How to not feel dumb around “smart” programmers

When going to programming meetups, conferences, or starting a new job, it can be extremely easy to feel dumb around other engineers there. Sometimes these engineers truly are geniuses, but many times they’re not as “smart” as your immediate imposter syndrome is leading you to believe.

My advice, especially for beginners, is to remember that these people are probably talking about a domain they are extremely familiar with, and have spent probably 1000x the time with than you. You probably have stumbled upon to a topic that they are specifically knowledgeable about, which gives the impression that they’re ultra smart (and you’re ultra dumb, for not knowing anything about it).

The key is to remember that this impressive depth of knowledge is likely limited in breadth. If you were talking about your domain, you’d might know a lot more than them.

It’s also easy to feel dumb when watching a conference talk. My trick here is to remember that the reason this person can speak so confidently about such a technical topic is because, again, they’ve spent 1000x more time on it than you have. They’re had their face pressed directly against this problem for a long time, which is why they know all this and can talk about it.

This comes from my experience:

  • Entering the programming world (feeling dumb at hacker club in college)
  • Enter the infosec world (feeling dumb at infosec conferences)
  • Going to conferences not directly in my expertise (i.e. the LLVM Dev Mtg)
  • Entering the audio programming world (feeling dumb at audio conferences)
  • Feeling dumb in many, many conference talks

Any thoughts?