Making sartorial statements as an engineer

Silicon Valley prides itself on being a spearhead in providing amazingly flexible work environments to its employees. There are barely any established timings to get in and out of work, lunch jogs are du jour , working from home is a luxury given to most people, appearances aren’t important as long as they’re not offensive, and people are judged by not how they dress but what they achieve. The epitome of meritocracy, one might say.

So why don’t engineers pay more attention to how they clothe themselves? (Just to be clear, I’m talking about men here.)

Unlike the social interactions that make up most of a sales or marketing role in any organization and thus demand non trivial thought being given to one’s sense of dress, there is really nothing more for an engineer to do (in between a spate of meetings) than to sit down and actually start building something. Which means they can dress as comfortably as they want, without the stress of needing to decide what to wear everyday. Rather than take this as a blank cheque to dress “down” into the apocryphal hoodies and t-shirts, why not take this as a challenge to creatively explore their individual sense of style? What better circumstances to develop and perfect this highly personalized sense of self expression than in an environment that doesn’t penalize you if it doesn’t always work?

One of the things that always irks me is the perception that most people have – real or imagined – of engineers being unable to fend for themselves when it comes to making a sartorial statement. The media as usual does an amazing job in portraying the typical inarticulate, t-shirt-hoodie-torn jeans wearing programmer who works out of a windowless basement, with only code, soda and perhaps some science fiction keeping him company. Even Obama has gone on record making a dig at Mark Zuckerberg’s rare use of a jacket and tie. But is this stereotype really warranted?

Building software for the most part is a very solitary endeavor, and requires equal parts creativity, analytical skill and an eye for detail. I think of it as an art – one that compares most favorably to writing a novel, the creation of a painting or even the composition of a symphony. And as befits any artist, engineers take pride in their craft – there are umpteen blog posts and talks about the elegance of a certain algorithm or the simplicity of a piece of code that achieves something complex. Why then don’t more of them take pride in presenting themselves?

I don’t disagree that there’s a level of creativity involved and some people may not consider themselves well suited to pulling together various items of clothing in an aesthetically pleasing manner. But in this day and age, it’s really not that hard to find a host of resources on the web that offer everything from helpful tips to services that help you overhaul your wardrobe!

Software has been “eating the world” for a long time now, but it is the relatively recent focus on combining it with good design that its use becomes increasingly prevalent in every aspect of life. Practitioners of the art of making software (or hardware for that matter) should really stand up and take their place front and center of the well dressed world, and get rid of the stereotypes that have dogged them for years. After all, they are not sitting down in a basement all by themselves any more – they are under the lens of the entire world as it watches them create the next wave of innovation.

And they might as well pose for the camera in a tweed sports jacket and sharp shoes than a company hoodie and flip flops.

  • Karolína Netolická

    Do you think that maybe engineers dress down on purpose in order to be taken seriously? I certainly dressed down on purpose when I was working as a software engineer.

    • viksit

      It’s possible, but this IMHO applies more to women than men! It’s frustrating to hear so many people mention this bias – I wonder what part of the male psyche is to blame for this? Actually – have you ever seen a similar reaction from other _women_? Or has it only been men?

      • Karolína Netolická

        I think the reaction is stronger from men, but I don’t think it’s *only* men. I don’t think it’s necessarily a sexist thing – whatever industry you’re in you always try to dress like the best, most successful people if you want to be perceived as competent. Sadly in our industry many of the best engineers dress sloppy, so that’s what you’re stuck emulating if you want your clothes to say “kick-ass open-source developer” or “top-shelf infrastructure engineer” or something like that. (I think this bias is strongest in infrastructure teams.) One of the nicest perks of switching to product management has been that no one’s ever asked me “what’s the occasion” (as in, why was I wearing a dress that day).