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We have the brains

© March 2006 Anthony Lawrence

At Do sandals and ponytails really hold back Linux? former Massachusetts chief information officer Peter Quinn complains that the Linux community is unprofessional and that this is holding back more widespread adoption of Linux. I'm sure he really believes that, but let me tell you a story:

Many years back I did some work for a Boston accounting firm. I had been called in because their Tandy Xenix server had crashed. I showed up dressed as I usually am in the summer: jeans and a t-shirt. Clean, but comfortable. I'd been busy, so my hair was a bit long and unruly too. The receptionist didn't like the looks of me.

Someone brought me to the server, but I could tell everyone was uncomfortable. They were all dressed "professionally". They didn't like my clothes, my long hair. I didn't "fit".

The cause of their distaste is simple to understand. We are primarily social animals. We form groups, and groups enforce norms. People who don't wear the tribal paint are outsiders, perhaps not to be trusted.

There is tremendous hypocrisy, of course. We tell our children not to bend to peer pressure when it comes to sex, drinking, drugs. Just say no: you are your own person. But don't dress differently. Don't die your hair orange. If "everybody" has nose rings, well, maybe that's OK for now. Go along to get along, honey. Dress for success.

People who don't conform are sometimes mentally disturbed. They don't comprehend the importance of getting along with the group, or are so driven by other forces that anything they do understand is pushed aside.

But there have always been people who are on the fringes of the group. They trade with the tribe, but they aren't part of it. They don't participate in the religious and social customs. Often the "group" isn't totally aware that these people actually are much more different than they think. It's a big world now, so if you don't see John at your church, well, he's probably at another. John doesn't talk much about baseball either: maybe he's a basketball fan.

Or maybe he isn't. Maybe John looks at your social customs as rather laughable. He doesn't tell you so, but really he sees you as a rather pathetic and scared creature desperately seeking approval from your peers.

Or maybe John is just too intensely focused on his own interests. He's a passionate artist, consumed by the fires of his own creative urges. He hasn't the spare energy to be bothered with the mundane events of your dull existence.

Maybe John just doesn't give a damn what you think.

But there's also Peter. Peter actually shares John's disdain for your conformity, but you'd never know it. Peter walks the walk and talks the talk, but not because he wants your approval. No, he wants your money. He's the wolf in sheep's clothing, the one your mother warned you about.

I like John a heck of a lot more than I like Peter, but Peter has a lot more friends. Or at least they think they are his friends.

Back in Boston, I worked on recovering data and soon enough a very important looking man came to see me. He politely asked how things were going and what my expectations were. I told him it was going well and that he'd be back up and running soon.

He then asked me if I could fix up some other annoyances they had with their system. He described the problems (small things easily fixed by some scripting and application code changes). I said that I could, but it would require a return visit on another day.

This man then informed me that their company had a dress code, and that if I were ever to return, I needed to abide by it.

I don't know what I said. I'm sure I wasn't nasty. I didn't laugh at him, though I probably did smile. Whatever words I used, the message was that he needed me a whole lot more than I needed him and that I was going to dress however I pleased. Take it or leave it.

I don't recall his exact reaction. I do remember that he wasn't pleased, but he must have backed down because I did go back there, in fact I did quite a bit of work for them over several years. And I wore whatever clothes I wanted to wear that day.

And that's what the Linux programmers need to tell people like former Massachusetts chief information officer Peter Quinn. We have the brains and the talent. We don't particularly care that you want us to conform. We don't need you.

Yeah, there are some folks who want to play along. Frankly, those folks are the wolves. They see Linux as something they can use to their advantage, and it distresses them that the pony tails and the sandals are spooking the folks whose money they are trying to extract. The "unprofessional" look is frightening their victims.. uhh, sorry, prospects. They want us to clean up our image, dress like they do, act like they do. Stop scaring the herd, they plead.

Sure, we could do that. But I have a better idea.

Just say "boo".

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Thu Mar 30 15:31:44 2006: 1836   BigDumbDinosaur

This man then informed me that their company had a dress code, and that if I were ever to return, I needed to abide by it.

The guy had a valid point, although he defintely wasn't being diplomatic about it. It's his company and if he says you have to wear a shirt and tie, that's his perogative. Of course, if he insists upon it as a condition of you performing services for him and you don't care whether you do in fact perform those services or not, it's your perogative to politely tell him to use his dress code as a suppository.

Although I generally try to be well kempt and business-like when I visit clients, every so often I'm called for help while I'm doing something that tends to result in my being unkempt. For example, if I decide to spend part of the day in my fabrication shop working on my locomotive and someone calls for help, I may end up going to their location wearing dirty pants, a not-so-pretty T-shirt (usually with a railroad picture on it, as well as assorted dirt and grime) and possibly even unshaven (on a hot day where I know I will be doing welding I don't shave to avoid the inevitable razor rash syndrome). I might not smell all that pleasant either -- welding and fabricating tend to work up a sweat, as well as subject one to various and sundry fumes that pleasantly waft about.

In such circumstances, I'm sure a client will overlook my disheveled appearance, because, as Tony said, it was the client who summoned me, not the other way around. To date, no one has ever said anything about my appearance, especially not in the way that Tony's client did to him.

However, I also believe that in the business world, it's best when in Rome, as the old wheeze goes, to do as the Romans do. It's not so much a matter of trying to be the wolf who is grabbing for every buck. Rather it's a case (in my opinion) of staying on target and not letting anomalies get in the way of achieving whatever has to be achieved. In other words, I want the client to remember me for what I did for them, not for how I dressed.

For that reason, I try to stay focused on the business nature of my visit and not make a fashion (mis)statement. I personally don't care what most people think about me or my appearance. However, I have never really worn my hair very long (and at my present age, that's becoming increasingly difficult to do) and I tend to dress conservatively when calling on clients (no tie, though -- I hate the damned things and what they represent). In other words, my appearance is calculated to look like a businessman, not because others expect it, but because that's how I want to appear.

Be that as it may, I don't agree with Peter Quinn and I don't think that a geek's geekiness is necessarily an impediment to success. Quinn, I believe, is confusing the product with the people. Ultimately, it is Linux that is the focus, the point of interest, not the dude or chick who is pounding on the console keyboard.

In fact, I tend to subscribe to the notion that a certain amount of geekiness is not only good in our line of work, it is actually expected and wanted. Computers are still a mysterious force to many business managers and those of us who know how to make them perform and get results for their owners are also a bit of a mysterious force. So I would think that we computer jocks would do well to continue to convey the impression of being "different" so as to distinguish ourselves from those who cannot do what we do. If wearing a pony tail or a goofy T-shirt suits (no pun intended) your style and helps to distinguish you from the rest of the crowd as you work your magic, then that's what you should do.

Sun Apr 2 11:41:01 2006: 1840   TonyLawrence

You said "if he says you have to wear a shirt and tie, that's his perogative"

We generally tend to accept that as a given, but perhaps we shouldn't.

In some circumstances, this is a not particularly subtle form of class discrimination, and can even be used as an excuse for what is really racial discrimination.

In a larger sense, hostility toward cultural differences (this is a small example of that) is a trait that causes suffering both great and small throughout the world. We'd have a better world if we began to shed these fears and dislikes and were more accepting of unimportant differerences in appearance and behavior.

The logical extension of this "perogative" is that we all dress alike, sport identical hairstyles and in general strive to be non-offensive through homogenity.

All so called civilized societies enforce dress codes to some degree: you can't expose genitalia in most public settings. Most people accept that as "correct", but it's just culture, and is no more justified than Islamic societies requiring women to veil their faces. The root justification for both restrictions is identical, but Western societies would be quite angry if an employer insisted upon that dress code for their female employees.

I think we'd be better off without this nonsense.

Mon Apr 3 04:32:47 2006: 1846   BigDumbDinosaur

All so called civilized societies enforce dress codes to some degree: you can't expose genitalia in most public settings.

Probably a good thing. Otherwise, we'd be tripping over fire hydrants every time a hot looking chick went past with nothing on but the radio.

Mon Jul 2 15:09:48 2012: 11170   bkw


If everyone were naked, no one would be naked.You wouldn't even _see_ anyones wobbly bits if you grew up with them all out all the time. You would no more trip over a fire hydrand because you saw someone attractive than you do now if you saw someone super attractive but modestly dressed. You recognize their attractiveness, but there is very little uncontrollable instinctual behaviour. Only the starvation diet imposed by clothes causes men to lose control when they see a little once in a while.

I've been sticking to my guns the same way. The way to have a nicer world to live in is to simply insist on it. I've told customers a few times that if they like I will be happy to leave. I was never bluffing, and sadly they never accepted the offer. Oh well in each case it was another day of pay instead of another day of play. But _beacause_ I don't allow oyhers to make my work experience miserable by tge death of a thousand little cuts, I love my work and didn't hate those days of work and did my best work for them instead of doibg whatever gets me out the door fasest or gets me the biggest check.

Mon Jul 2 17:38:17 2012: 11171   TonyLawrence


Exactly right, Brian. Some compromises can't be avoided, but I don't let customers tell me how to dress or what my politics should be.

Wed Jul 4 17:41:03 2012: 11175   BigDumbDinosaur


As I opined some six years ago in a previous comment, exuding a certain amount of geekiness is good and conveys the message that whatever it is that ails the computer system, you'll find it and fix it. My personal approach is to not be offensive in appearance or demeanor, not because I'm afraid of losing a client, but because I think it's a matter of being considerate to others. Of course, the likelihood of me wearing a pony tail has decreased even more since I posted that last reply. Unlike Tony, I don't enough hair to work with. :)

If everyone were naked, no one would be naked.

Sure they would. We just would think is was the norm. Dunno about tripping over fire hydrants, though. Sexual attraction is primarily innate, not intellectual. However, please feel free to conduct as much "field research" as needed to confirm your theory. :-)

Wed Jul 4 17:54:47 2012: 11176   TonyLawrence


Having spent more than a decade living at a clothing optional resort from May through September, I can assure you that it is exactly so. After a very short time, you become accustomed to it and realize that it is behavior that creates sexuality, not nudity. Clothing actually is sexier than the lack of it.


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