Monday, April 23, 2012

Nothing but the jeans

We’ve had two going away lunches at work in as many weeks, the more recent one just this past Friday. Coincidentally, both lunches were not just for people who work at my agency but guys who are fellow contractors (formerly) drawing a paycheck from my employer. And at the second lunch, the gust of honor from the first lunch returned to say congrats and good luck to his erstwhile colleague.

So the former contractor who had been gone for a week or so showed up at the restaurant dressed fairly casually. Somehow I was unprepared for the absolute furor this would set off. Upon seeing him, the very first words out of the mouths of more than one grizzled government contracting veteran was “They let you were jeans to the office at your new job?” To which he could only kind of smile and say yes, indeed they did, at least on casual Friday. I credit him fully for leaving the implicit “And it is freaking SWEET!” unspoken.

I took a job working for a tech start-up back in the late 90’s, and their offices were Casual Every Day. It was pretty much indistinguishable from a college computer lab both in terms of the average age of the people there and the fashion sense on display (best summed up as “unmindfulness”). It was pretty freaking sweet. And I clearly remember, and probably will continue to remember my whole life, a huge banner that was hanging on the wall in one of the testing rooms, where various computers were set up to represent various environments which the products needed to be compatible with. The banner read “Success is measured by results, not effort.” It’s not a particularly profound observation but I remember how it crystallized in my mind the attitude of the company (and, I realized later, of most start-ups from the 90’s tech boom). Even the highest muckety-muckiest of bosses at the company (and there were several of those, guys with titles that started with Chief and ended with Officer, I call it a start-up but really it was more of a spin-off and had a large support structure in place from the get-go) didn’t care if the programmers, testers and designers came in late, left early, went to go see a matinee movie over a three hour lunch, took four day weekends to go skiing, &c., any more than they cared how those guys dressed up or down, or how often they cut their hair or shaved. There were projects with deliverables and deadlines, and as long as things got done on time (and presumably, you know, worked as requested) then everybody was happy. If the project called for a new interface to be delivered in three weeks, nobody cared if delivering said interface was going to be easy or hard, if it was going to take 4 hours of actual coding time or 40 or 140 including a couple of all-nighters. Get the requested results. Nobody cares when or where you get it done, and certainly nobody cares what you wear while you do it.

Once you’ve experienced that it just seems so seductively logical. What does what you’re wearing have to do with how well you perform your job duties, particularly when said duties involve minimal contact with the public and most involve time in quasi-isolation with a computer? And yet still today there are people who are shocked, SHOCKED to consider that outside the creakingly old-school bureaucracies of the government (particularly the defense department, with their institutional love for uniforms and conformity) one might be gainfully employed and yet wear denim during business hours. The mind boggles.

Over the years I’ve gone back and forth, batted around from job to job by prevailing economic forces, and I seem to be on a pattern of alternation: after the spin-off I did some time teaching office productivity software classes, and had to wear a tie every day. Then I worked for another start-up (in a much more traditional sense of the word) and wore jeans and t-shirts to work for years, and sometimes worked from home. Now I’m a contractor required to be all spiffed up when reporting for duty once again. I guess that means the next time I change jobs I need to wind up in a fairly relaxed environment again. Come to think of it, that would probably be one of the few things that could really sway me to consider hopping to a new cubicle farm at this point.

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