Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them. - Laurence J. Peter

Friday, December 19, 2008

Suit's eye for the geek guy

There's some animosity between "geeks" and "suits". Or at least, geeks think there's animosity, but suits might be too busy making money and talking to girls to notice. But from my custom-built Amiga in my parent's basement, I rage! Someday we will rise up to protest our corporate overlords...and sit back down, breathing heavily.

The culture of my people is filled with tales of the malfeasance of the suits. Take what happened to poor Philip Greenspun, for example. Who in telling such a tale - even if one of the laywers or Greylock VCs or a colleague of the incompetent Allen Shaheen - could refrain from tears? The VCs took a growing, profitable, widely-respected company and burnt it down.

I usually take the geek's approach to dressing, which is to say I begin putting on clothes while reading Hacker News in the morning, and stop putting on clothes when all the usual body parts are obscured, and check that my underwear is inside my pants. Suits, on the other hand - well, there's a reason they call them suits. So that's one source of tension between geeks and suits.

Paul Graham explains:
If you’re a nerd, you can understand how important clothes are by asking yourself how you’d feel about a company that made you wear a suit and tie to work. The idea sounds horrible, doesn’t it? In fact, horrible far out of proportion to the mere discomfort of wearing such clothes. A company that made programmers wear suits would have something deeply wrong with it.

And what would be wrong would be that how one presented oneself counted more than the quality of one’s ideas. That’s the problem with formality. Dressing up is not so much bad in itself. The problem is the receptor it binds to: dressing up is inevitably a substitute for good ideas. It is no coincidence that technically inept business types are known as “suits.”

Nerds don’t just happen to dress informally. They do it too consistently. Consciously or not, they dress informally as a prophylactic measure against stupidity.
The definition of a nerd [is] someone who doesn't expend any effort on marketing himself. A nerd, in other words, is someone who concentrates on substance.

One reason a geek wouldn't want to dress like a suit is that geeks might be tempted to distrust a well-dressed geek. Does this guy spend his evenings contributing to open-source projects, or does he spend them reading GQ and shopping like a normal, well-adjusted person? Are these fancy clothes meant to distract you from his weak code? Is he dressing to impress because he can't impress in a way that's actually useful?

But unless a geek works at Google, he'll need to impress non-geeks. Girls, for example. And it can affect real-world performance too. The startup I'm working with might want to sell one day; suppose I were doing a technical presentation to VCs and my cufflinks didn't match my shoelaces. We could lose the deal! So I've been persuaded that a light interest in fashion wouldn't be a bad thing to maintain. Time to read up on this on the internet, then.

I thought it might be edifying to do Google image searches on well-known suits and geeks. Does the reality match the theory? I've tried to pick representative images below.

The suits
Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, who took control of the company in 1981 when it was worth $14 billion, and left it valued at $410 billion in 2004.

Warren Buffett, widely considered the world's best investor, has made about $50 billion through shrewd investments, and given most of that to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Li Ka-shing, richest man in Hong Kong and one of Asia's most generous philanthropists.

The geeks
Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU Project for a free Unix-like operating system, and founder of the Free Software Foundation.

Donald Knuth, maybe the most famous living computer scientist.

Linus Torvalds, original developer and still the maintainer of the Linux kernel.

What about Bill Gates? He's a suit AND a geek. A crossover hit! No wonder he's so rich.

A sweater over a shirt - nice compromise.

My suit friends have embarked on an ongoing makeover project for me, their Barbie Geek. They advise that I burn my old wardrobe. I'm not entirely comfortable with this plan.

Math is hard, let's go shopping!


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