Thursday, August 20, 2009

Software Developers Should Never Have Dress Codes

On Saturday, I visited my dry cleaner. [1] Normally this wouldn't be a particularly momentous occasion [2], except that it was the first time in three weeks that I had gone. Up until the end of August, I had to make sure that like clockwork, at least every 2 weeks my Better Half or I made the trek to the dry cleaners, to make sure that I had suitable attire for my Cash Money Day Job. But it hit me on Saturday that this was a thing of the past: I no longer work for a company foolish enough to have a dress code for its technical staff.

When I first joined Big Bank B on my 6-month contract, it was the first time I had ever in my life had to dress up for work. I'd managed to work full-time for over 10 years, inside financial services and technology firms, and never had a dress code. In fact, my previous company (Investment Bank A) was so notoriously dress-down for financial services that there was a catty reference in the New York Times regarding the fact that people would (gasp! shock! horror!) show up to meetings in shorts and flip flops. At Hedge Fund V (the previous employer), while traders would usually show up in business casual, nobody cared what the geeks wore. However, the week before I started at Big Bank B, I had to go out and shell out a few hundred pounds on all the things that I didn't have enough of: work shirts, proper shoes, non-denim trousers. All this just to go into an office and code all day.

There's no justification for a dress code policy in this day and age if you view the primary function of a software developer to be the development of software. Right now I'm wearing shorts, sandals, and a T-shirt. Can anyone argue that I'd be more productive (in quantity or quality of technical output) if I was wearing chinos and a blue shirt? Or, perish the thought, a suit and tie? Definitely not.

However, the big question is Why? Why in the world do people still persist with this gross stupidity in this day and age? And why is it that big banks, in particular, seem to be so obsessed with dress codes?

In The Trenches, Fighting Bugs

A few years ago, I interviewed with Lehman Brothers. I noticed that all the technologists interviewing me (and it was an all-tech interview process) were wearing suits. Some of them had ties on, some of them didn't. I didn't wear a suit to the interview, and felt a little self conscious about it. [3] I asked one of the guys there why in the world they were so dressed up to write code all day.

Apparently this had come up in the past, and one of the Really Big American Bosses justified the policy with a phrase that has stuck in my mind ever since: "When a soldier goes to war, he wears a uniform."

There are so many things wrong with that statement that I can't even enumerate them, but let's start with the most glaring: Programmers Are Not Soldiers. Soldiers go to boot camp, a process designed specifically to break down their sense of self and recraft the mentality of the individual to mindlessly obey orders, even unto death. Soldiers go to war; soldiers fight people with weapons; soldiers live in barracks and eat in mess halls and, you know, act like they're in the military.

That's not what I do as a software engineer/craftsman: I think; I discuss; I code; I maintain. I don't live in close quarters with my coworkers; I get to eat what I want when I want; and while whiteboard discussions may get pretty heated, they're seldom settled with bayonets. I don't write code while firing an automatic weapon, and I don't engage in hand-to-hand combat with bugs. How in the world does a standard set by a military organization apply to a private sector financial technology job? [4]

Developers Should Be Heard But Not Seen

Second justification that I've heard for these ridiculous policies actually came from the hiring manager at one of the firms that bought out the carcass of Lehman, maintaining the dress code insanity: "if you ever have to go to the trading floor, there might be customers on there, and we won't want them to see you dressed down." That's right, because someone might see a derivatives trading floor, and figure out that there are actual programmers who make the software that keeps the 8 LCD displays each of the traders have full of blinkenlights.

It reminds me of firms that I've heard of that actually have separate entrances for the IT staff: customers and well-dressed individuals in Door A, all the plebes in Door B (heaven forfend that the twain shall meet). Big Bank B effectively had this policy, in putting all customer-facing activities in one building, while putting all non-customer-facing activities (IT, Operations, Back-Office, Middle-Office) in a whole different building.[5]

Yet most firms that have the separate-door, or separate-building policy, have it in place specifically so that the staff that don't have to dress in a certain way to satisfy the sartorial requirements of outside customers/investors didn't have to. Big Bank B said "not only are we going to shield you from view, we're still going to make you dress uncomfortably."

The Replaceable Engineering Unit

So given that dress codes are a net negative for developers, what could really be behind the correlation between probability of dress codes and size of the firm?

Remember, Big Banks actively fight against entrepreneurial/independent-minded technical staff. And then they make them all dress alike. The two, I think, are inextricably linked by one factor: a desire to smooth out the inherent human differences in employees of a firm grown too big for its management structures to cope with.

The Mythical Man Month was written at a time when almost all developers were working in large institutions, and it speaks to the levels that managers at those institutions will go to try to view individual employees as nothing but entries in a Gantt Chart. It doesn't work, because technologists have different skill levels, different interests, different speeds. But big organizations plan at very senior levels, where the people who are making decisions are unable to even conceptualize the differences between the people underneath them (because they're past the 150-person soft limit on social group sizing).

When faced with the requirement that you manage people beyond your cognitive limits, you can respond in one of two ways:

  • Decentralize, and give massive autonomy to the people underneath you whose organizational unit size is within Dunbar's Number; or
  • Standardize, and try to force individualism out of the equation.

Let's go back to Lehman Brothers. I think it's actually a telling example, because military units inevitably combine attempts at minimizing individual differences with organizational units that are below Dunbar's Number. So boot camp attempts to minimize individualism at the level of individual troops, but many decisions are made at the level of cognitive limits of social size.

The only way to combine the two though is to have senior executives/military officers making broad-sweep policy decisions ("we're going to start trading Convertible Bonds," "we're going to centralize all treasury activities," "we're going to invade Iraq"), but defer all decisions that rely on the individual skills and proclivities of individuals to the level of managers that actually understand the staff that they have. While many financial technology organizations claim to be applying that principle, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are individual line-level technical leads able to chose the major technologies that go into their software, or is there a central group that specifies the technologies that must be used?
  • Are individual line-level managers free to determine the set of methodologies that work best for the team, or is there one over-arching set of methodologies that must be followed?
  • Are individual teams able to determine their own deployment strategies based on their technology and the needs of the business, or is there a single policy that determines how software is going to be deployed?
  • Do individuals have control over their programming environment (including hardware and software choices, and customization of everything they need), or is there a single image and single standard set of hardware that all developers get?
  • Can people choose their attire, when there isn't a valid business reason to dress beyond the comfort level, or is there a dress code that must be adhered to?

My Advice To You

If you ever interview with a firm that has a dress code for techies, don't take the job. And more importantly, tell HR that this is part of the reason you're turning down the job. Because if you are able to find a firm that has reasonable pay, and doesn't have a dress code, that tells you a lot about its relationship with its technical staff. The dress code, on the other hand, is a very clear bright-line test to see an organization that undervalues the individualism that makes strong technologists as valuable as they are.

Plus, working in shorts and a T-shirt is pretty darn cool. Particularly when you get off at Bank or Canary Wharf station and everybody else is dressed up and already sweating at 8:30am.


[1]: Not the best choice around actually. They're good, but Go Gay just a couple blocks up has a better reputation. However, as I don't drive, the extra couple of blocks I'd have to walk loaded down with lots of dry cleaning trumps an arguably better quality of service.
[2]: I can't/don't iron. When I was growing up, having shirts professionally cleaned and pressed cost so little that there wasn't a point in my parents doing it, and thus they never taught me to. And professionals do a much better job than your house cleaner does (if you're one of the people who has your cleaner do your ironing for you), so the cost really isn't much of an issue.
[3]: Seriously, whoever came up with that whole "dress your best for an interview" advice never had to nip out "for a Doctor's appointment" to interview. I mean, if you're actually gainfully employed, and you don't dress up in your current gig, dressing up is a dead giveaway you're interviewing. So if you do show up extremely well dressed for something that isn't a whole-day interview, it basically says "I'm unemployed."
[4]: I mean, while we're at it, you know who else wears uniforms? Ninjas. And while it's completely Awesome to imagine that we're all ninjas, we're not. If we were, we'd be too busy fighting pirates to get any software written.
[5]: Yep, that means that if you wanted to talk to the people using the software you built, you actually had to go to a whole different building a 5-10 minute walk away. Not that I ever did, mind you.
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