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Cover image for 8 Ways to Be More Professional

8 Ways to Be More Professional

codemouse92 profile image Jason C. McDonald ・9 min read

I don't need to tell you: the technical industry is incredibly competitive! Whether you're trying to get a job, win a contract, build your client base, or simply get your voice heard, it can be difficult to get ahead.

Things get even more difficult when discrimination slips into the mix. Competition is hard enough without having to overcome stereotypes on top of everything else.

I've been blessed not to have to deal with much discrimination, being male and (ostensibly) white. However, my age and my disability have been taken as marks against me discouragingly often. Not many people are quick to take an entrepreneur seriously when he's a 20-something with unpredictable communication glitches.

Over the years, I've mastered the art of defying stereotypes. I've built a career for myself, and earned the respect of both my peers and my seniors in programming and business alike. Surprisingly often, even the most prejudiced individuals cannot guess my age — I was once supposed by an astute 60-something in an IRC room to be at least 60.

There's no magic here. There are eight things I've done that lend legitimacy to my professional side.

1. Be Reachable

There are two predominant forms of communication among professionals: phone and email. Use them! Everything else comes second to these.

There are benefits to having SMS, Skype, LinkedIn, Twitter Messaging, and all that other jazz, but these should not be your default choice for corresponding with other professionals.

Phone

For the love of everything, please set up your voicemail! There's not really anything quite as unprofessional-sounding on this front than the default message, "This voicemail box has not been set up yet." It indicates that you don't care about the medium, and you should care, since it's a standard first line of communication.

Your voicemail message is often your first impression. Don't use the defaults. Take the time to actually record a real, professional-oriented message. Don't be cutesy or clever about it ("Hello? Ha ha, this is voicemail." stopped being funny in 2012.)

Here's an old, reliable template, although feel free to make it your own:

You have reached . I can't take your call right now. Please leave a brief message with your name and number, and I'll return your call.

...and then return the calls! It's equally distasteful to hear "This voicemail box is full." Check your voicemail regularly!

In the very least, if voicemail isn't your thing, be up front about that in your message. For example:

You have reached . I can't take your call right now. Please email me at , and I'll get back to you.

Email

I strongly recommend setting up a dedicated email address for your professional life. Use your name or professional moniker (see #6). Email addresses like reaperkillshot@example.com or dusty_old_still@example.com make you look like a hobbyist, rather than a professional; save those for your personal accounts instead.

Reserve your professional email address for career-related purposes. Check it regularly. Respond to messages in a timely fashion.

2. Be On Time

Punctuality is one of the best ways to build a good first impression. Conversely, being late puts you in a negative light, especially when it happens regularly.

Understand, by "on-time", I don't mean you race in the door at the top of the hour. 5 to 10 minutes early is "on-time". By being a little early, you're giving yourself a few minutes to calm down and mentally prepare for your meeting or appointment. You're also providing a cushion of time for when the unexpected happens.

Don't be afraid of being early! Successful people make the most of waiting time. Instead of defaulting to social media, use that time to mentally prepare, jot down notes about ideas, or to read an article or a few pages of a book.

3. Listen Actively

My friend Robert is one of the best conversationalists I know, primarily because he knows how to listen actively.

Focus your attention on the speaker. Choose body language which is open and oriented towards them. Provide feedback through genuine facial expressions and subtle body language (smiling, nodding, furrowing brow, etc.)

Ask clarifying and prompting questions. Encourage the speaker to keep going.

Be amenable to pauses. Allow the other person to pause and think, without fear of you jumping in. Learn to be okay with moments of quiet. Don't focus all your energy on planning your response. Let the conversation flow naturally, without needing to be forcefully steered.

There are personalities which don't encourage active listening. On occasion, you'll encounter people with whom you'll need to be more proactive to "get a word in edgewise" with. However, a little active listening goes a long way, and often encourages the other person to return the favor when it's your turn to speak.

4. Master Your Calendar

When scheduling, there are some things you really shouldn't say:

  • "I don't know what my schedule looks like."

  • "I'm not sure when I'll be available."

  • "I'll get back to you about possible dates."

The default outcome of this approach is that nothing ever gets scheduled! Nearly always, when someone tells me this, the result is that they never call me back.

Instead, pencil-in tentative appointments. You'll virtually always have some idea of your schedule, and even if you don't, you can guess.

This does three things:

  1. It tells the other person "you are a priority."

  2. It shows you are capable of time management (a key professional skill).

  3. It facilitates scheduling. You can usually schedule around the tentative date, and even if you can't, it is usually simple to reschedule.

The benefit of this approach is that you always default towards keeping the appointment.

On that topic, don't leave your calendar to your memory and guesswork. Find a system that you can rely on to track your schedule, whether it be an app, a PIM, or a paper calendar. Whatever it is, make sure you can access it readily when you need it.

5. Speak Well, Write Well

Contrary to pop culture trends, spelling, grammar, and style matter in communication! They are key components of communicating clearly, effectively, and concisely. Here are a few tips:

Learn the rules!

Poor spelling and grammar lead to ambiguous, muddy language. Grammar and spelling, used well, let you express ideas with clarity, and proves that you are willing to put time and effort into doing things right.

Expand your vocabulary

It is better to employ single, well-chosen word that expresses an idea precisely, rather than having to fall back on a long, complicated approximation. Good vocabulary helps you express specific ideas concisely.

Of course, be smart about it; don't use ten-dollar words when fifty-cent words will do.

Minimize Obscenity

I get it. Some situations just feel like they call for a four-letter word. I'm not making some moral point here; I'm not going to crumble because someone dropped a vitriol bomb.

The important point here is that most obscenity has no useful meaning. An F-bomb is not suitable as a noun, an adjective, or an adverb; when you use it, you are also choosing not to use a word that adds value to your message. Obscenity is mostly filler, substituting raw force or shock value in place of precise meaning.

Besides that, obscenity in excess or in the wrong situations can close your audience to your message. It raises the temperature of the conversation, often evoking a strong emotional response in your listener.

Master the Art of the Letter

The informality of the internet has driven much of the beauty of good communication out of our collective memory. If you read "The Letters of E.B. White", you'll find that E.B. White (the author of "Charlotte's Web" and "Stuart Little" honed his enviable brevity and sparkling prose through years of letter writing! Learn to write good, old-fashioned letters.

This form of communication has opened many unbelievable doors for me. It has allowed me to ask advice of some giants of programming, like Donald Knuth, Bjarne Stroustrup, and Guido van Rossum. It has allowed me turn curt rejections into valuable professional connections. It has helped resolve conflicts. A good letter can accomplish much!

Fact is, you'll seldom get an email from me that doesn't resemble a good, old-fashioned letter. That extra care and attention pays dividends in connections made and knowledge gained.

If you want to learn to write a good letter, it helps to read good letters, like the book I mentioned above. There are also many excellent books and resources on how to write effective business letters. Age doesn't matter here! One of my favorite books I've read on the topic is nearly 40 years old, but is just as insightful today as it was then.

6. Curate Your Brand

Unify your online identity! There are so many amazing tools for building your career, each of them powerful alone, but quite potent when combined.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Choose a single username, either one based on your name, or a professional moniker. For example, I'm known across the internet as "CodeMouse92", and I use that as the core of my brand. (You should also have a uniform backup username, should the primary be unavailable.)

  • Get a high-resolution, professional-looking profile picture. Use this across the internet to build visual recognition. When someone knows you on one platform, and comes across your profile picture elsewhere, they'll know it's you right away.

  • Create a personal website. Keep it simple, and make it reflective of you and your skills. Make it an extension of your resume.

  • Build your LinkedIn profile! It's an incredibly useful tool for expanding your business network.

  • Reserve your username on all major platforms you can forsee using. I have "codemouse92" accounts on GitHub, GitLab, Atlassian, Launchpad, and so forth. Even if I seldom use some of those sites, I've protected my username from squatters and imposters.

  • Design an actual brand for yourself! Choose colors, fonts, and simple visual elements that you can replicate across your website, resume, business cards (if you have any), online profiles, and so forth. Create a tagline for yourself.

  • Choose key professional topics you are passionate about, and focus on them in your blog posts, social media posts, and the like.

7. Read More Books

Reading a diverse range of books exposes you to hundreds of ideas, perspectives, and topics you may not otherwise encounter. Active reading — asking questions of the text as you read — also builds critical thinking skills, and helps you retain the content.

Reading books in your domain of interest and expertise is always helpful, but don't get confined to that. Branch out! I've learned so much from autobiographies, history, classic fiction, science, and the list goes on.

8. Consider Your Look

You've heard the phrase "Dress for the job you want, not the job you have." Your appearance does matter, especially when it comes to professional situations! This includes job interviews, conferences, networking events, client meetings, and so forth.

The idea here, however, is not to dress formally at all times. A good look for you should be...

  • Clean: Good hygiene and clean clothing is actually essential; lacking either closes many doors. This should go without saying, but I've had job applicants who showed up in dirty clothes, not showered, and with very bad breath (and they weren't homeless.)

  • Decent: Don't wear clothing that's tattered or hole-filled, if you can at all avoid it. The Hollywood image of the hacker in the shredded jeans and beat-up hoodie is fiction; trying to replicate it in a professional setting won't make you look like a hacker, it'll make you look like you don't care.

  • Appropriate: This goes for both guys and girls! I can safely assume you're there for professional reasons, not to find a new romantic partner. Get noticed for your skills and ideas, not because your outfit would make Grandma Miller turn scarlet. That's the sort of attention you don't want as a professional.

  • Serious: It's useful to own at least one nice business outfit. I have a couple of sport coats, several button-down shirts of various colors, dark slacks, and a vast collection of bowties. You don't have to copy me; just find a business-oriented style that works for you.

You're Still You!

You might feel a bit of an objection to all this: "I don't want to change myself to make other people happy!" Of course you shouldn't!

Understand, the goal of these tips is not to change who you are, but rather to emphasize those skills and personality traits that will best help you build your career!

There's nothing wrong with being, say, a cyberpunk skateboarder with a love of heavy metal and energy drinks, or a live-streaming gamer nerd with a vast collection of superhero Funko figures...but those parts of your personality probably won't do much to help you in your job search or at your next networking event.

You don't have to bury who you are; simply let some things temporarily move into the background, so your career skills can take center stage and shine. No matter who you are, you can be a professional!

Putting these tips into practice will help you do just that.

Discussion

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tacoder profile image
Jaime Lopez A.K.A. Tacoder

are you suggesting i'm not going to be taken serious because i use a taco for an image? i mean come on everybody loves tacos :D

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codemouse92 profile image
Jason C. McDonald Author

Haha! A taco is pretty memorable, mate. It works out pretty well on GH and DEV. Not sure it would fly on LinkedIn as the profile picture, though.

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helleworld_ profile image
Desiré 👩‍🎓👩‍🏫

I agree in most of these points, however, why isn't LinkedIn or Twitter suggested as 2 main reachable channels? I mean, most of the job opportunities I had came from there and for example my Twitter is all about my professional profile. No memes around.

2nd, I'm so mad about the

Appropriate: This goes for both guys and girls! I can safely assume you're there for professional reasons, not to find a new romantic partner.

I've been told a million times not to wear skirts or dresses to job interviews because "girls can dress up better easier because of that" or "it's inappropiate". And that's b^shit, honestly. We don't wear dresses or skirts to get a "romantic partner", we actually like a lot our clothes and we don't like being told to dress as a man would to get a job.

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codemouse92 profile image
Jason C. McDonald Author

Hi Desiré,

I think you've misunderstood me. I never said not to wear dressers or skirts, nor did I imply that. I've known of several young aspiring professionals, men and women, who would dress in deliberately provocative ways — extremely short shorts or skin-tight pants, overly revealing shirts or blouses — for professional meetings. This is addressing that.

If you like dresses or skirts (assuming they're not deliberately provocative), by all means, wear them! Be you! Find your look.

I even said your outfit doesn't have to look like mine. I can't speak to dresses and skirts because I don't wear them. (And, ironically, if I'd suggested dresses and skirts outright in my article, someone else would be crawling down my throat because I was insinuating that women have to wear dresses.) That's why I described my outfit, and left everything else vague.

As to LinkedIn, I thought I included it! Maybe in the wrong place, though? Twitter can be good too. However, I have not needed either as much as I've needed email and phone for professional contacts, and in fact, got by without either being set up for professional correspondence for a number of years.

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helleworld_ profile image
Desiré 👩‍🎓👩‍🏫

Hi Jason, thank you so much for replying my comment.

I was very shocked just by the way you used the expression 'seeking a romantic partner', maybe it's not the best expression since many women wear provocative clothes and aren't searching anything, they just want to wear them.

Also, I feel you're insinuating (maybe specifically) that women would use their outfit to get attention and that they should better 'show off their skills', and I don't think that's appropiate neither.

Indeed though, those clothes aren't mean for professional meetings, maybe the only important point here for boys and girls would be:

Don't dress up for an interview as if you were going in a date or to the club.

As per LinkedIn or Twitter, I think they're important if you actually want to grow a 'contacts community' around you, but I understand that's depending in your field/job.

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codemouse92 profile image
Jason C. McDonald Author

Hi Desiré,

I think 'seeking a romantic partner' is not that different from 'going on a date or to the club', so I don't see how one is insulting and the other isn't? In any case, I was not implying that it was the goal.

My phasing was a reminder that we should be aware of what messages we send to others by how we dress. No one wants to be ogled during a business meeting, and while the decision to ogle is solely on the other person, we can do a lot ourselves not to encourage it. Again, this isn't just women I'm talking about. I think we can agree it wouldn't be appropriate for a guy to go shirtless to a board meeting, because it's distracting and unprofessional. The same goes for provocative outfits on either gender.

This doesn't just apply to interviews. It applies to networking events, client meetings, business conferences, and the list goes on.

I feel you're insinuating (maybe specifically) that women would use their outfit to get attention and that they should better 'show off their skills', and I don't think that's appropiate neither.

Again, that is something I neither stated nor implied. I think you're expecting me to imply certain things, and so you may be reading those in. (Standard human glitch. We all do that.)

The point I made is literally just don't dress in a way that distracts from your skills. I don't know, or particularly care, what the intention is. The intention actually doesn't even factor in. The fact is, provocative dress does run the risk of distracting even the most well-meaning other person, simply because it was designed for that specific purpose. We need to be mindful of that effect on people.

This is NOT excusing jerks who ogle and hit on people in professional settings. One is never "asking to be hit on" — that is crap. With that said, one should pay attention to what effect their outfit is likely to have on the ability of others to pay attention to what they're saying.

That is all. Nothing to read into it.

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helleworld_ profile image
Desiré 👩‍🎓👩‍🏫

With all that, Jason, I just wanted to do a reminder that many people see 'provocative' what it's just a normal outfit so we just must be careful when we talk about 'sending messages with our clothes' because even if we don't mean to, we don't know other's standards to what it's provocative or not. By previous messages I think we both share the same definition for it, but again, not everyone...

That's why I was trying to get attention since an expression like 'seeking for a romantic partner' feels out of place. Maybe it's because the language barrier (I'm not native english speaker) but for me it is a very vulgar expression (if I try to fit it in my native language), but something more neutral like 'going to the club/in a date' sounds better to me.

Thank you for the time and patience to answer me.

And refering my first message besides those 2 statements, the overall article was very good and I'm proudly taking some of your tips.

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codemouse92 profile image
Jason C. McDonald Author

Hi Desiré,

Glad we're on the same page.

"Seeking a romantic partner" is not actually vulgar in English; I'm deliberately being vague about orientation, dating methods, etc, lest someone else get insulted for not being included. "Going to the club/on a date" would leave out many other scenarios. Being as vague and general as possible.

I agree that some people have weird ideas about what is "provocative", but you'll notice I never even used that term in the article! Again...

Get noticed for your skills and ideas, not because your outfit would make Grandma Miller turn scarlet.

If your own culture would consider what you're wearing to be shockingly inappropriate, think twice. You can't cater to what everyone else thinks, but you can check yourself. (The reference to "Grandma Miller" is simply because grandmothers are often the ones who remind us of proper behavior in our own culture.)

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Jay Holtslander

I once interviewed for a developer job and was told right in the interview that I wasn’t getting considered further specifically because I was dressed too nicely and didn’t look like a developer.

That HR guy was eventually let go from that company so I take solace in that.

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codemouse92 profile image
Jason C. McDonald Author

Yipes. Glad that person got let go, too. His statement certainly demonstrated his prejudices about what a developer is, and that those prejudices probably came from watching too much Silicon Valley and Mr. Robot.

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Jay Holtslander

I find it funny that as I read your reply I'm literally wearing a Pied Piper T-shirt.

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Mike Healy

You seem to have swapped 'professional' for 'productive' and gone off on a tangent about that.

speak well, write well - nope if you are a developer, if you are evangelist or promoter or some sort of a rock star (or you think you are ) sure, otherwise.. don't speak, ever ! write only in jira and just code.

Good writing skills benefit almost everyone. Ironically this paragraph was clunky to parse because of how it's written!

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Nayden Gochev

agree, sorry should stop writing stuff at 6AM in the morning :)

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MurrayVarey

Consider Your Look -- I've only recently come around to how important this is. It made a huge difference for me, particularly in terms of confidence when talking to non-developers. I think the first step -- as is so often the case -- is awareness.

Thanks for the excellent article, Jason!

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Rohan Sawant

Professional Email (and Portfolio websites) are important, but I just keep procrastinating creating mine. 😕

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Jason C. McDonald Author

I'm curious why? Is it a time constraint, not sure how to get started, lack of confidence?

I know I put mine off because I had too much else going on. Glad I finally did it, though!

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Rohan Sawant

I don't know everytime I start working on it, I feel like my time would be utilized better if I spent it on learning something new or building something more useful.

Ehh, but it is important to, I guess.

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codemouse92 profile image
Jason C. McDonald Author

It certainly since, since it serves as a public showcase for all the other things you learn and build!

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Gilbert Martinez

Calendar and speak well and spell well! I have seen far too many not know how to time manage themselves and lose potential clients over not being prepared to arrive early to their first meetings!

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Bob Ershov

when to work and write actual code ? 😂😂😂

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Jason C. McDonald Author

Most of the time! These are just additional habits that help with those non-code things you can't avoid in a career: formal meetings, interviews, yada yada. They don't take much time, relatively speaking.

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Kody James Ague

Great article, great points. Thanks for putting this all down Jason.

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Austin Callaghan

Good stuff, man. Thanks so much!

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elmuerte profile image
Michiel Hendriks

I rather dislike the term "professional".
You know what they difference is between professional and amateur? The former gets paid, that's is the only thing.
Often "professional" is attached to other words to imply it is better. For example "professional quality". It is nothing but an elitist attitude.

That being said. This list is in overal good. I think it also applied outside of work.

I am quite opposed to the concept of "dress for the job you want" as that is generally confirming to bad standards which need to change. To me somebody is a suit is somebody who is going to lie to be for personal benefit. You should dress in the way you feel comfortable in while working. But as Jason says, it should be clean and appropriate. The latter is obvious open to interpretation. But there is a major difference between a T-shirt with the text "there is no place like ~" and a t-shirt with the text "fuck the world".

I would like the extend this list with the following entries:

Be reliable

It sort of replaces the "be on time" entry as it is more broad. When you say you are going to do something, e.g. be at a certain place at a certain time. Then also do it. Commit to your promises. If you see you cannot hold up to you commitment, notify the people you committed to as soon as possible. So if you foresee you will be delayed, give a heads up. If you think you cannot finish your work because of anything, speak up right away.

Treat others the way you want to be treated

This does not mean you must be nice to jerks and let them get away with it.

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codemouse92 profile image
Jason C. McDonald Author

Good additions.

A few clarifications I believe are in order:

I rather dislike the term "professional" You know what they difference is between professional and amateur? The former gets paid, that's is the only thing.

If only that were true of me, or indeed, a few professionals I know. The difference is not pay but intent. How serious are you? The professional software developer puts in the time and effort to build a career, while the amateur isn't that invested. Neither is inherently wrong, but it's the professional who will be taken seriously in job interviews, in networking events, in client meetings, etc.

Often "professional" is attached to other words to imply it is better. For example "professional quality". It is nothing but an elitist attitude.

Not in my experience, and you have to be careful about applying blanket labels like that. Again, the professional is the one who is serious about building a career.

I am quite opposed to the concept of "dress for the job you want" as that is generally confirming to bad standards which need to change.

Once again, that depends! There are many tech jobs where showing up in that "There's No Place Like ~" t-shirt would probably score you some points. If that's the job you want, that's the job you should dress for!

That said, it does help to have some business formal wear handy, as it does have a place in some situations. It expresses that you're taking this situation seriously enough to dress well for it. I studied intercultural communication in college, by the way, and this is true the world over. The actual outfits change, but the intent is the same.

To me somebody is a suit is somebody who is going to lie to be for personal benefit.

I'm not going to lie, I'm actually a bit insulted by that statement, and rightly so. I've made honesty one of the core hallmarks, turning down paying jobs and many opportunities rather than compromise. And I dress in suits when the need arises. Your statement is unvarnished prejudice, and it's no more appropriate than judging someone by their accent or skin color.

You should dress in the way you feel comfortable in while working. But as Jason says, it should be clean and appropriate. The latter is obvious open to interpretation.

I agree mostly. Again, tailor the apparel choices to the situation. An important client meeting may call for something less casual than a graphic T-shirt.

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elmuerte profile image
Michiel Hendriks

Your statement is unvarnished prejudice

It absolutely is, and that's exactly the problem. Jeans and a T-Shirts are not less than a suit. It is not the clothes that makes a person.
Is the person in a suit the person you are, or the person you pretend to be. I've never seen anybody in a suit (matching pants and jacket, etc.) during their own time. So when I see somebody in a suit, I know something is up, they probably want to sell me something.

Note, with suit I do not mean business/smart casual.

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codemouse92 profile image
Jason C. McDonald Author

Jeans and a T-Shirts are not less than a suit. It is not the clothes that makes a person.

As I said, it shows a number of things, including how seriously you take the situation. I also didn't specify you had to wear a suit, but something decent that expresses that you're taking the situation seriously is often called for.

Clothing is a form of non-verbal communication, like it or not. You don't have to agree with it, it's just the way humans have operated for thousands of years. Wearing business apparel instead of a graphic T-shirt is no different from saying "Good morning, Mr. Smith" instead of "What's the haps, duuude?"

Is the person in a suit the person you are, or the person you pretend to be.

That's rude. Is the person in the blue jeans the person you are or who you pretend to be? Or is clothing just a form of self-expression and non-verbal communication?

You're presuming a lot about why people wear suits, and insinuating they couldn't possibly have a personality to match, and you're being amazingly insulting in the process.

I've never seen anybody in a suit (matching pants and jacket, etc.) during their own time.

Doesn't mean they don't exist. I've known two. As to myself, I often enjoy wearing a button-down shirt with suspenders and a bow tie on my own time. I wear that because I want to.

So when I see somebody in a suit, I know something is up, they probably want to sell me something.

I'm sorry you've had that experience, but I cannot say that, in over ten years as a software developer or internship supervisor, I've known that correlation to be true. Don't confuse your limited experience and careless conclusions with definitive reality. That's the exact same cognitive bias that fuels racism and sexism.

Note, with suit I do not mean business/smart casual.

So, it's only one form of clothing that warrants your prejudice? All due respect, but I think the problem is your viewpoint, not reality.