What Do Programmers Wear to Work?

The posts that I write for this blog are aimed at answering questions non-programmers and aspiring programmers have about being a programmer.  This results in me answering some questions that seem perfectly natural.  But it also results in questions that surprise me.  “What do programmers wear to work?” is one of the surprising ones.

I can answer this question in a paragraph.  But I can also answer it with an entire post.  Let’s start with a paragraph.

What do programmers wear to work?

The answer is that it really varies.  Asking what programmers wear to work is like asking what people who work corporate jobs wear to work.  On average, programmers probably dress somewhat more casually than the average worker.  But there are programmers who come to work in suits and programmers who come to work in pajamas.  What programmers wear to work has a lot more to do with the company than with the profession.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about when it comes to how programmers dress.  Instead of trying to describe programmers at large, let’s break things down by the dress code.  Assume that you want to be a programmer.  Let’s look at each style of dress and where you might encounter it.

Where Might Programmers Wear Formal Dress?

First up, formal dress.  What do I mean by this?  Formal dress is what you’d expect to see at weddings or other swanky, important events.  Jackets, slacks, and ties for men, and dresses for women.

If you flash back to the 1960s, this was common work attire.  In the 2010s, not so much.  Very few companies require this style of dress.  In fact, it’d be legitimately weird in most places to dress this way, unless you were interviewing.  And, maybe it’s still weird even then.

If you’re a programmer, that’s probably even more true.  When you see formal dress in the 2010s, it’s bankers, lawyers, detectives, and government officials.  It’s usually not Josh the Java programmer.

So when you do see this as a programmer, it will almost certainly be the result of working in an office featuring the services I’ve just mentioned.  If you’re writing code internally at a law firm or in a stodgy old government office, you might need to wear a shirt and tie or a dress/pant-suit.  You might also have occasion to dress this way when working in some kind of high-end consulting firm.

But, by and large, this style of dress doesn’t apply to modern programmers.  If you’re looking to go into this line of work, you can probably leave the formal dress in the back of your closet for weddings and funerals.

Where Might Programmers Go Business Casual?

What about business casual?  Business casual is a step down from formal, and it generally involves skirts, slacks, khakis, button-down shirts, and sweaters.

Its name would seem to indicate that it’s the de facto dress code for business people, programmers included.  And that was once true.  But I’d say not so much these days.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are still a whole lot of companies that have this as a dress code.  It’s just no longer the default.  It’s kind of like how 15 years ago, everyone had a Windows computer.  And, while a lot of people still do these days, a lot of people also do something else (i.e. Macs or just using their phones).

As a result, when you take a programming job, there’s a decent chance you’ll be dressing in business casual.  This is especially true if you’re in a more traditional organization, such as a bank, a manufacturing firm, an association, or anything else that has a more buttoned-up feel.

Business casual is no longer a given, but it’s still common.  So take a look around when you’re interviewing to get a feel for how people will expect you to dress.

What About Casual Dress?

Alright, let’s get to the fun stuff.  Casual dress.  Generally, in an office environment, this means jeans, and maybe t-shirts or, at least, regular shirts.  The specifics might vary a bit, but you can bank on jeans (and on not wearing shorts, ripped pants, bathing suits, or anything super crazy).

I would say that, in this day and age, a casual-style dress is about as common as business casual.  You’ll find a lot of firms that are fine with you wearing jeans and a sweatshirt.  And I don’t just mean small companies or tech companies.  I’ve consulted at banks, Fortune 100 companies, and other organizations that you’d expect to be more formal, but who are perfectly content to let employees wear jeans.

A big part of the reason for this is that a lot of small, upstart destination employers have gone casual in the last decade.  So larger, traditional firms have followed suit in order to lure talent back into their doors.

This is especially relevant to programmers.  So many of the companies leading the casual dress charge are tech companies, founded by programmers and employing programmers.  Look at Mark Zuckerburg as exhibit A.  Facebook is a cool employer for programmers, and companies wanting to follow suit may emulate its policies.

I’d say that casual dress is probably the most common case for programmers these days.

Is There Something Less Casual Than Casual?  Yup.

If you thought we were done at casual, you’re wrong.  In the casual section, I reigned things in a little.  Sure, you can wear jeans and sweatshirts.  But T-shirts?  Maybe.  Ripped jeans?  Yikes, no.

Well, at a super casual company, you can wear anything you like.  I mean, within reason.  Probably assuming it’s not profane.  But I’ve heard super casual places with mottos like “our dress code is wear clothes.”  Go work at a place like that, and you can come to work in sweatpants on cold days and in shorts and sandals on warm ones.

This isn’t the most common case by any stretch.  Most employers are business casual or casual, and most programmers work for most employers.  But this style of dress is increasingly common.  And tech companies in Silicon Valley and other locations are leading the charge.

So, as a programmer, you’re more likely than most professions to find yourself working in a super casual environment.

Remote Work: Pants-Optional

One last point worth mentioning is that the programming world features more than its fair share of remote work.  A remote job is one that you do entirely from your home.  As a programmer, this is actually pretty reasonable.  You’ve got a laptop, and a laptop is all you need to work.

When you work remotely, there is, of course, no dress code.  At its most stringent, you need to be relatively presentable form the waist up while you do video conferencing.  But you could, of course, wear sweatpants and a respectable shirt.  Or, you could claim that your computer’s webcam isn’t working and wear whatever you please.

Remote work is the ultimate case for wearing whatever you feel like.  It’s also what I do, and I can attest to how great it is.  In the summer, I wear T-shirts, shorts, and sandals to work every day.  In the winter, it’s T-shirts, jeans, and slippers.  Life is good.

How Should You Dress?

So I’ve now described the gamut of how your employer expects you to dress as a programmer.  But how should you dress?  If your employer is a casual employer, should you impress by wearing formal dress?  Or should you try to push the envelope by wearing crocs and tank-tops?

You’ll see a lot of advice on this subject.  “Dress like your boss” or “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.”  I could go on, but I’m already bored by these aphorisms.

Here’s a good rule of thumb, in my experience.  Dress nicer than the grubbiest programmer in your group and not as nice as the group brown-noser.  No serious company is promoting you based on how you dress (as opposed to the quality of your work), so coming to work two dress codes above expectation is just serving to make you uncomfortable.  And, on the flip side, under-dressing isn’t making some kind of powerful societal statement—you’re just giving your boss a headache.

So in the end, how will you dress as a programmer?  You’ll probably dress more casually than the average corporate worker.  It’ll depend a lot on the industry you go into and on your organization’s specific policies.  But whatever those policies, you should wind up dressing in a way that makes you presentable without standing out.