Tola Alade has a job in data that she loves at Lloyds Banking Group, is an international speaker giving presentations on her career in data, having spoken at Domino Data Lab in London and New York. She is also a trained mathematician who transferred from one university to another in order to give herself the best chance of achieving a top degree classification.
So it was surprising to hear her say that she has always suffered from ‘imposter syndrome’ and still does. However, she is currently able to manage it better as she works in a healthy environment.
People with imposter syndrome think that their success is down to luck or good timing, and this was the case with Alade even before her career had started. With an aptitude for mathematics, she studied maths and computer science at university and was determined to get a first class degree.
“I definitely thought I got lucky.”
She was so focused on reaching that goal that she even changed university to focus on mathematical aspect of her course but when she did get that first, she didn’t think it was down to her talent and strategy. “I definitely thought I got lucky,” she said.
Her imposter syndrome is characterised by undermining her successes. With regard to her daily tasks and her achievements, she said she is always doubting herself. “You do something you know is right and you feel it is not good enough and you start looking for faults that other people are going to find,” she said.
This leads her to lack confidence when she is presenting her work because she felt that others would have done a better job of it, that she would get negative feedback and that someone else would have to redo her work.
"I need to celebrate the successes, not focus on things I don’t know."
Alade said that imposter syndrome can feel even more intense for those working in data science as she does, where data professionals are often expected to be experts in all areas. Therefore recognising her accomplishments can feel more difficult. She said: “If I have done something good, I need to celebrate the successes and not focus on things I don’t know, especially in the field I work in. I wouldn’t know everything. But that’s OK because specialisation is also an option in my field.”
One of the most important ways that Alade has found to deal with imposter syndrome is to work in a healthy environment. In her words, it makes a massive difference. At one workplace, a lack of support from colleagues coupled with managers who put her down exacerbated her lack of confidence. She also had no faith in HR to improve the situation which prompted her to leave.
"I removed myself from that unsupportive environment."
She said: “I could see it affecting me in and out of work. I spoke to my colleagues and manager but it was like speaking to a wall, so I decided to remove myself out of that environment.”
“I stick to my specialisation. I feel that helps me.”
Alade deals with her imposter syndrome by focusing on what she does know and imparting that knowledge to others, while admitting when she doesn’t. Right now is she writing tutorials for the Cambridge Spark, a data science for professionals bootcamp. “I’m just writing the stuff that I know, which is OK because I’ve solved problems using those specific techniques,” she said. “I stick to my specialisation. I feel that helps me.”
At the present time, it is important for Alade to remain self-critical so that she can be aware of where there is room for improvement and thus continue to grow and be better at what she does. It is also imperative for her to remain in a healthy work environment where she is working with peers and managers who challenge her and help her to get better at what she does. However, dealing with imposter syndrome is an ongoing battle.
“I have weeks where I think ‘I am not good enough to be on this project’ and I get into panic mode. But one thing that helps me is reassuring myself that I do know something and I am able to contribute something.”