Silicon Valley and the high tech world have long ago gotten over the notion that talent doesn’t always conform to dress codes and other norms. I’m not sure if it started with Steve Jobs in the 70’s – wearing shorts and sandals to meetings (without showering) – but I am pretty sure there was very little tolerance for non-conformity in prior decades. Entrepreneurs are almost by definition nonconformists and iconoclasts. In order to do business with the outside world, they often have had to conform – at least enough to get through the door.
But ever since the first high-tech entrepreneurial boom of the 80s through the subsequent dotcom 90s, the tables have turned: The rest of the world (customers, partners, investors) not only has evolved to tolerate the idiosyncratic behavior of talented geniuses, we have come to expect our innovators to be quirky, at the least, and enjoy it when they are even borderline crazy. We enjoy seeing Mark Zuckerberg in his hoodie and Adidas flip flops, or seeing Richard Branson take yet another insane vacation adventure — we expect nothing less.
And this is the problem: While the appearance may be somewhat “cause-and-effect”, but this does not work the other way around. Far too often, we encounter someone – particularly in the tech field – with strange social skills and even stranger ways of dressing. We are conditioned to think subconsciously: “Only a genius can get away with that kind of behavior, therefore they must be a genius.” Surely we can all spot the faulty logic.
Having spent the first part of my career as a software engineer (at one point being able to code in nearly 20 different languages) I been able to spot these faux-geniuses every time. Almost always, these guys have been able to get away with being treated as highly paid tech gurus primarily on the basis of maintaining the now-stereotypical “look”, while ensuring that their vocabulary has a high concentration of contemporary tech terms designed to bewilder and dazzle anyone who owns a suit. This scene reminds me of a typical “Dilbert” cartoon where the pointy-headed boss is mesmerized by the buzzword fluent, sandal wearing, 22-year-old social media consultant. These days, the “look” is anything but unique and iconoclastic. Today, it is closer to the 80s version of wearing a three-piece suit and red power-tie: Giving the impression that since the person is wearing the uniform, they must have the talent.
Not everyone with talent is The Nudist on the Late Shift.