Sam Newman's site, a Consultant at ThoughtWorks


In the world of Those Who Cut Hair, there are Barbers, and there are Stylists. Barbers tend to be cheaper, and will be fairly limited in what they do. When you turn up at a barbers you tell him exactly what you want (which he may or may not be able to do) – if you ask for something he can’t do, chances are you’ll getting a short-back and sides. Stylists are more expensive. When you go to a stylist, you can say things like “Well, I’m not quite sure” or “Something more – funky!” or “Whatever haircut David Beckham’s got this week”, and the stylist can hopefully use their skills to give you the haircut you need. What’s the difference? Apart from price, barbers are only capable of giving you want if you tell them exactly what you need. Stylists can work out what you need – and believe me it won’t always be what you’d expect.

So where am I going with this? Those of us who work for consultancies (or even freelance) have to decide whether or not we want to be the development equivalents of barbers or stylists. Do you want to be told what the problem is, even what the solution is, and go off and do it? Or do you want to spend the time working out what the problem really is, even if your clients don’t know. Being a software-stylist is harder – it’s more work, and some clients really don’t want to be told what the problem is (“I’m telling you, I want a mohawk!”), but you should end up with a better solution that is what they really need. The other good news? If your the software development equivalent of a stylist, you can charge more. At the same time, prospective clients need to make sure they aren’t hiring barbers in disguise…

11 Responses to “Barbers and Stylists”

  1. Stuart

    But you look at some of the hair-styles coming out of these stylists, and you’ve got to think, that looks a) ridiculous, b) exceptionally complex, c) not easy to manage, and d) probably cost an arm and a leg… whereas you look at what comes out of a barber and you think… a) does it’s job, b) pretty simple, c) easy to manage and d) don’t have to keep paying the same person loads of money to get it to work.

    Pretty certain I wouldn’t want my company hiring the ‘stylists’, as they sound like the sort of people who are going to create problems to solve, as the customer can’t decide what they want… perhaps we just need barbers who tell us what they can and can’t do upfront?

  2. Tim

    Stuart, you completely forgot that a stylist’s job is to make hair look good not to create a highly practical, easy to maintain buzz cut.

  3. sam newman

    The word “stylist” might be unfair here. The reality is though that some people are happy to turn up, do what they’re told, take the money and run. Others prefer to find out what needs to be done to make things better – and that’s what I’m driving at here.

    And just becuase a buzz cut is maintainable, it doesn’t mean it’s what a person wants. I’m fairly sure it doesn’t work so well for women for a start…

  4. Tim

    I think you’re basically on a hiding to nothing with this analogy, you’re trying to convince programmers that more personal grooming is better. You could buy a gig of ram for your Mac Mini with the money you might drop at a top stylist 😀

    I get your point. The trick is to establish a capability and a reputation for being able to help your customer get a fantastic hair cut by bringing loads of experience and creativity to the process. Set it up so you can recognize what will and wont work for a given facial structure or hair type and that your client has an expectation that that is a critical part of the service for which he’s paying.

    Right, I think I’ve ridden that metaphor into the dirt now.

  5. Stuart

    I agree with Dustin, but stylist or barber??

    Seriously though, ‘The reality is though that some people are happy to turn up, do what they are told, take the money and run.’, we try not to hire those people…

  6. Sam Newman

    This is not a post about “us” – however “use” might be – it’s about understanding the difference between these two types of consultants. Some companies _want_ a barber, some want a stylist – there is room for both. Just make sure that if you’re a stylist you don’t get sold as a barber, and that if you’re a barber don’t start trying to be stylist without a whole load of re-tooling.


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