Stephen Cohen, co-founder and EVP of Palantir, said in Peter Thiel’s startup class at Stanford that “Great engineers don’t wear designer jeans” and discouraged hiring those that do.
So is it actually true that “great engineers don’t wear designer jeans”?
Christine Lim, who calls herself “delinquent technocrat who ponders politics, design, beauty..” comes up with the brilliant answer in Quora suggesting a broader look at changes of aesthetic landscape and how modern technocratic society is moving towards a vision of great engineers and leaders as image-conscious individuals who place a high value on design and style compared to ‘old school” ascetic elite dwelling in a pure and unsullied meritocracy.
“That’s so ten years ago. The jeans thing is not about truth. It’s about custom.
It’s kind of a shorthand, you know, a shibboleth for the old technocracy, when the power elite was mentally trained to be like soldiers – about raw function over all else. Extraneous form or niceties couldn’t get a word in. They didn’t say hello in the hallways when they were on task. They didn’t develop people skills because they weren’t expected to ever have to mingle with the masses. The masses would be lucky if they didn’t want to go barefoot to someone’s wedding. I don’t think anyone would have said it out loud even then – but that was definitely the culture for us growing up – that serious people with serious problems to solve wouldn’t wear designer jeans unless someone tricked them into it or there was some greater mission that would be helped by wearing them. There’s no time for designer jeans when you’re saving the world.
You know, Ender’s Game. It is like Ender’s Game in the cultural milieu that Cohen is referencing. There is no mention of designer jeans in Ender’s Game.. Even Peter, the one who catered to and manipulated the civilians, going on to become World Hegemon, didn’t stoop as low as designer jeans.
These days, everyone is a brand and everyone is a salesman. But back then, you didn’t advertise your talent or talk about it, because that is not how it was done. Talent was expected to be evident in socially unacceptable quirks like not caring about fashion, specifically because the most talented get away with a lot. They don’t need do something as lowly, conformist, and complacent as to wear designer jeans for respect and admiration. If you’re a bit stressed from the pressure of having to save the world, you could take a break and make some pants out of duct tape, but you still wouldn’t wear them to an interview.
So the jeans thing is not about truth. It’s about custom.
It’s at present actionable advice for some going on interviews because the people who learned this way of thinking at the pinnacle of tech ten years ago are now founding companies. It’s not going to be the case ten or even five years from now, when highly talented women and human-centered, design-conscious engineers overwhelm the market. But right now, the ones who are ascetic fashion-wise and humanity-wise have a bit of power, so people need to just understand the ones who say that great engineers don’t wear designer jeans.
It’s the result of a technocratic worldview acquired in early adolescence, combined with the fact that today’s top engineers are a tad (gasp) old fashioned compared to the emerging technocrats who place a high value on design and style (Ain’t no one gonna use your product if it’s ugly).
The old guard (things move fast in tech so a 30yo engineer could be part of the old guard) of tech divinity is actively against anything superficial. They believe the kind of talent that matters, the kind you want to hire, shines through even if someone looks terrible. They’re saying, “don’t sweat the small stuff”. Fashion is an example of what used to be considered small stuff.
Even if they know that someone with an interest in designer jeans could be a great engineer, they doubt considering the strict culture of meritocracy and the rarity of great engineers anyway, that one would be in designer jeans especially for an interview. The old guard isn’t stupid. They know fashion has always been distracting and immersive for anyone who gets involved. They are worried if an engineer stands before them in designer jeans. It’s like an engineer stands before them with a gambling addiction. Why are they in designer jeans? Are they not confident in their talent? Why aren’t they solving problems they are in love with so they don’t have time for much else? How could they have wasted time on shopping? Or gambling?That’s the old way of thinking.
They don’t consider that the engineer could have designed those jeans, or that a valid concern about how things look and feel could be factors of positive enrichment to the skills and humanity of an engineer. (Maybe they do consider it in the back of their minds, but then they know that having money, which not everyone has, helps people to buy things that look and feel nice as opposed to just function. Now they have to think about power relations in society, and their vision of a pure meritocracy threatens to collapse, which is all unacceptable and devastating. Whaddayamean I might have to work with less-than-utterly-brilliant rich people? Are you serious?)
The emerging new guard faces a vastly different than their predecessors did. Before, a boxy, beige desktop was great as long as it was highly functional. Now, no one would touch a boxy, beige desktop with a ten foot pole. Design matters. Health matters. Beauty matters. Culture matters. Without much warning, it’s gotten to the point that tech is fashion. You wear your tech on your sleeve or hold it in your hand. Everyone is more image conscious than ever due to an unprecedentedly fast, varied, and unforgiving media landscape. Now people theoretically don’t care what their engineers wear and sometimes even give a few bonus points for respecting the importance of presentation.
This is all gibberish to the products of the old guard. It threatens their naive fantasy of dwelling in a pure and unsullied meritocracy. They grew up before engineers had to worry about anything as inconsequential as flourishing in the media spotlight, before anyone expected media to be as fast and as powerful as it is now. These days, engineers who turn into founders like Stephen Cohen have to develop a persona, give talks, and be conversant in power politics. They need to be presentable to inspire the masses. Everyone is a brand and everyone is a salesman.They are the front of the house.
But any engineers you hire who are going to work behind the scenes should be focused on their work, the problem at hand, and not on how they’re dressed. Their job descriptions do not involve looking great but being sublimely talented. They are the back of the house.
When they gain experience and found their own companies, they can put in the job description that it is important to look great whether it is in designer jeans or something else, because startups are so small that everyone is the house inside and out, not separated into back of the house and front of the house. But for now, the powers that be (which sounds silly because the ones in Silicon Valley are so young compared to the equivalent in other industries) grew up with the following culture:
1. Early Inculcation of Technocratic Worldview
Many young elite engineers working today acquired, during childhood from technologically privileged parents, during adolescence from specialized high schools, or during early adulthood in university computer science departments, a technocratic worldview.
Those inducted at a young age into a technocratic worldview (aka the we are “the best of the best” and “the cream of the crop” of a meritocracy with all the attendant technological privileges and ethical responsibilities worldview) go through strict cultural training to never judge the greatness of others by what they are wearing. Ever. They never run into anyone smart who is interested in fashion, so it’s improbable that they have ever considered fashion a serious matter with interesting problems to solve. In the hierarchy of the sources of interesting problems, fashion does not rank high enough to merit their precious attention. Fashion can’t compete with alien invasions, cyber warfare, the energy crisis, world hunger, and on.
Schools inculcate in bright kids who go on to be serious problem solvers, including engineers, the following monomaniacal thought process:
You are blessed with some of the finest minds on the planet. It is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO FIX AND BETTER THIS WORLD. There’s going to be a great deal of hard work and intellectual excitement until you die. And after you are gone, only the best minds will be able to pick up where you left off, if at all, but this is very important. FOCUS. There are many entrenched and emerging problems to solve. Only essentials are allowed. You go on talent and hard work only. Fashion? (ffwd to 2013: What the what? Oh, it’s profitable? Great! Hope that means someone will fund more research or at least leave us be so we can solve real problems.) rwd to ten years ago: The important thing is that you bring your body, which holds your brain, which is going to solve the problem. Hell, feel free to wear PJ’s. If it wasn’t illegal, we probably wouldn’t care if you weren’t dressed at all as long as you were passably clean. This is war. Soldiers don’t wear designer jeans. Save the world. Worry about details later, if ever. NOTHING UNTIL AFTER YOU HAVE SAVED THE WORLD. GOT IT? GOOD.
It’s all very Ender’s Game, with all the social pathologies that come with it.
I can see how it would be taken that way now, but the distaste for designer jeans doesn’t have much to do with sexism or heteronormativity. These people don’t have time to think about sex or gender. They probably view themselves simply as a humanoid (sadly not a cyborg yet. YET) as opposed to a man or a woman. They need people in a startup to be able to communicate quickly with one another, and designer jeans are actually a perfect heuristic to tell if someone is from this old school, Ender’s Game-worshipping technocracy. It’s not about who’s right. It’s about whether people are going to understand one another and who has more real power. Personally, it took me 5-8 years to fully understand how anyone could wear designer jeans without demeaning themselves, and as it turns out, I love pretty things.
2. They don’t have as much respect for usability or human-centered, emotional, cultural design yet. They would if they thought about it. But these guys are pretty successful at what they do already, so they don’t feel the need to worry about an area where old-school engineers are traditionally the WEAKEST. It hurts their heads. I promise. They would have to actually stop and THINK about normal people, their LIVES, and their FEELINGS and their COMPLETELY IRRATIONAL cultures. If they need design to optimize a product or service before it launches, they’ll hire a designer. Maybe they’ll even use a cultural consultant for important launches. But that’s it. True to the form of old school engineering, they are about raw function over all else.
So traditionally, great engineers are socially awkward, but to apply that culture to their culture gives us today’s culture – that really great engineers are so great they don’t need to conform to the old culture of having to be socially awkward to fit in. They will still be very weird compared to the average person, but you know what I mean.
You should cut the older guard some slack. These engineers grew up during the comeback of Apple, when it was cutting edge for a high school to have a T3 internet connection or email addresses, before Google, Youtube, and Facebook were household names; when the very first iPods were just coming out. They grew up knowing people’s phone numbers by heart because 9/11 hadn’t happened and not everyone had cell phones yet. It was a different time with a different mindset. I honestly think that the change is a good sign for today’s society. We are now moving towards a vision of great engineers and leaders as also fully HUMAN, KIND, HEALTHY, and CULTURED. You know – engineers who value a liberal education. Maybe one day, that will be our vision for soldiers also. I hope so..”