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Roundtable Discussion:
The Courage to Be Yourself

edited by Gerald M. Weinberg, Marie Benesh, and James Bullock

Adapted from Roundtable on Technical Leadership. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. See below for copyright notice.

The Thread

Jerry Weinberg
Here's a note about job hunting from a member of one of my Software Engineering Management groups:

I've been on a major interview almost every day for the last few weeks, and I find that exhausting. I have been learning a lot about myself and where I want to head, though.

Unlike last year, and the last job change, this time I haven't cut my hair. In fact, not cutting my hair has become as much of a symbol for me as cutting it was last time. It's simpler to represent myself to people as I am, rather than how I think they want me to be.

As a consultant, I'm always looking for new jobs. As a bearded old guy, I've often wondered about shaving my beard in order to increase my chances; as a slob, I've wondered about changing the way I dress. I've written about dressing for the job, especially in The Secrets of Consulting, and this correspondent's experience was instructive (and confirming) for me.

To get his previous job, he cut his beautiful long hair. After only a few months, the company got in trouble and had to downsize. Its managers used the curious principle of classifying people on their "work fit" and their "culture fit." He was in the highest category on work, but in spite of cutting his hair, lowest on culture. Evidently, he hadn't fooled anybody.

They cut all the low scorers on culture, using the argument that they could teach people skills but couldn't change their culture. This was especially curious because he had been brought in as a specialist in culture change—precisely to change their culture.

We can draw several morals from this case:

  1. When applying for a job, don't bother trying to fool people about your true nature. Pretty soon the honeymoon period will be over, and they will see the truth. (This applies to marriage, as well.) In other words, the truth is not only simpler, it's more effective.
  2. Worse than that, you will see the truth. If you have to change your true self to get the job, you don't belong there. My correspondent wasn't happy in the job, and his only regret is that they fired him before he took the initiative to quit.
  3. Although you can't change your true nature for long (and live with yourself), you can learn. In this case, you can learn that lying (with words or actions) is never a good basis for starting a relationship you hope will last.

Our question for this thread is: How do you decide how to present yourself to your employers and/or clients? How many steps do you take in their direction before you decide you've moved far enough?

By and Large, They'll Have to Resolve Their Own Chaos

Phil Fuhrer
I have a colleague who dresses very casually. One time, he wore his typical biker-style jeans and T-shirt to a meeting we had with some architecture consultants in Houston. First, when the receptionist was logging us into the building, she gave him the express delivery packages instead of a building pass. Then, during the sessions, the chaos was obvious. The consultants couldn't determine whether he was a low-level observer learning our trade, an equal colleague with unusual style, or a high-power person who could flaunt the dress codes. Of course, the answer was all three, and he did a good job of keeping them on the hook and letting them resolve their own chaos.

Daniel Starr
I am the person Phil Fuhrer was talking about, the biker-looking guy that put the high-powered architectural consultants into chaos. Even though the consultants were holding a paper that I'd written, they addressed their questions to my boss. He'd promptly hand each question off to me, I'd answer it, and then the consultants would ask their next question—again, addressing my boss. This went on for an hour or so before they finally realized that the “biker” sitting at the conference table and the author of the paper had the same name, and maybe it wasn't just a coincidence.

Incidentally, we can laugh about this now, in part because once we got past the chaos induced by my appearance, we got quite a lot of productive work done. The consultants didn't appear to be bigoted, just confused!

Jerry Weinberg
I learned this lesson from working with people in wheelchairs (for Paws With a Cause). When you're in a wheelchair, people look at you differently. Some are confused, some are pitying, some are empathizing, and some (usually little kids) are delighted to see something new and interesting—especially if there's a dog pulling your chair!

So, there's more than one interpretation to people's reaction to the way you look. You don't get to change the reaction, but you get to change your interpretation. It may be harder at first, but in the long run, it's better to change your insides than to change your appearance. And the same goes for them.

If It's Not a Good Fit, Don't Do It

Kevin Huigens
This thread relates to a problem I faced a few years ago. Through a headhunter, I interviewed here in Chicago for a position in the development center of a tire company. According to the recruiter, the manager really liked me and wanted me to come back for a second interview. The catch was that I would have to shave off my beard and mustache because the company had a no-facial-hair policy. I turned down the offer. The recruiting firm hounded me for several days. They could not accept that they were going to lose out on a commission because of some whiskers.

Jerry Weinberg
Could they accept that they were going to lose a commission because of some stupid company policy?

Kevin Huigens
Normally, I have problems expressing anger, but not in this case. They couldn't understand my reasoning that if the company had this silly policy, I anticipated that they had a lot more policies with which I would not agree. Six months later, the tire company closed their development shop here and moved everything back to Ohio. Saved by my whiskers.

A year after that, I got another call from the same recruiters. The manager of the tire company's development center was now running a development center for a large food corporation. He was staffing up to roll out a CASE tool throughout the entire corporation in six months. He remembered me and wanted me for his staff. I was flattered but thought it a fool's errand. Again, the recruiters had trouble taking no for an answer. Six months later, the guy was still trying to hire staff to roll out the CASE tool.

Now it's getting time for me to move on from my current position. Not only do I still have my beard and mustache, but I've added a ponytail. (I look nothing like the ISTJ that I am.) I've also gotten used to nearly six years with a business casual (no tie) dress code. I don't own a suit anymore and don't really want to buy one. All of this is going to make my job hunt harder. Recruiting agencies aren't interested in me because I'm management, not technical, and because I won't play the game and do whatever it takes to get a job offer.

Jerry Weinberg
I think it's going to make your job hunting easier, unless you don't care what kind of job you get.

Kevin Huigens
I think you're right, Jerry, about telling the truth about one's nature. My goal in an interview is to determine if there would be a good fit between me and the company. That requires honesty from both parties. The downside is this limits my options. At some point, I may need to rethink my requirements.

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COPYRIGHT NOTICE: This excerpt from Roundtable on Technical Leadership: A SHAPE Forum Dialogue [ISBN: 0-932633-51-X] appears by permission of Dorset House Publishing. Copyright © 2002 by Gerald M. Weinberg. All rights reserved. See http://www.dorsethouse.com/books/rtl.html. The material contained in this file may be shared for noncommercial purposes only, nonexclusively, provided that this Copyright Notice always appears with it. This material may not be combined with advertisements, online or in print, without explicit permission from Dorset House Publishing. For copies of the printed book or for permissions, contact Dorset House Publishing, 1-800-342-6657, 212-620-4053, http://www.dorsethouse.com, info@dorsethouse.com, New: 3143 Broadway, Suite 2B, New York, NY 10027 USA. Additional rights limitations apply, as presented in the Legal Disclaimer posted at http://www.dorsethouse.com/legal.html.



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