White House - Programmers Don't Have To Wear Suits
Written by Mike James   
Monday, 25 August 2014

The recently formed US Digital Service is aimed at making digital interaction with the government less like going to the dentist. Part of the change that the new head brings is the relaxed attitude towards dress code. 



It is perhaps sad that we concentrate on the petty matter of how people dress, but it does send a signal. Mikey Dickinson, the man who sorted out the healthcare.gov disaster, is the new head of the new US Digital Service and if you want someone to blame for bringing the matter up - blame him. In a recent video introducing the new organization he says:

"People want to know if I’m wearing a suit to work every day because that’s just the quickest shorthand way of asking: ‘Is this just the same old business as usual or are they actually going to listen?’"

If you are a programmer then you will get the hidden message. Working for the White House and government in general is not working for Google. In other words, you are, or at least have been, expected to work at a desk, wear a suit and otherwise conform to the bureaucratic uniform and by implication mentality. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with conformity, but if you are trying to entice top programming talent to work for you then you have to expect, and accommodate, a goodly amount of non-conformity. 




It is interesting to ask the question why?

I'm not sure that I or anyone knows the exact answer. Perhaps there is no compact answer and you just have to accept that programming has a social history and development that has resulted in the observable fact that programmers don't wear suits. I was astonished to read the recent account of Howard Aiken and the Harvard Mark I which contains the revelation that this early computer was operated by sailors working more or less at attention. There clearly was a time when programming and wearing a suit, or in this case uniform, did fit together. 

It seems that Dickinson is all for getting the job done and not just attending to a dress code. However, the suit did come out for a meeting with President Obama who said 

"They’re starting to look official now, aren’t they? They’ve got suits and everything.” 

and this remark indicates that the resistance to casual isn't over just yet. Dickinson seems uncomfortable with the remark and chips in:

"This is literally only because you’re here,”

The low quality and lack of uniformity of government software can be put down to the need to wear suits if it frightens away the talent needed to make it all work. Of course the random drug tests, the need to work at an office desk, no games machines and rec rooms and no free food might also contribute to the problem. The White House clearly isn't Google and for a programmer the choice is easy. 


And finally, whether you personally do or do not wear a suit reading the U.S. Digital Services Playbook, which lists what the organization is setting out to do, is a good idea if only to feel that there is some hope of doing things better. 

One comment of note is "Default to Open" and the website is available on GitHub. 


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Last Updated ( Monday, 25 August 2014 )