We Have the Brains

    March 30, 2006

At Do sandals and ponytails really hold back Linux? former Massachusetts chief information officer Peter Quinn complains that the Linux community is unprofessional and that this is holding back more widespread adoption of Linux. I’m sure he really believes that.

Many years back I did some work for a Boston accounting firm. I had been called in because their Tandy Xenix server had crashed. I showed up dressed as I usually am in the summer: jeans and a t-shirt. Clean, but comfortable. I’d been busy, so my hair was a bit long and unruly too. The receptionist didn’t like the looks of me.

Someone brought me to the server, but I could tell everyone was uncomfortable. They were all dressed “professionally”. They didn’t like my clothes, my long hair. I didn’t “fit”.

The cause of their distaste is simple to understand. We are primarily social animals. We form groups, and groups enforce norms. People who don’t wear the tribal paint are outsiders, perhaps not to be trusted.

There is tremendous hypocrisy, of course. We tell our children not to bend to peer pressure when it comes to sex, drinking, drugs. Just say no: you are your own person. But don’t dress differently. Don’t die your hair orange. If “everybody” has nose rings, well, maybe that’s OK for now. Go along to get along, honey. Dress for success.

People who don’t conform are sometimes mentally disturbed. They don’t comprehend the importance of getting along with the group, or are so driven by other forces that anything they do understand is pushed aside.

But there have always been people who are on the fringes of the group. They trade with the tribe, but they aren’t part of it. They don’t participate in the religious and social customs. Often the “group” isn’t totally aware that these people actually are much more different than they think. It’s a big world now, so if you don’t see John at your church, well, he’s probably at another. John doesn’t talk much about baseball either: maybe he’s a basketball fan.

Or maybe he isn’t. Maybe John looks at your social customs as rather laughable. He doesn’t tell you so, but really he sees you as a rather pathetic and scared creature desperately seeking approval from your peers.

Or maybe John is just too intensely focused on his own interests. He’s a passionate artist, consumed by the fires of his own creative urges. He hasn’t the spare energy to be bothered with the mundane events of your dull existence.

Maybe John just doesn’t give a damn what you think.

But there’s also Peter. Peter actually shares John’s disdain for your conformity, but you’d never know it. Peter walks the walk and talks the talk, but not because he wants your approval. No, he wants your money. He’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the one your mother warned you about.

I like John a heck of a lot more than I like Peter, but Peter has a lot more friends. Or at least they think they are his friends.

Back in Boston, I worked on recovering data and soon enough a very important looking man came to see me. He politely asked how things were going and what my expectations were. I told him it was going well and that he’d be back up and running soon.

He then asked me if I could fix up some other annoyances they had with their system. He described the problems (small things easily fixed by some scripting and application code changes). I said that I could, but it would require a return visit on another day.

This man then informed me that their company had a dress code, and that if I were ever to return, I needed to abide by it.

I don’t know what I said. I’m sure I wasn’t nasty. I didn’t laugh at him, though I probably did smile. Whatever words I used, the message was that he needed me a whole lot more than I needed him and that I was going to dress however I pleased. Take it or leave it.

I don’t recall his exact reaction. I do remember that he wasn’t pleased, but he must have backed down because I did go back there, in fact I did quite a bit of work for them over several years. And I wore whatever clothes I wanted to wear that day.

And that’s what the Linux programmers need to tell people like former Massachusetts chief information officer Peter Quinn. We have the brains and the talent. We don’t particularly care that you want us to conform. We don’t need you.

Yeah, there are some folks who want to play along. Frankly, those folks are the wolves. They see Linux as something they can use to their advantage, and it distresses them that the pony tails and the sandals are spooking the folks whose money they are trying to extract. The “unprofessional” look is frightening their victims.. uhh, sorry, prospects. They want us to clean up our image, dress like they do, act like they do. Stop scaring the herd, they plead.

Sure, we could do that. But I have a better idea.

Just say “boo”.

*Originally published at APLawrence.com

A.P. Lawrence provides SCO Unix and Linux consulting services http://www.pcunix.com