A Computer Virus and Impostor Syndrome

2020 was the 20th anniversary of the Love Letter/Love Bug (ILOVEYOU) virus. If you’ve never heard of it, Sophos posted a good summary. I was working at a New Horizons in my first job as a web developer. When it hit, I happened to be in the office of one of the IT admins. We were talking, then he looks at his screen and asks: “Why would Gary send me an email saying he loves me?”. Another similar message arrived from someone else. Then another. I saw the light bulb go off in his head. He bolted out of his chair, ran down the hall to the server room and powered off the Exchange server. The virus was in the system for only a couple minutes and had spread to around 120 accounts. This was the first time I saw disaster recovery in action.

For me, the most interesting moment arrived after the fact, when I got a printout of the virus code. It was written in Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). This was the same programming language I was using in my job. I was creating an intranet using Active Server Pages (Classic ASP) which used VBA. I had also been writing Word and Excel macros to automate some company processes. When I looked at the printout, I thought to myself: “I could have written that!”. I didn’t want to write a virus, but I knew enough VBA to understand the code. It was a validating moment for me as a programmer. Someone else’s code that had done so much (even though it was damaging) was understandable to me. At that time I frequently read Dr. Dobb’s Journal and those articles filled me with impostor syndrome, the programming discussed in those articles was mostly over my head. The virus code was a turning point for me.

Every programmer starts like this, impostor syndrome creeps around the corner frequently. There is so much to know and understand and it feels overwhelming at times. I’ve always referred to it as “drinking from the firehose“. Know that it gets better over time. At some point I realized I was understanding the articles in Dr. Dobbs. That didn’t happen overnight, but I did put in the work to get there. I hope your validating moment arrives, and know that I am rooting for you.