What to Wear: A Tester's Toolbox


When it comes to data, we understand that visuals matter; that’s why we create pie-and-graph charts instead of stark spreadsheets. Tara Nicholson explains why clothes, grooming, and posture can be just as important as data. How you present yourself is what marketers call your “brand” and what technical analysts call a “persona.” It expresses how you perceive yourself and how you want others to perceive you in the professional environment.

At the beginning of my career as a software tester, it was office policy for employees to dress in formal wear, eat food only in the break rooms, including coffee, and to start work by 8:00 a.m.

Today, I work in an environment that offers casual dress, near-dark conditions, and flexible schedules to capture that “creative window” of opportunity in each individual contributor. As an outdoor enthusiast with two kids, I perceive time with my hairdryer as wasted minutes of the day I could be using for more valuable endeavors, like time with my spouse, packing a healthy lunch, reading a tech blog, or sleeping. I also know from playing outdoors among lawyers, rocket scientists, real-estate agents, policemen, grant writers, ect., that these professionals are just as brilliant when they are covered in dirt.

So, looks do not matter, right? I can show up in a ponytail, pale-faced, dressed well above minimum HR requirements, and perform just as brilliantly in the workplace. And, of course, it is about being good at what I do that will grant me successes in life. Sounds like dressing casual is a win-win situation all around for the aspiring techy, right? I've come to disagree with this opinion and made truce with the hairdryer I now realize I own.

When it comes to data, we understand that visuals matter; that’s why we create the pie-and-graph charts instead of stark spreadsheets. It’s not just data; clothes, grooming, and posture can be just as important. I invite you to take a few moments to people-watch in a crowded place and match who you see to their hypothetical career goals. The exercise reveals that we can have biases influenced by what people wear and how they carry themselves. Try it and see.

Align Your Goals and Your Appearance
In many cases, the tester is the liaison between the business perspective and the technical geniuses of a system. We live in the space between washed-out Atari shirts and neckties; between introverted brilliance and social intelligence. That means we need to be able to talk to, and earn credibility with, both sides.

Put yourself in the sprint-review meeting where it is the QA’s turn to demo the software built and tested over the past two weeks. The new page is taking sixty seconds to load due to some hiccup in the wireless connection and all eyes are on you. You are slouching over the monitor dressed in worn-out jeans and a team-wear hoodie. Having earned your way to the senior test-engineering role with your development team, your credibility is not in question at this moment. But to the business team members, your appearance sets the tone of the feature they are about to be shown.

Now imagine the same team collaborating on an all-night coding effort. You’re in the trenches in your hoodie knocking out features in a synchronized dance between bug fixes and tests with the developers. It’s a beautiful thing! Attend another late-night in your pressed black suit, elbows out, back straight, firm jaw, and measure how fast your appearance becomes a topic of discussion, an interruption to the beautiful dance that is a software project. Clearly, you don’t belong.

Credibility is not lost by a single choice in outerwear as suggested in the examples above. What you wear and how you hold yourself can be a powerful tool for you to leverage in such situations by understanding the potential impacts of your choices.

A Little Bit on Posture
The BBC recently reported that ”The way we walk can increase the risk of being mugged.” Additionally, posture doesn’t just change how we are perceived, it influences biochemistry, changing how we feel about ourselves. “Your body language shapes who you are,” says Amy Cuddy, a professor and researcher at Harvard. Posture compliments our clothing and grooming habits, which they can amplify. While it is challenging to sit well in front of a panel of LCD screens, making a conscious decision to try and making a few ergonomic adjustments are worth the effort.

Pick Your Dress Type, But Do It Consciously
How you present yourself is what marketers call your brand and what technical analysts call a persona. It expresses how you perceive yourself and how you want others to perceive you in the professional environment. A strong self-brand has the potential to strengthen credibility: Simple, genuine, consistent messaging. What is your brand message?

Because style varies so much from the coasts to the midwest, specific advice can vary. Here are a few things I have found to be consistent in my experience:

Comfortable attire improves your approach-ability. Skirt suits for show-time. Personal hygiene, clean clothes, and not showing too much skin are unanimously a must in an office space. Abrupt changes in style or degree of formal wear catches peoples' attention. ‘Hawaiian shirt Fridays’ are entirely optional. And, by all means, sport that "Cowgirls Don't Cry" t-shirt on midnight launches, regardless of rank!    

Now consider, what do you want your style to be and what should change?

And please, leave a comment. I can give advice from my experience, but I suspect our readers would like to hear additional or differing observations to consider.

User Comments

Carmen White's picture

I read 'Women's Dress for success' in the late 1990's.  It is still very applicable.   I notice a difference in how I am treated when I have a suit on. Molloy based his information on real life experiences.  He said that dress down was not good for women.  Boy is that true.  You are correct that we need to think about what we are wearing and what the environment is.  I know I wear jeans on Jean Fridays, but I always think about the shirt and make sure it is business-like. 



December 17, 2013 - 9:53am
Rafael Battesti's picture

From where I stand, a standard dressing code is welcome in an independent testing center. Testing facilities which deliver Quality Assurance services must present as rigogous with themselves as they are with the software they are testing. There's no reason to be dressed in worn out rags as well as there's no reason to put everybody in suits and ties, but good common sense must be taken into account. Actually what customers and leaders must feel from you is concern, right? Thank you very much for your article Tara! Greetings from Brazil.

December 17, 2013 - 9:53am
Candee Gulick's picture

As a home-based business owner, I find this to be very true. Goes for meetings here in my office as well as out of the office. Ask yourself how you want to be perceived: as a professional or as a home-based hobbiest. It can even affect your fees. "Rigorous with themselves"... I like that phrase, Raphael.  Nice article Tara! Thanks for writing it.

December 17, 2013 - 11:17pm

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