Anecdote: Dress the part and credibility

Rather than can’t get no respect I want to talk credibility and the two-edged wicked problem of surface over substance. I am an old, fat, bald, white guy. I am not as old as some but older than most. I am not a fashion model, my gut hangs out a bit, my eyes are droopy. My clothes are not expensive, my shoes are sturdy. With nearly four decades of high technology experience, multiple domains of endeavor, a boat load of technical degrees, and a few publications I might garner some credibility. Not so much in Washington DC.

I was told when I last worked in Washington DC that I should wear better clothes, that my shoes should always be polished, and that my credibility would be impacted based on the clothes I wear. Clothes were considered an indicator of how serious you should be taken. I chaffed under such surface affectations and silly expectations. I am not anything more than I am now and nothing less than the credibility of my past. Eclecticism exists in the bubble of Washington DC and reality exclusion zone imposed by the beltway. A few outliers exist, but they are treated with the same differential treatment that somebody would give a pet.

I was chatting with a senior military leader (4 star general) who I have known for a few years. He remarked that credibility could be determined by the demeanor and professionalism of a speaker. How well they dressed and how well they spoke. His position was that those people doing high tech work with Washington DC had less credibility than others because they showed a distinct lack of understanding of the culture of leadership. The public and citizens needed those serving their interests to act, and show that they took the responsibility seriously. Vendor t-shirt wearing information technology and security contractors lacked credibility and ability to get things done based on their complete lack of understanding the paradigm.

He is right. High technology practitioners and experts have a distinct hubris towards the principles and culture of senior government leadership. That hubris and lack of respect extends to the farthest reaches and lowest echelons of the information technology enterprise. In some of the government circles the non-existsence of dress code has a distinct effect on the credibility of the entire organization or increases their eclectic nature while decreasing their credibility. Hackers are particularly pernicious in their few attempts to gaining credibility with the power brokers yet abeyance to cultural norms of those they are talking with. Silicon Valley is having serious issues with this cultural divide right now.

He is also wrong. Credibility is a two way street. Whereas, the Washington DC nut burgers can enact legislation, create rules, and in general screw up the entire high technology economy. The credibility of those decisions and the lack of understanding is put through a fairly rigorous process of adaption and innovation. The high technology practitioners can innovate and create faster than the legislators (especially recently) can respond and create legislation. With each poor decision in the halls of power the divide grows. The high technology community is a variety of political and social biases. The unifying point is merely high technology.

Washington DC and the executive branch specifically act and work on a perception of credibility. The pseudo credibility they work upon is based on the ability to wield power. That power is the ability to compel through the legal process budget or authorities to act. The high technology community wields credibility based on business leaders and practitioners. Where those who lead the business units can direct budgets and expenditure of resources, and those who practice determine the future capabilities and enhancements. Where the business leadership side is a pyramid rising to a few stars the practitioner element is a vast mob of varied talent and interests based somewhat on meritocracy.

I was reminded by the general that when General Alexander talked at hacker conferences he dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt. He was roundly criticized for trying to be something he wasn’t and in some ways he lost credibility by showing respect to the hacker culture. Of course, there were a lot of other reasons people were upset. The issue isn’t trying to conform but respecting the other culture and understanding where you are and who you are talking too. The high technology community is going to engage more with government in the next decade as principles of technology ubiquity kick into high gear.

Currently a failed model of high technology industry engagement with government is in full swing. The current selection mechanism is to hire credibility by buying social and cultural resources at the point of pain. High technology companies are hiring lobbyists who are already government insiders, who have influence, who have contacts, and there is assumption that those insiders will serve the industry needs. This misses a key point of government high level service where narcissism and self promotion is a key asset to power projection and political coercion. High technology companies need to project power from their base and utilize their resources smarter.

This informs the strategy that industry community groups might want to employ and how they might want to present themselves. Credibility is gained by knowing the cultural and normative biases of the group you are talking with. Credibility is not gained by wearing a suit but it is lost by not caring. The affliction of narcissistic non-conformist biases when brokering power of policy and legislation directly impacts performance and success. At best you fail and at worse you lose ground in the policy arena. Drop an “F” bomb or two and that gap widens. Respect for the cultural divide and attempting to reach across it is not “giving in” it is an attempt to be successful.

The “security researcher” community likes to throw out a few key mile stones when notable hackers were hired by high status federal agencies, or when they were brought to capitol hill to testify. They say these individuals have credibility. Yet, what were the policy and legislative outcomes? How much ground was gained in retrospect and was the course of the nation changed or merely perturbed? Very little of the high technology testimony is taken seriously and most of the rules instituted and laws passed are of benefit to a few long term stakeholders.

As you might have guessed this is not just another “how the clothes make the man” kind of article. This is an article about cultural norms, expectations, duties, and obligations between differing cultural centers of the government and high technology community. The base intent was to get people thinking about how credibility, biases, and associated wielding of power results in social and governance changes. Less political science and more social engineering.

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