Ireland

From Mark Zuckerberg’s T-shirts to the Collison jeans: Why it’s smart to dress down in the tech world

Irish Independent tech

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Of all the odd things about the tech industry — the jargon, the hubris, the casual attitude toward becoming a millionaire or billionaire before turning 30 — one of the most striking is the workwear.

n the silicon land of the Upside Down, casual is king.

I don‘t mean foregoing a tie: I mean rolled-out-of-bed-after-staying-up-until-3am-video-gaming casual.

When I interviewed Palmer Luckey, the billionaire founder of the virtual reality firm Oculus a few years back, he was in shorts and flip-flops. In Dublin. In November.

At the time, I thought this was eccentric. Now it’s close to the norm.

As the recent controversy over billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried’s mishandling of FTX funds raged, it barely raised an eyebrow that his daily garb was a T-shirt, shorts and ultra-casual runners or flip-flops. This wasn’t new, either — it was his uniform as he was raising millions and billions from seasoned investors.

It has gotten to the point where, at the biggest tech gatherings with the richest founders and investors, there is a rule of thumb in instantly assessing who is important and who isn’t in the room.

The more formally dressed they are, the more minor the role they have.

To readers who grew up in an era when a shirt and tie, or a formal dress, indicated taste and societal position — or at least the aspiration to one — this may all seem fairly perverse.

The evidence is incontrovertible, though.

Have you ever seen Patrick or John Collison, Ireland’s two most successful-ever tech entrepreneurs, in a suit? They are more powerful and more prosperous than almost anyone else in Irish business. Yet a Charvet shirt will never be part of their arsenal.

And don’t expect Mark Zuckerberg or Tim Cook to visit Louis Copeland or McElhinneys anytime soon, either.

Even the more conservative tech titans, such as Google’s Sundar Pichai and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, favour jeans, runners and light woollen sweatshirts.

High-heeled shoes or Church’s English brogues are a no-no in this new world order. To dare to break this rule, as many junior accountants do when turning up to big tech events for the first time, is to invite mocking stares and comparisons to Alan Partridge.

If this appears to be a strange inversion of what we were all taught about the way of the world, it’s been a long time coming. Those of a certain age will remember when Dublin independent TD Tony Gregory’s insistence on not wearing a tie into the Dáil was seen as a daring act of non-conformity, a signal that he didn’t respect the system.

Today, he’d be one of the most conservatively-dressed figures at any Silicon Valley, Google, Meta or Apple event. Ironically, his clobber would have the same rebellious effect, as a rebel against the new regime of our tech overlords: in a world where billionaire leaders wear Levi’s, it’s logical that the socialists might defiantly wear slacks.

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Mark Zuckerberg conducts most meetings and presentations in a T-shirt. Photo by Gerard Julien via Getty

There are, naturally, some twists to the rule. Meeting a sovereign government leader still has Zuckerberg or Cook reaching for a jacket and tie, especially anywhere east of Europe.

And venture capitalists still have an emergency wardrobe of more formal attire ready, for similar reasons; you never know when you’re going to have to tap a Middle-Eastern or Asian source for significant funding. The flip-flop memo hasn’t quite reached that side of the world, yet.

But in general, this tech-spawned casualisation trend is now spreading beyond the world of billionaire nerds and into other sectors. It’s normal, now, to turn up to a job interview anywhere without a tie. Runners are sneaking in, too.

Will we soon be greeted in the bank by a man in shorts? The way things are going, I wouldn’t bet against it.

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