Do You Need to Own a Suit to Work in Technology?

Do You Need to Own a Suit to Work in Technology?It seems like I can’t check my email over the past week without hearing about Mark Zuckerberg’s trademark hoodie, or his presentation to potential investors while donned in a set of pajamas. Analysts are debating back and forth on whether or not his clothing choices are a detriment or an asset to his multi-billion dollar Internet empire.

Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the only technology leader who refuses to don a suit and tie. Steve Jobs’ signature hoodie and jeans look became a trend in geek fashion in its simplicity and timeless appeal. Bill Gates, while no stranger to wearing a tie when needed, often gave presentations dressed in a simple button-up shirt and slacks.

The one thing all of these individuals have in common is that they are CEOs of corporations that buy other businesses left and right. These are people who really don’t answer to anyone, and don’t need to. They’re spokesmen as well as managers, and such a dual role requires them to dress the part they need to in order to appeal to their greater audience.

Do you think Mark Zuckerberg would wear a hoodie if Facebook targeted the business professional over students and alumni? Would Steve Jobs still have worn a turtle neck and jeans if Apple made medical supplies or software intended specifically for use in law offices? One can only guess what those answers might be.

Entry Level / Product Development

Entry level positions in the tech sector aren’t all at the bottom of the bracket in terms of pay or responsibility, but they are generally among the most relaxed and diverse in terms of dress code. It would be difficult to ask a tech support representative sitting in a call center customers never see to wear anything more than business casual to the office.

Just in case you’re keeping score, business casual is one of those terms that means something different to different offices. It could range from buttoned shirts and slacks to t-shirts and jeans. This phrase generally does not apply to shorts, flip-flops, or other strictly casual wear.

In entry-level positions that do require you to be in front of a customer, the company will typically opt to either require a uniform standard among employees or encourage dress that appeals most to the target customer. For example, Apple employees at the Apple Store wear matching blue t-shirts with appropriate pants and shoes. You won’t see someone working there wearing flip-flops and shorts.

Still, the chances of you needing a suit to get through the interview or perform any of your required tasks are very slim. Most interview candidates in entry-level positions show up wearing a nice buttoned shirt, slacks, and a pair of dress shoes. A tie may be worn, but isn’t generally required. Consider it a plus, indicating how much you really want the job.

Small companies may have their own ideas on whether or not a tie is a good thing to wear to an interview, but speaking in terms of larger corporations, it’s generally a good thing. Suits can be overkill, especially in warmer climates such as Texas.

Management / Administrative

This is where startups and small companies are set completely apart from larger corporations. Startups enjoy freedom that corporations overseen by old-fashioned investors and shareholders can’t. A new company working off of original seed money is usually a more laid back and creative environment as the team begins to form and ideas are held above all other priorities. There is rarely a business as usual within startups, and almost everyone on the team is tasked with a certain amount of responsibility and very few (if any) people reporting to them. There is no expectation to set or standard to work from, so dress is typically quite casual even on the administrative and managerial levels.

Large companies tend to take a different approach. The levels of middle management are generally responsible for dozens, if not hundreds of employees under them. Their very appearance is an example for others to follow, and casual dress is rarely allowed. In modern days, you won’t find many people rocking a full suit on a standard working day here unless the people on top have specifically requested it. However, if you’re at a level where you need to work directly with clients that have a lot of money invested in your company and/or product, you are expected to dress with respect for the people you’re working with.

Think about it. If you’re a millionaire banker or a business owner and you’re working with a tech company to provide your business with a specific product, wouldn’t you be more assured that the company you’re working with is capable of producing a consistent and professional product if that person takes the time and consideration to put a tie on before your meeting?

At this point, it doesn’t matter what your corporate mentality is. What matters most is what customers at that level perceive, and many of them are still “old-fashioned fuddy-duddies” that probably don’t take into account the relaxed atmosphere that promotes free-flowing ideas and innovation.

Executive Level

It’s difficult for smaller companies to separate between the executive and the entry-level employee. In some cases, these could be the same people. Depending on your particular niche in the technology sector, your executive may never need to don anything more than a hoodie and jeans to show up to work and get the job done.

Larger companies, especially publicly traded ones, are very different. Executives set an example to management, and management sets the example for everyone else. Imagine if the Vice President of Marketing for Microsoft showed up and toured a facility wearing attire that didn’t meet the standards managers or even entry-level employees were held to. The natural response for some would be to break the rules themselves, citing that so-and-so did it. It causes confusion and difficulties on some level.

Executives are also usually responsible for meeting with investors, the most important of clients, and in some cases are the public representatives of the company. While Mark Zuckerberg may wear his hoodie almost all the time, the people reporting directly to him are probably sporting a suit to at least some of their meetings.

These days, the use of a tie with a suit isn’t as mandatory as it once was. If you do a Google Image search for CTO, CEO, COO, or any other executive level title and accompany it with the word “tech,” you’re probably going to see a bunch of photos of individuals wearing suits with a buttoned shirt, sans the tie.

Final Thoughts

While suits may still be relevant at managerial, administrative, and executive levels; the tie is the fashion accessory that would appear to be left at home more and more often as time goes by. Technology conferences are full of people wearing blue buttoned long-sleeved shirts and khaki pants, but not so much folks wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

Bottom line: You should dress for the job you want. If your boss wears buttoned shirts with slacks, then you might gain a subconscious advantage over the rest of your team by doing the same. There’s no crime in dressing up now and then, and citing billionaire industry leaders as your reason for not doing so could very well cause you more harm than good. After all, these are the rock stars of the technology industry and not everyone can get away with dressing like a rock star.

Yes, you can survive in the technology sector, even at higher levels, without owning a suit. At the very least however, it’s never a bad idea to invest in a blazer and have at least one tie somewhere in your closet, just in case.

What do you think? Is there a point where you should drop the hoodie and wear something more business-oriented? Is dressing down a hindrance or an asset to Mark Zuckerberg in his quest to find investors?

Men’s Tie by Jiri Hodan

6 comments On Do You Need to Own a Suit to Work in Technology?

  • What you do dictates what you wear in my opinion.  If i’m running cat5 under desks in an office i’m not going to show up in a 3 piece. If i’m soldering electronics or working near a server’s big cooling fan I’m not going to wear a tie that I can set on fire or get caught in spinning or rotational equipment. I agree with the dress for the job you want thing until the clothes get in the way of doing the job you have.

    Generally my thoughts are:If they interact in-person with customers:Entry level or Hands-on guys: Khakis (shorts if its hot) & Polo shirt is fine.Guy managing those guys but still might need to go hands on: Khakis and button up with a clip on tie.Guy managing that guy & up: Suit.If they don’t interact with customers or other employees:T-shirt & jeans all around.Work from home:PajamasMark Zuckerberg is wealthy enough that he can wear whatever he wants and people will still listen to him.

  • What you do dictates what you wear in my opinion.  If i’m running cat5 under desks in an office i’m not going to show up in a 3 piece. If i’m soldering electronics or working near a server’s big cooling fan I’m not going to wear a tie that I can set on fire or get caught in spinning or rotational equipment. I agree with the dress for the job you want thing until the clothes get in the way of doing the job you have.

    Generally my thoughts are:If they interact in-person with customers:Entry level or Hands-on guys: Khakis (shorts if its hot) & Polo shirt is fine.Guy managing those guys but still might need to go hands on: Khakis and button up with a clip on tie.Guy managing that guy & up: Suit.If they don’t interact with customers or other employees:T-shirt & jeans all around.Work from home:PajamasMark Zuckerberg is wealthy enough that he can wear whatever he wants and people will still listen to him.

  • It’s a little more  complicated than “what you do,” it’s sometimes “where you do it.” In particular, you need to consider the culture of the country you are visiting to do technical or sales work. In Japan (and some other PacRim countries), for example, it is common for even the most junior entry level technical guys at companies of any significant size to wear suits (dark blue, black, or charcoal) with ties. If you do business, whether technical (as I do) or non-technical, in a foreign country, you need to learn about the apparel culture there. More than once I have seen U.S. guys in Japan dressed totally inappropriately casually (“business casual” is too casual), oblivious to the Japanese politely suppressed contempt (the Japanese have a word for those guys: “barbarians.”) The prestigious hotels in Tokyo have a dress code for their lobbies and restaurants that is understood and taken for granted by the natives, and should be understood and adhered to by international visitors. I never go to the hotel’s lobby or one of its restaurants without a suit and tie, as is expected, even on weekends. This dress code is even more important in the evening, when U.S. guys who are uninformed will mistakenly tend to get more casual, and the Japanese businessmen will usually stay, or even get more, dressy. It doesn’t matter how wealthy or important you are, you can still be a barbarian, and suffer from that, even if you don’t know it.

  • Well, I wonder what you would wear if your boss was a female?  I understand this is an article written by a guy, but there are a few of us women out there who work and we have to wear business clothes as well. 

    Of course, I totally agree that if suits are the case, then I am more than happy to kick off the heels and skirts and don a pair of comfortable shoes and slacks.  Hell, I would even take a blazer if push came to shove.  Are clothes important?  Unless you own the company, or do not care what anyone says, clothes are always important.  It is the first impression when someone sees you.  Just like smelling good is important.  You may be the smartest person in the world, but if you show up stinking like old socks and arm pit stink, do you think anyone will be listening to what you are saying?  People are visual creatures and we base judgement on our senses.  If you dress well, people will have more respect for what you are saying.  Of course, if you are a complete Type A personality that acts like a jackass all the time, it won’t matter what you wear, you will not get respect.  Like everything in life, there is a time and a place for everything.  Not sure that Mark Z would show up to greet the Queen of England wearing a hoodie.

  • Interesting but what about business or casual for women.Should women in tech wear ties or can we get away without wearing the. What is proper attire for women in tech? Khakis and a button up shirt or is that too manly? I don’t know.

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