talk to them about their concerns and biases. Create an environment with minimal risk, where people can come forward and share their concerns without fear.

I think 2016 is shaping up to be the Year of the Open Source Haiku. Explain impostor syndrome via haiku.

I'm just faking it
I don't know what I'm doing
But others seem fine

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Rikki Endsley is the Developer Program managing editor at Red Hat, and a former community architect and editor for


I love reading about Dunning-Kruger and have witnessed it on the receiving end. Sometimes I feel like an impostor too. I think it's good to have a Zen/Beginners mind and be cognizant of how important it is to realize that I am part of a great whole.

omgosh love the haiku!! perfect summary for a great post.

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