Skills vs. appearance
Published on November 26, 2007 By greywar In Pure Technology

Should an IT guy's hair matter more than his skills?


     A while back I was thinking of moving jobs because my current employer had shown no great enthusiasm for raising my pay despite the fact that I had just become worth a great deal more than I had been through the miracle of professional certifications (CCNA, CompTIA + certs, etc…).


     A bit of activity produced a satisfying level of activity from all over the country and within the state (strangely nothing from the local area) and two employers in Phoenix attracted my interest.


     The two prospective suitors were and a financial IT outsourcing group who I won’t name. Both wanted my networking skills and were especially pleased by my current focus on network security.


     I went for both interviews on the same day in Scottsdale, AZ which is less of a neighborhood than it is a striking monument to Capitalism. There are Hummer dealerships, wine shops, and assorted IT or finance firms as far as the eye can see. At any moment I expected the police to stop me for obvious poverty.




Financial IT Interview

     The first interview was with the internet banking outsourcing company. They have a small network operating center (NOC) in a glass walled office adjoined by there management offices. I could see each network analysts at their desks, no cubicle walls, everyone dressed in business casual attire.


     The interview went quite well and both their IT team lead and the H.R. guy seemed to like me. Neither one seemed to really have the tech knowledge to ask me anything meaningful and I think any chump off the street who has taken a single networking class could have answered the simple things they asked. Then there was an unexpected snag, the H.R. guy asked me (in a very embarrassed tone) if I would be willing to cut my hair and shave my beard for the job. I was polite but I couldn’t stop myself from laughing out loud when he asked.


      Let’s be clear here, I am in my 30’s, I am a 13 year Army veteran, I was in dress clothes/shoes, my hair (which is long) was brushed and neat, and I have a beard (this is no Gandalf beard mind you, just a beard, well… maybe a Matisyahu beard). I told the H.R. guy that if their offer was lucrative enough I would come to work in whatever style they wanted but that the offer would have to be pretty damned good for me to agree to utterly change my appearance.


     This was a huge strike against this company as a prospective employer. The job was IT not sales. I wouldn’t deal with customers at all. Right now I work for one of the largest tech companies in the U.S. and they have zero issue with my work appearance. For an IT firm to be that concerned about appearance stuck me as a bad thing.



     The offer would have to be bloody excellent. On my way out I stopped and looked at the guys working the NOC again, almost all were in their early 20’s. “Ah… recent college grads”, I thought to myself. Those guys will pretty much take anything to pay off a loan. Interview


      That afternoon I interviewed with GoDaddy (right next door to the Lamborghini dealership). GoDaddy is a much larger company (some 5,000+ employees) than the financial folks (around 200+) and both companies are privately owned but the difference was striking.


      In the lobby where you wait for H.R. there was a massive plasma screen showing footage of all the commercials GoDaddy makes and even more footage of the commercials they weren’t allowed to air. Below that runs a ticker showing ongoing domain sales and after-market trading of these domains.


      When the H.R. rep comes out they make you take an IQ test. This allows the interviewers to have an objective measure of how well you match your resume. I enjoyed the hell out it.


     After the IQ test I was taken back to meet with their tech lead and the engineering manager. On the way back I passed geek after nerd, after mega dork.. my kind of people frankly. The dress went beyond “casual” to “what-ever-you-fucking-want”. Grooming standards? None to speak of. People were working, command lines were everywhere, and equipment was open to be fiddled with. Everything about the place suggested a fast pace and a busy attitude.


     The interviewers were both techies not managers. They knew what they were talking about and wanted to know all the right things. They upfront an honest about what they would need from me and about the issues facing the company’s network engineers (the position I was up for). At no point did they inquire about my willingness to have a different coif. Instead they wanted to know if I would be willing to train as a CCIE.


     Cutting to the chase, I accepted a second interview with GoDaddy where I met with their V.P. he was concerned with my lack of commercial experience but seemed satisfied with my answers. I wore a suit and tie to this one but I probably could have gone in Bermuda shorts with a Penny-arcade shirt without it affecting anything.



Both companies made offers.


Financial Hair Nazis : ~50% above my current salary.


GoDaddy: ~60% above my current salary.


    The finance guys were stunned when I turned them down. The H.R. was desperate to know why. In a long email I detailed the problems with an IT company concerned about the length of a network engineer’s hair or their possession of facial hair. I also told them that they were bidding low compared to GoDaddy especially considering the difference in working environments.


    I also turned down GoDaddy but not for any fo those reasons. In fact if you are an IT nerd looking for a place to work in or around Phoenix, I highly recommend GoDaddy. They were genuinely nice folks.


    As a stereotype, IT folks want to be valued for our skills and ability to learn and not for our looks. Most of us lost out in the looks department long ago and in the process gained a large amount of loathing for those who value appearance over all.


    I am not saying I want to come to work in bike shorts and a “Fuck-you” shirt mind you. Hell I’ll come to work every day in a suit and love it. That said, if you want me to change my hair or beard you better have a compelling reason why your network engineer needs that particular appearance. Simply saying “everyone here does it” will just piss me off. I had enough of that reasoning in the Army. You are not the Army.



    In the end my current employer made a nice counter-offer and I agreed to stay on and don't regret it a bit. It pays to let them know you are thinking of jumping ship.


P.S. Does anyone think these questions would have been asked if I was a female or a minority with an unusual hairstyle?


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Comments (Page 2)
on Nov 27, 2007

Phoenix, eh?  I might be in the market in 4 years. 

As to your question, I guess it really did not matter.  Great going.

on Nov 27, 2007

Phoenix, eh? I might be in the market in 4 years.


Scottsdale in particular seems to be in an IT and Engineering boom right now.

on Dec 01, 2007
I have a weird take on this I guess. I worked in an office where the IT guys were just part of the team. I had a really good friend, who was a Computer Science guy (BS in CS), and we worked side-by-side on a training team teaching analysts how to use a data visualization tool. He is a true CS genius type (writes PERL scripts for fun). It was a chore to get him to wear a collared shirt and decent shoes (Vans were his shoe of choice). I can tell you, without hesitation, that I would give almost anything to have him by my side to do data manipulation. Having said that, he and I went round-and-round about appearance. I know he's great at what he does, and respect his individualism. BUT, I do understand the position of a non-tech person who would see him and think..."If he doesn't care enough about himself to look decent, how can I trust him to care about my data (or my business)"?.

If somebody has worked within an organization long enough to earn the latitude to have relaxed grooming standards, good on you. But if you are going to an interview, and your appearance represents 90% of what a potential employer has to honestly "judge" you by, can you really blame them? A problem...within reason. Slightly long hair...also passable. But...long hair, no suit, tennis shoes, wrinkled clothes.... At what point to you think..."If this guy doesn't give a sh*t enough to at least TRY at the can I expect him to really give a crap about the work we are trying to do?"...... My compadre insisted that if people only judged him by how he looked, than f*^k them. But I couldn't get him to understand that these people don't know him from Adam. They don't know that he can write a PERL script to convert an HTML table to XML for data ingestion into visualization tools in 10 minutes. All they know is that you show up to a meeting scheduled 2 weeks in advance, and you are wearing Vans. I love the guy.....I've been trying to switch jobs to come work with me....because I KNOW his value....but that's because I worked with him for 18 months. He can't expect somebody off the street to know his value intrinsically.

Am I way off-base here?
on Dec 01, 2007

But...long hair, no suit, tennis shoes, wrinkled clothes....


Besides long hair none of that applied here. So....?


Given your friends example as well even if he did come to the interview that way and they hired someone else they lose out... so the point of appearance as a hiring standards would be what? To lose expertise for no reason?


on Dec 02, 2007
only once was i told i'd have to cut my hair by an employer. i was offered a front office position fraught with opportunity. i went along with the program and when recruited elsewhere some years later, i was still fairly presentable so it wasn't an issue. less than a year later, i began freelancing and decided not to implement any sorta dress code. none of my clients seemed to have a problem with my hair but one did strongly suggest i wear shoes to all future meetings we took at studio offices since my being barefoot might lead some there to mistakenly conclude i was one of the producers.

altho i don't actually do any hiring, on occasion i'm involved in selecting vendors/consultants as well as recommending purchases. it's rare but there have been times when each candidate is equally well-qualified. rather than flipping a coin, having em all draw straws or solicting a payoff, i choose the one with the longest hair. it may seem to offer females an advantage but hey--my hair hangs more than halfway down my back so it works for me.