Fostering Strength & Vulnerability with CallRail's Crystal Thornton
Crystal Thornton has long mastered the perfect chocolate cake, but that doesn't keep her from trying out new recipes. She's currently working on making edible glass structures out of isomalt sugar.
She's always been one to take on new challenges, whether in the kitchen or in life. She usually succeeds at them, too—and often goes above and beyond. Like when she set out to run a 5k and ended up completing five marathons. Or when she entered her first bodybuilding Figure competition.
But like 75% of women in leadership who told KPMG that they experienced feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt in their careers, Crystal has struggled with imposter syndrome despite her many professional successes.
"I'm probably the best hype woman or cheerleader possible," says the engineering manager at call tracking software company CallRail. "But I don't do that enough for myself." Even her husband, she says, has noted that she always under-credits her accomplishments, from successful bakes to big promotions.
Over the last few years, Crystal has made a point of addressing that imposter syndrome. "I am going to speak into existence who I am and what I want for myself, and realize that I'm worthy and I'm deserving," she says of her new approach to her worth.
We sat down with Crystal to learn how she's come to recognize and address those feelings of doubt, as well as how she's working to pay that recognition forward by creating an environment for her team where everyone feels supported and welcome.
Building a career and navigating toxicity
Crystal first thought she wanted to be a teacher, like her mom, and studied English and African-American Studies to prepare for that career. When she graduated, though, she was more inspired by communication outside of the classroom, so she started working as a technical writer.
While she was good at the work, Crystal says she struggled with the culture. "I was in a predominantly white environment; I was the only Black woman there," she says. "I was in a junior role, trying to figure out the lay of the land, and I just did not have the support that I needed." Crystal now identifies that manager as the first person who made her feel "less than" at work. "No matter what I did, I just didn't feel like I could do anything to get into the good graces of my manager. It was very toxic and I could not figure out why I always felt so small after work each day."
She wanted to leave that role, but she felt like she needed more experience under her belt first, so she stuck with it for two years before becoming a QA analyst.
She quickly proved her talent in that space, becoming a test lead and then a senior QA engineer, but she still had a hard time owning her success. She was doing a teambuilding exercise and couldn't think of a response to the prompt "What's something you're proud of?" when she first realized she was belittling her own accomplishments.
It wasn't until Crystal was at CallRail and had what she calls a "truly great manager" that she started to see herself differently. "He always encouraged me, listened to my ideas, and pretty much let me run my career. He gave me a lot of open space to figure out what I wanted to do, and to make my own mistakes as well," she says. "It got to the point where I would pinch myself, like I cannot believe that I am finally somewhere where I am happy and can grow with the best manager."
When she was considering taking a promotion to become a QA manager at CallRail, he supported her—and helped her feel confident enough to apply for the promotion beyond that one, too.
Leaning in, with help
Crystal was listening to a presentation by CallRail's VP of Engineering when she heard him say they were looking to hire an engineering manager and that those in QA were welcome to apply.
"My ears perked up," she says, "but I thought, 'He's just saying that so we won't feel left out. I have no coding experience whatsoever, why would they want me to be an engineering manager?'"
The VP's encouragement to apply wasn't enough to crack the imposter syndrome that Crystal was still dealing with.
But then her manager checked in and told her she should go for it. "If he hadn't pushed me a little bit, I know that I would not have even thought about applying for the engineering manager role," says Crystal.
And then her good friend gave her a speech about why she needed to apply: "'You can do this. You're already doing this. You will be a great engineering manager. Stop talking yourself down. You will be awesome,'" remembers Crystal.
And that did it.
She applied and was offered the position, and even then, it took several days for it to sink in that she was about to make a big move in her career.
That was the moment she decided to face her imposter syndrome head-on. She realized there were two stages to dealing with it: first, leaning into the support of the people around her who believed in her. And second, remembering to believe in herself. "The question I ask is, 'Why NOT me?'" says Crystal.
"For the longest time, I felt pressure to not fail. I felt that I had to work extra hard to prove myself, and to prove that I belonged. At the time when I started my career in the tech industry, I did not see a lot of people that looked like me. I didn't have a community to lean into for support, which is why I love to see all of the new groups that have been formed, like Technologists of Color, for example."
Now, as an engineering manager, Crystal is working to pay that forward.
"That support goes a long way, 'cause a lot of us don't have that support," she says. "I don't take that for granted. My goal is to be that same support for someone else. Navigating in this industry, well really, life, I have learned to not only advocate for others, but to advocate for myself. For a long time I could not find my voice so I didn't use it. After a while, I found out just how much of a disservice it was to my growth in my career. How can I expect to help others if I can't speak up for myself?"
Enabling happiness, and 3 ways to support that
As a manager, Crystal knows that all of her team members will be different. As such, she works to create an environment where everyone can thrive, understanding that what works for one person won't work for another. That's part of why she chose a career at CallRail in the first place, and she wants to contribute to building the culture that has been so welcoming to her.
"I was consulting with a company where I had to travel five days a week, and I decided that the next company I went to had to have work-life balance and great benefits," she says. "That's how I ended up at CallRail. I needed to feel happy, whole, and accomplished."
There are a few things Crystal has identified that are important not just for individual managers to do but for companies to enable at scale in order to foster an inclusive culture that works for everyone:
- Be intentionally inclusive. "Make it known that you're trying to include everyone in some way," says Crystal. "Everybody's career path is going to be different. Everybody's walk of life is going to be different." At CallRail, for example, Crystal points to the top-down focus on diversity and inclusion, sponsorship of ERGs for people of color, and mentorship programs.
- Encourage feedback and really listen to it. "Even as a leader, I might not know what's going on," says Crystal. "I depend on the people who report to me to tell me what's going on so I can fix any issues." This means going beyond anonymous surveys, she says, and really showing employees that you're making changes that impact them for the better.
- Create safe spaces through communication and a focus on personal growth. "People need to feel like they're able to come to work and be comfortable and accepted," she says, highlighting how truly important that was throughout the last year of economic uncertainty and a racial reckoning.
Vulnerability in the present
One of Crystal's managerial superpowers is that she is just as comfortable with what she doesn't know as she is with what she does. "When I found out I was going to be a manager for some really smart people, I was like, 'Oh, gosh, that guy could probably create an app on the fly, I can't do that!'" she says. "But then I said, 'Crystal, that's not your job. You're not supposed to code. You're not supposed to solve the outage issue. Your job is to support your team and provide guidance for their careers. You are there to be their person and advocate for them.'"
And now, while her imposter syndrome does pop up every once in a while, Crystal knows how to stay focused on all her accomplishments that have brought her to this present moment, without worrying if she deserves to be there or what's next.
"I'm enjoying being an engineering manager," she says. "I'm growing. And if I'm thinking about a five-year plan, I am going to miss out on some great times. I'm going to start overthinking. I'm going to create problems that haven't even occurred yet. And I just don't need that type of negativity in my life. That's just my rule in general right now."
"I mean, if I learned anything last year," she adds, "it's that plans often don't go according to plan! Take it day by day, week by week, and month by month. Really take time to appreciate life!"
How Zapier Director of Compensation Jocelyne Wright-McLemore Is Tackling Imposter Syndrome as a Black Woman in HR
Jocelyne Wright-McLemore has a sticky note that she looks at every day: "I'm overqualified and I can do this."
Zapier's Director of Compensation put that sticky note up shortly after she rolled out a big new project at the online automation company and received some critical feedback on it. Though the criticism came from a tiny portion of her audience and the project was a success overall, hearing it brought back some of the self-doubt and imposter syndrome that she faced earlier in her career.
After 17 years in her industry, Jocelyne still needs to remind herself of the message on that sticky. We talked with Jocelyne about how she found her way into HR and what advice she has for others who are looking to build and be confident in their own career path—particularly other Black women.
Having, losing, and regaining confidence
Jocelyne's responsibilities at Zapier include building out a compensation philosophy and pay ranges, conducting a pay equity analysis, and coming up with innovative ways to handle paying a truly global remote workforce operating out of 33 different countries. She can't imagine doing anything but comp work now, but that wasn't always the case.
After graduating high school, Jocelyne wasn't sure what she wanted to do. She worked as a secretary, then in the shipping industry and then in HR for a small gaming startup. It was there that she realized she loved helping people and reached out to the HR manager to figure out a growth path within HR.
Five years into an HR career that regularly saw her crushing big CEO presentations and building out new programs, she decided to take a HR certification course. It was there that she recognized that there was a certain way she preferred to help people—and one that lined up with her introverted tendencies.
"Part of that certification was a course on compensation, and I was like, 'This is what I'm destined to do,'" remembers Jocelyne. "Being heavily interactive was not suited to my personality; it took a lot out of me. And [comp] was a way to help people, but not be so directly connected to them."
Jocelyne worried at first, since math had never been her favorite, and a role in comp required it. But she finished a school project that had her building a compensation structure, philosophy, and pay scales, and it showed her she could do it. "Come to find out, I'm not so bad at math! As long as I can figure out how to work Excel, Excel will do the math for me," she says, smiling.
After working on her certificate, Jocelyne took on a new Compensation role, and it was there that her confidence started to falter.
She'd always been able to figure out any project, but her new manager kept her off balance, praising her one day and giving her incredibly harsh feedback the next. "She made me question if I really knew what I was talking about, if I should be doing this," says Jocelyne.
She eventually left that company and that manager, but the experience stuck with Jocelyne, to the point that even now, years later, she's reminded of it when her competence is called into question, like it was with her first big project at Zapier.
Investing in herself
Along with her full-time role at Zapier, Jocelyne is also finishing her college degree. Though she's had a decade and a half of HR work experience, she recognized that a degree was still part of the career journey she wanted for herself. And additionally, with a long-term goal of becoming an independent compensation consultant, Jocelyne knows a degree will help cement her expertise especially as a Black woman stepping into the entrepreneurial space
"For as long of a career as I will have had by then, it should be my proof, but I'm going to get the piece of paper anyways," says Jocelyne.
As she's gone through her program, though, it's not just box-checking. She's finding real value in what she's learning, both on a specific subject matter level—like on the philosophy of change management—as well as broader subjects, like history.
One of the classes that has taught Jocelyne the most is her Survey of U.S. History class. Jocelyne grew up between countries in a military family. She was born in the U.S., then spent most of her formative years in Kenya and Belize. Most of her education followed a British curriculum, so this was the first time she was exposed to U.S. history in depth.
"That was enlightening. I didn't fully understand some of the impacts of Reconstruction that have continued to carry on," she says. "There were times I had to walk away from the textbook because I was so disturbed and outraged. These were things that happened to my ancestors, and some not in the distant past. My granny, who passed away last year at 94 years, lived through so many things that may seem so long ago, but really aren't. Even more so, the things that I have been experiencing as a Black adult in America are, in many ways, systematic and deeply rooted.
Recognizing pressure and finding support
Zapier first reached out to Jocelyne in 2019, and she eventually joined in June of 2020, excited by the role and the chance to work with people she connected with. "The culture and the values really spoke to my spirit; I just felt at home," she says. "I saw this as a chance to really put my mark on something and build something I was proud of, in an environment I hadn't been in before."
But joining in the midst of a nationwide reckoning of racial injustice, especially as the only Black director at the time, was tough.
"I wasn't really sure how to show up. I didn't know how to exist. That's probably a weird thing to say, but when you're a Black person navigating a world that's not necessarily meant for you to be as successful as you could be, you have a way of showing up and working in the world that works for you. And in that moment, it felt like the spotlight was on us," she says.
Jocelyne says she felt a lot of pressure. "Here are people fighting for social justice, for equal opportunity, and I felt like I needed to show up and prove why that's a good thing. I felt like I was the face of the moment, the face of Black people—of 'we're competent, we can do this, you should trust us,'" she says.
It was a difficult time, and that's when Jocelyne first started working with an external coach, L. Michelle Smith. Zapier offers coaches as employee benefits, and Jocelyne's coach was another successful Black woman who helped her unpack why she felt that pressure and what to do about it.
"Working through that with her really helps me understand this is partially a cultural thing, especially for Black women. We're sort of taught to be the caretaker for all, to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders, to be the best. And so recognizing that part of it was cultural and carried down helped me start to recognize those behaviors and start to shift how I addressed and expressed those thoughts and emotions," says Jocelyne.
No imposters here
It was that coach who helped connect Jocelyne's other workplace worries—the self-imposed ones about whether she was qualified for the role she'd been hired to do—with the term "imposter syndrome."
Jocelyne had first learned of the term in a Zapier onboarding course for new employees. She unpacked it further with her coach, who reminded her of a few things: that Jocelyne's entire career was full of success stories, that she's actually overqualified to do some of the projects on her plate, and that she was picked from a huge pool of candidates to do this exact role.
For other women struggling with imposter syndrome or with finding the confidence to pursue the career path of their dreams, consider Joceyne's advice:
- Invest in discovery and self-analysis. If you're unhappy in your current role, says Jocelyne, "Ask questions. Is it the environment? Is it the people? Or the job itself?"
- Talk to others. Don't underestimate the power of your network. "When I was at that horrible job, everyone who knew me was trying to find me a new job!" says Jocelyne. Find your circle and let them help you feel validated and supported.
- Ask for what you want. "I think for women, it's a muscle that we have to work a lot harder at, but you should always ask," says Jocelyne, who coaches several women and often starts with encouraging them to advocate for themselves.
And if it helps, add a sticky note for yourself, too. Jocelyne's got one to recommend: "I'm overqualified and I can do this."
Like many of the developers at Braintree, I didn't study CS in college. Instead, I stumbled onto an online Python course four years after graduating with a degree in economics. I remember the thrill of writing my first program, which not only worked, but actually did something useful. Admittedly, the "usefulness" of the program -- which found the most common word in a text file -- was debatable, but the experience revealed to me that tedious manual tasks can be accomplished with problem-solving logic and a few lines of code.
I recently attended a DjangoGirls meetup hosted by Braintree, where I spoke with a number of female developers whose experience was similar to mine. We all shared a passion for the problem-solving aspect of programming, but we had grown up thinking that software was the domain of the solitary geniuses who had been rebuilding computers and configuring servers since early childhood. Even until recently, I often wondered if I could ever be a "real" software developer because I didn't have the right background.
What attracted me to programming was its logic -- identifying a problem, then figuring out how to write code to solve it.
I quickly discovered, however, that logic is only one component of software development. In my first few months at Braintree, I faced a continual stream of terms and concepts that were foreign to me, but which seemed elementary to everyone else. Proxy servers, gpg encryption, database clusters, middleware, worker queues, continuous integration, ssh agents, program threads....¹ I was fortunate to have coworkers who responded to my questions with patience and understanding instead of open shock at my ignorance. But even their helpful explanations sometimes left gaps in my understanding. I often turned to Google, which led to Wikipedia articles containing even more terms I didn't know, and a seemingly never-ending "wiki-hole." At times, I took this struggle as a sign that I didn't belong in the software industry.
I know that this feeling of imposter syndrome is not unique to female developers, but because women are less likely to have been encouraged to explore programming at an early age, they are more likely to enter the field unfamiliar with fundamental concepts.
Braintree is committed to breaking down the barriers that keep women out of tech, so I share my story with the hope that it will encourage women who might otherwise think they don't "have what it takes" to be a developer. An innate understanding of the software ecosystem is not what makes a great developer. A love of problem-solving and the willingness to work through difficult concepts, to ask questions, and to be honest about what you know and don't know -- these are the essential qualities of great developers.
I also write this as a call to more senior developers. When working with less experienced developers (male or female), share not only what you know, but also what you once didn't know. One of the most helpful things I was told in my first few months at Braintree was, "Don't expect to feel like you know what you're doing for at least six months. Maybe a year." Knowing that I was not alone in my confusion allowed me to ask questions and make mistakes, and to do the best I could within the boundaries of what I knew while working to push those boundaries further. I can easily imagine quitting if not for the encouragement of those around me, the positive feedback on the things I was doing well, and the reminder that the things I had yet to master took time.
I've now been at Braintree almost a year. I still ask a lot of questions. But increasingly I find myself in conversations where I'm using and understanding language that would have been gibberish to me six months ago. And the biggest difference isn't just in terms of what I know, it's that the new questions I have no longer make me question whether or not I belong here.
- ...SSL certificates, SDKs, ports, sockets, deploys, cron jobs, Redis, virtual machines, builds.
Worried about those moments when you feel like a fraud at work? Learn how to see imposter syndrome as a good thing
Below is an article originally written by Candace Whitney-Morris at PowerToFly Partner Microsoft, and published on March 23, 2018. Go to Microsoft's page on PowerToFly to see their open positions and learn more.
Building your career is a journey filled with challenges, excitement, and forks in the road. And journeys are easier with maps. In this column, job experts answer your questions and deliver advice to help you take the next step.
Question: Sometimes I feel like I'm in over my head at work, like I don't belong, or like I am not good enough. Any advice for how to overcome this feeling?
Answer: Anyone who tries to achieve something new or who moves out of their comfort zone could feel like a fraud at one time or another. And while there might not be an official senior manager of imposter syndrome, Trish Winter-Hunt has certainly seen and worked through the phenomenon enough to develop expertise on the matter. If you haven't experienced imposter feelings yet, said Winter-Hunt, senior content experience manager at Microsoft working with Windows devices, it's just a question of time.
In all her years as a professional communicator, working in public relations, marketing, and communications with PhDs and C-suite executives across a range of organizations, Winter-Hunt never met a single person who didn't experience imposter syndrome—the fear that arises when people can't internalize their success and worry they'll will be exposed for the fraud that they believe themselves to be.
Imposter syndrome was first identified by clinical psychologists in the 1970s and has been a topic of study ever since. A wide variety of articles have been published on the topic, and the issue has received more attention in recent years with new research and as career coaches, business and self-help books, companies, and publications such as Harvard Business Reviewhave addressed it.
Whether you are familiar with feelings of faking it or newly acquainted with your inner imposter, here are some tips to build confidence and beat back imposter syndrome so that you can achieve great things.
Self-talk really works, for better and for worse
First, Winter-Hunt said, "there is nothing wrong with you."
If your inner dialogue is spinning thoughts like "I am not good enough for this job," "the hiring office made a clerical mistake," or "any moment now, someone's going to find out how much I fake it every single day," then welcome to the club.
According to one study, these feelings are especially prevalent among highly ambitious people, notably women, who have self-imposed standards of achievement. You can feel good about the presence of that voice; it means you are taking a risk. When you are venturing into new territory, there's just a certain level of ambiguity that we have to learn to be comfortable with, explained Winter-Hunt.
But imposter syndrome ceases to be a helpful motivator if those feelings limit your ambition—if they stop you from going after what you want, a phenomenon that Winter-Hunt said she sees all the time when she interviews candidates. Because one place that you can almost guarantee that your inner imposter will show up is during a job interview.
"It's really disheartening to hear so many people self-select out of a position, even when they've already landed the interview," she said. "I tell them that I'd likely not even be interviewing them if I didn't think they could do it."
"One striking characteristic of the syndrome is that although impostors crave acknowledgement and praise for their accomplishments, they do not feel comfortable when they receive it," according to Psychology Today. "Instead, praise makes them feel anxious because they secretly feel they do not deserve it. After all, they think, I'm just faking it—unlike everyone else here who seems to know what they're doing."
Imposter syndrome also likes to show up uninvited when you are beginning something new, but the feelings of fraud don't necessarily indicate that you are about to make a mistake.
Winter-Hunt said that one way to combat those feelings of inadequacy is to turn those phrases on their head. Repeating mantras like "I am good enough" or "I deserve to be here" are small but mighty steps toward undercutting self-defeating thoughts.
So go ahead: just for a few seconds, take a deep breath, and say to yourself, "I've got this."
Foster the imposter
Feelings of fear and inadequacy are uncomfortable but also natural. It's tempting to try to hide it, to overcompensate with your coworkers or in an interview. But usually that inauthenticity only makes you feel like more of an imposter.
Instead, "foster the imposter," encouraged Winter-Hunt in a recent article. "Because you most likely will never overcome feelings of fraudulence. Instead of viewing imposter syndrome as a defining characteristic, embrace it for the transitory experience it is," she wrote. "One that forces you to evolve, try new things, and question your previously held philosophies."
Some people welcome it and even use the opposite feelings—comfort, security—as signs that it's time to try something new . . . that perhaps the very presence of imposter syndrome indicates that you are itching to grow in areas you've become stagnant.
Talk through it
Research shows that for people who can't shake their imposter syndrome or feel their lives are overtaken by it, talk therapy can really help. And not even necessarily with a trained professional.
Winter-Hunt said that even just being up front with her boss and vulnerable with her coworkers has made a huge difference for her. In all the discussions she's had, she has never been met with a reaction that wasn't encouraging and supportive.
So go ahead, learn to love that imposter, but never give it decision-making power. Winter-Hunt lives by a quote from bestselling author Seth Godin: "Begin. With the humility of someone who's not sure, and the excitement of someone who knows that it's possible."
Why? Because the world needs your talents, your persistent exploring, and your desire to keep challenging yourself. We need your help to push into what's next.