Silicon Valley has a dress code? You better believe it

Facebook Chairman and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg was one of the biggest donors on the list.

Silicon Valley, of course, is known for its casual dress, which means t-shirts, jeans and sneakers. But don't be fooled, techies care a lot more about fashion than they let on. Or put another way, there’s a lot of code in the Silicon Valley dress code.

In fact, engineer Alexey Komissarouk boasted he could tell if people were in tech and what they did by just looking at their dress. I met him a few months ago at the FWD.us hackathon and I asked him to show me his super power. He agreed and we met in downtown Palo Alto.

Before we got started, Komissarouk explained that the Silicon Valley is full of tribes: there are the engineers, designers, product managers, salespeople, entrepreneurs and VCs. And each tribe has its uniform. 

The engineers? T-shirts, jeans and hoodies, of course.

“Hoodie signals young talent,” said Dan Woods, a techie we stopped on the street.  

Woods walked by us and Komissarouk nudged me and said, “That guy, he’s a VC.”

The tip off? A zippered v-neck sweater.

“That’s like classic VC and then you got the button down underneath it, that’s like the classic uniform,” Komissarouk said.

We stopped Woods and asked him. Turns out, he did work in venture capital, which is about when he got the sweater.

Turns out the uniform is a long time tradition in tech, says Erik Schnakenberg, a co-founder of Buck Mason, a start-up that sells men's clothing online. 

"I wear a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt almost everyday," Schnakenberg said. "It's one less thing to think about."

In the fast-moving world of tec, the idea is to show that your'e not wasting precious time on something as vain as fashion. Schnakenberg  says the uniform hasn't changed much but tech is attracting a lot more of the cool kids and they care about fashion.

After my lesson with Komissarouk, I went to South Park in San Francisco, a techie hub, and put myself to the test. I tried to guess what people did from the way they were dressed. Let's see if you can guess if the following men are: 

A) Engineers

B) Designers

C) Entrepreneurs

D) Product Manager/Biz

*Dan Romero

Judging from the hoodie and t-shirt, I pegged Dan as a programmer. The kicks made me think that maybe he could be a designer? I was wrong on both fronts, Dan is in sales at a start-up. But turns out, he meant to confuse me. Dan says he consciously dresses like an engineer to fit in and to win the trust of engineers. 

Pedro Jimenez

The professional but hip collared shirt and the stylish leather kicks made me think entrepreneur. Turns out I was right! In his last job, Pedro said he wore suits but decided to tone it down when he moved to San Francisco to open an office of his transit start-up.

Mark Kawano

This picture doesn't do Mark's outfit justice. He looks like he's wearing a black sweat shirt but it's definately not sports gear, it's designer. His kicks are stylish and his jeans crisp, dark denim. It's the engineer's outfit but with a little more flair and so I pegged him as a designer. Turns out I was right, or at least sort of. Mark is a designer but is also an entrepreneur and just started up his own company. 

Mateo Ortega

 T-shirt but no jeans. Cool hat but basic sneakers. As for the hat? That wasn't part of my lesson! However, the give away, the three wearables he's got on. Engineer!

Alexey Zakharou and Eduardo Perez

By now you can figure out what Alexey does, right? The hoodie, the jeans and sneakers. Eduardo was harder to figure out. He's got the button down but also the t-shirt. But the loafers? Turns out Eduardo is an engineer but said, "he doesn't like the uniform" and so intentionally chooses to dress differently from his team. 

Also check out our follow up post: Why no women in the story on Silicon Valley fashion?

* CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, we misspelled the last name of Dan Romero.  The text has been corrected.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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