An acquaintance in Ithaca, New York alerted me to a Wall Street Journal blog post written by a Silicon Valley-based thirtysomething man entitled, “The Perils of Interview Attire.” Writing about one of my favorite topics – how Silicon Valley engineers are known to have a style all their own – Jon Gray tells of his perilous job interviewing wardrobe experiences. In Gray’s situations, intentionally wearing an item – or not – moves beyond the physical. It’s a head-trip.
Among three of Gray’s buddies who have interviewed at startup companies, none have worn ties to job interviews in years, he says. Welcome to Silicon Valley, home of the dress for success counterculture, where success is measured not by the noose around your neck but based on other factors. Now you might be thinking with this comment that I’ve gone soft and that the Silicon Valley is an altruistic place where qualifications, merit, degrees, and diplomas are all that count. Cough. Cough. Image still matters heavily, but it matters in a different way than in other parts of the country.
In Gray’s post he explained how he went to an interview wearing a suit with no tie, and unbuttoned his dress shirt at the collar. The company vice president gave him a sartorial thumb’s down, even though the recruiter’s feedback was flying high. He promised to dress more appropriately for additional interviews. When he went back to meet with the president and the CEO, he wore a suit, tie, and even shined his shoes for the occasion. When the CEO showed Gray out of the building he told him to “never wear a tie to an interview at a startup!”
There are all sorts of issues with this story. One is that he took advice from two sets of colleagues but didn’t get more insight. A second issue is that he didn’t know more about the startup company’s culture. A third issue is that after meeting with the company vice president he should have had some ideas of how to dress for subsequent interviews based on how the vice president was dressed and based on the vice president’s feedback about the way he showed up for the interview. A fourth issue is that the recruiter should have provided better information to Mr. Gray about the way he should dress for subsequent interviews.
Jon Gray got caught in a wardrobe game played by many men in the Silicon Valley counterculture. How does a guy be an individual and still fit in to the culture of the Valley, and the technology sector culture?
The simple answer is the complex answer: Guys like Jon Gray have to know themselves and have to know the company they are [going to be] employed by.
As I said in my comment response to Gray’s blog post, “A self-assured man dresses for the purpose of achieving his goals, and goal number one is being able to look at yourself in the mirror knowing you represented yourself properly.” This answers the part of knowing yourself. “The idea of dressing appropriately for an occasion means balancing your own needs and goals with the expectations of your audience.” Without losing your sense of self, you need to know your audience. “If you don’t know your audience’s expectations, you need to inquire.” This means, do your due diligence and research a company even if it means parking your car in the lot and watching the comings and goings of the people.
Jon and others might wish for the good old days of rules – as we knew them to be. In fact, there are ‘rules’ of dress that apply to Jon’s situation but they aren’t the classic rules found in dog-eared copies of published books. These rules are experiential and are ever-changing. It only makes sense this is happening here in Silicon Valley, a place where game playing is an art form.
Designing and managing your image is the secret science of your success.
Joseph Rosenfeld helps professional men and corporate workgroups create effective visual brands. Visit JosephRosenfeld.com for details.