Dress for Success

Doghouse – Dress Code

Article from Issue 249/2021

This month, maddog charts the changing norms in dress code over his lengthy career in the tech industry.

My favorite apparel usually consists of some type of printed T-shirt (not white, please!) and a pair of shorts. This is what I normally wear between the dates of April 1 and November 30. Snow has often been falling before I put on a pair of long pants and a long-sleeved shirt.

Of course, I also dress up for formal occasions, such as when I perform a wedding ceremony or funeral (the latter have, fortunately, been rare), but I have not owned a suit that fits for the past two decades.

This has not always been true. When I was a cooperative education student at Drexel University (the Drexel Co-op provides students with professional employment experiences as part of their degree), I wore a white shirt (with pocket protector), tie, and long pants to work. This was not just because I worked at the Western Electric Company, a very conservative organization, but also because the white shirt, tie, and pocket protector told the people on the manufacturing floor that you were either part of management or an engineer, and both roles held a modicum of respect and power. People in the shop were supposed to listen to you.

It was while I was a cooperative education student that I decided I would never shave again. I had shaved my beard in order to get the job (as I said, Western Electric was a very conservative company in the days of the Vietnam War, hippies, and long hair), but after about two months, my boss's boss (a retired Air Force colonel) told me to grow it back because he already had "two teenage sons." I never shaved again.

I also had an experience looking for that first postgraduate job. I interviewed with a company that stated in their policies that their employees would have no facial hair or hair touching their collars, and that they would wear a brown or black suit, white shirt (no stripes), narrow dark tie, neatly clipped fingernails … it went on and on. After I read about this dress code, I knew I would not fit in, but I went to the interview anyway to ask why they were so strict.

The answer was simple. This company would do all of the data processing for companies run by 55- to 65-year-old CEOs (write the programs, buy the computers, run the computers, etc.), and all the CEOs would have to do is write the check. These CEOs wanted someone that looked like them, not "a bead-and-sandal-wearing hippie."

That company, Electronic Data Systems (EDS), was a fledgling computer service company run by H. Ross Perot, a very conservative person who eventually ran for president of the United States (and lost).

I had many different jobs with different levels of dress codes over the years. For technical people, these dress codes were often relaxed.

Eventually I worked for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). If you were an engineer, the dress code was fairly relaxed, but if you were a product manager, you were expected to "dress up" because sometimes you might be hosting customers at the facility.

When we started the Unix group, we were a small group of engineers housed in a set of buildings that were usually used by marketing groups. One day a young engineer who normally brought his lunch or ate snacks out of machines decided to go to the cafeteria. A Dead Head, he was in shorts, a tie-dye T-shirt, and barefoot. He ran upstairs, filled up a tray with food, and ran down to his office to eat it. He did not notice the stunned silence of the marketing people in the cafeteria, all dressed in suits and ties.

The next day there was a sign in the cafeteria: "Shirts and Shoes Required."

DEC sent me out to Palo Alto, Calif., as a product manager. One time, I was told that EDS was coming for a meeting, and I had to wear a suit and tie because "It was EDS!" It so happened that I had a suit and tie that fit, so this was not a big deal. That day I came into work ready to do my presentation. I even took out my earrings so I would not offend the customer.

Before I entered the conference room, I looked in a small window and saw all of the EDS people dressed in shorts, T-shirts, and sandals. My associate had taken off his coat and tie, and on the whiteboard there was a big picture of a tie in a red circle with a line through it – no ties.

I took off my coat and tie, put my earrings back in, and went in to present.

EDS' policy was really "dress as the customer dresses." Since the EDS people were in California, they dressed as they thought California tech people dressed, and so did we.

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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