By John Sonmez April 10, 2017

How Should Programmers Dress at Work?

Software development teams, especially on the west coast, seem to have the loosest dress code of just about any profession.

I remember working for a small startup company and being introduced to a guy who didn’t wear shoes.

At first I thought it was a one-time thing, or perhaps he had temporarily taken his shoes off for some purpose.

After a few weeks it was apparent, the dude just didn’t wear shoes to work.

Strange, but not shocking––not for software developers.

I’ve been in plenty of development environments where there was basically an anything goes dress code.

No shirt, no shoes?

Fine. Whatever you like, just don’t break the build.

But just because you can wear anything you want, should you?

That’s the question of this chapter.

And while I’ve been guilty of less than professional dress myself, my answer to that question is a firm no.

Years of experience and careful observation, as well as my own missteps, have taught me that how you dress and the image you present to the world matter.

Even if you are just a code monkey.

Appearance Matters

Here’s the thing, we are all just Barbie girls living in Barbie world.

It’s true, it’s fantastic, my boyfriend… erhmm…

Well, you get the idea.

The point is that people will, and do, judge you by your appearance.

How do I know?

Well, I’ve been an overweight slob with unkempt hair and a less than GQ sense of clothing style, and I’ve been a six-pack donning, bleached white teeth model.

(I literally worked for a modeling agency. Although I never quite got famous. You may have seen me in the fall bridal catalogue for a department store, though.)

Did I get treated differently in both of those cases? You bet!

Was I the same person underneath?

Now that is a matter of debate, because what you wear can actually influence how you act––but, we’ll get to that a bit later.

Basically, I was the same person.

Everyone is prejudiced.

Everyone engages in stereotyping.

I know that liberal media and a bunch of people holding signs on the street want you to believe this is a bad and horrible thing, and you should be ashamed of yourself for doing it, but that’s not true.

The truth is, our ability to stereotype is a survival advantage.

Our brains can look at surface level details, quickly assess situations, and make snap judgments that can save our lives.

We don’t have to sit and think about whether that lion we just caught out of our peripheral vision looks like he has a hungry, evil, or peaceful grin on his face and what we should do about it.

We instantly pick up that he looks menacing and quite dangerous and aggressive and that we probably shouldn’t hang around.

It’s this exact same mechanism which tells us that dude walking down the street, heavily tatted up and looking like a gangster, might not be the best guy to stop and ask directions. In fact, perhaps we might be in the wrong neighborhood.

Now, can we be wrong?

Yes. Absolutely.

In many cases our stereotypes are completely wrong and actually do us harm.

But the fact is that as human beings, we receive so much input through our senses in a day that we have to have some mechanism in place to make snap judgements, which we hold in place until they are proven otherwise.

It allows us to navigate our world successfully without stopping to think about every single thing we see or hear.

We don’t even notice we are doing it.

The problem is that once we form a snap judgement, it’s not that easily dispelled.

And even when we know we are judging a book by its cover and being influenced by stereotypes, that hardwiring of our brain, which bypasses our analytical mind, is still intact and it’s still sending us signals.

So, why am I telling you this?

Am I trying to tell you that you are a racist, stereotyping, prejudiced person and so am I and it’s all ok?

No. Not at all.

I just want you to face the reality that judging people by appearances is something that everyone does and that we can only partially control.

So even though you want to be valued for your brain and your brilliant coding skills, and you don’t think anything besides your ability should matter, the truth is how you look and how you dress does actually matter. You can either fight a hopeless battle against that or you can face reality and learn to deal with it.

And believe me, as someone who likes to wear shorts and flip-flops, I’m with you man, but let’s face reality together, shall we?

Dress Two Levels Above

The most simple, straightforward advice I can give you about how to dress in the workplace to be as successful as possible is to simply dress two levels above your current position.

Don’t dress in the kind of style your boss does, dress like his boss dresses.

While it may be perfectly acceptable to wear shorts and a t-shirt at work, and while doing so might not actually hurt you, it’s very, very unlikely to actually help you.

Some people might complain if you dress up when everyone else is dressing down, but there is an instinctual, stereotyping response that is going to influence those people, and they’re probably not aware of it at all.

That is why, regardless of the flak you get, you should still err on the side of dressing more formally than less.

A person will say that you are too dressed up and that clothes don’t matter here or that this environment is laid back, but they will still view you as more professional and of higher status, regardless of what they are saying.

Still don’t believe me?

Try this mental experiment.

Imagine a police officer, dressed in uniform.

Now imagine this police officer in many different contexts and environments, but still dressed in a full police officer uniform.

No matter how you picture them, no matter what they say or what they do, that uniform is still going to influence how you see them.

You can say it doesn’t, but it does.

That’s why it’s a good, general rule to dress two levels above your current position.

People will see you the same way you see that police officer, no matter how hard they try not to.

The “uniform” will lend you professionalism and status beyond your current level.

Follow The Leader

What is two levels above your current position?

How do you even know what that looks like?

What if there aren’t two levels above your position?

When in doubt, follow the leader.

Take a look and observe what the executive team running your company or what the CEO is wearing.

What kind of attire do the really successful and high up people wear?

Try to match their style as much as possible and it will look like you belong there.

Remember how important perception and stereotyping is.

The idea here is to create a positive stereotype that will cause you to be perceived as someone of a higher status than what you currently are.

When review time comes around, or upper management is trying to figure out who to move into a higher-level position, you are going to seem like you just fit the part.

Think about what someone means when they say that someone “seems presidential.”

There is some quality about them that makes them look the part.

Dress for the part you are auditioning for.

The best way to do that is to look at who is already in the role and mimic their style and to some degree, their behavior.

Charisma And Contradiction

Just because you are planning on mimicking the general style of your higher ups, doesn’t mean you can’t and shouldn’t add your own style and personal flair.

When I was an actor, my acting coach told me something I’ll never forget when I was having difficulty playing a certain role.

He said, “the reason why you don’t seem authentic is that people are contradictions. You can’t just act angry, you have to be angry and happy at the same time. You have to be sad, but excited. Real people, likeable people, are contradictions.”

I immediately realized he was right.

I thought about how I could bring out that contradiction in the part I was playing by expressing two seemingly opposite or unrelated emotions at the same time and BAM, there it was.

What I’ve come to realize from this idea is that contradictions actually can help us to create charisma.

Take me, for instance.

I’m really not your typical programmer at all.

I’m 6’3”, 220 pounds, and at about eight percent body fat.

I look like a weightlifter or a professional wrestler, but I talk a bit like a philosopher or self-help guru, and I think like a programmer.

I’ve got a bunch of different contradictions going on, which makes me much more interesting than if I was just a “what you see is what you get” kind of guy.

Does that make sense?

You can apply the same thinking to your own personal style to be able to enhance your charisma, which will make you more likable and ultimately more successful in your career and any social interactions.

How?

By dressing, to some degree, the opposite of what your natural appearance is.

Let’s say that you just happen to have one of those natural looks where you look like an accountant or actuary.

You’ve got the face for it, you’ve got the glasses, you’ve got skinny arms, your mannerisms are very reserved, your voice is soft and timid.

If you wear a plain button-up shirt with a single pocket and some slacks, you are going to look even more like that image.

But what happens if you get a tattoo?

What happens if you grow out a beard with a soul patch and rock a leather vest with some motorcycle boots?

All of the sudden you’ve created quite a contradiction.

Now, I don’t quite have you figured out when I see you.

You sort of seem like that timid accountant-like fellow, but you look like you might smack me in the face with a chain.

I need to figure out what you are about.

You are… interesting.

That’s a fairly extreme example, and you might not want to go that far, but I want to make sure you get the idea.

Contradiction is good. Contradiction is interesting.

Contradiction = charisma.

(Fair warning. Create contradiction and some people will hate your guts. It actually goes along with the charisma territory. The more people love you, the more other people will hate you. But, it’s much better than not being noticed at all.)

Carefully think about your image and traits and see how you can offset them by creating contradictions.

If you have a naturally scary demeanor and you are being negatively stereotyped as a “thug,” fair or not, don’t try and fight it. Instead, contradict it.

Dress to the nines.

Wear a nice suit to work.

Work on your speech so that you speak eloquently.

Make it so that when people see you, they have to take a second look, because their stereotyping circuitry seems to be broken.

Dress To… Change Your Personality?

Can how you dress actually affect how you act?

You bet ya, it can.

Try wearing a tank top and putting a hat on backward and see how differently you act and feel versus wearing a full tuxedo and a top hat.

What we wear affects what we think about ourselves, influences how we act, and can even change our personalities.

That is why it is a very bad idea to lounge around in your pajamas or sweat pants when you are feeling depressed.

It will only make you feel more depressed.

Want to act and feel more professional at work?

Dress more professional.

Even if the dress code says you can wear flip-flops and cut-off shorts, and you don’t care about climbing up that corporate ladder, you might still want to consider how your dress will affect how you feel and how you act.

Status Symbols

What about status symbols like an expensive watch, designer clothes, an expensive car, etc.?

Do those things actually help you get ahead in your career?

I had serious doubts about it.

To be honest, I still do, because I don’t think it’s a good investment to play the status symbols game for most software developers, but I defer you to someone who’s much “richer” than me and who has actually tested the theory, Neil Patel.

Check out this post he wrote called “How Spending $162,301.42 on Clothes Made Me $692,500.

In his article, he goes on to say that in everyday situations, the expensive clothes aren’t extremely beneficial, but in business meetings and networking, there seemed to be a large effect.

I think this one is very situational, and I wouldn’t get carried away here.

Don’t go into serious debt maxing out your credit cards and mortgaging your house to get a bunch of status symbols, thinking it will be a good investment.

But a few key indicators of wealth or success could be beneficial.

For me, the jury’s still out on this one.

I’m convinced that status symbols do work, but I’m just not convinced about the return on investment for software developers and other tech professionals.

Although I have heard from some highly-paid consultants that what they drive to client meetings and how they dress can greatly increase their business––especially when they are dealing with high level executives.

My advice?

If you are meeting with the CEO of Salesforce or IBM, rent an expensive suit and an expensive car for the day, then you can get the benefit without the monthly payments.

What If I Don’t Care?

Whenever I talk about dressing up and how you should dress two levels higher than your current position, some people inevitably say “I don’t care.”

I don’t care about dressing to impress.

I don’t care about moving up the corporate ladder.

I don’t want to be an executive.

I just want to do my job, increase my skills as a programmer, and be as successful at writing code as I can.

Well, if you don’t care, then don’t.

I’m not going to try and convince you.

I’m just giving you some advice about how to use stereotyping and perceptions that people are going to have of you to your advantage.

You don’t have to apply this advice.

You can be completely successful without it.

You can make it as a programmer wearing shorts and and t-shirts and even get promoted into senior development positions.

So, if you really don’t care, don’t.

I mean it.

But if you do, this is a fairly easy to control ingredient in success that you can easily apply to your career.

The choice is up to you.


About the author

John Sonmez

John Sonmez is the founder of Simple Programmer and a life coach for software developers. He is the best selling author of the book "Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual."