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SatireWire Feature

Code Writers and Wannabes Flaunt the Baggy-Eyed-Programmer Look

PALO ALTO, CAL. ( — Ariel Nemoka, 22, saunters along Ramona Street in the twilight, staring in a handheld mirror at the dark, puffy circles under her eyes and talking about her plastic surgeon.

"God, look at these giant bags he gave me," she says. "It looks like I haven't slept in a year." Then she turns to gaze at her reflection in a shop window. "Isn't it great? I am now a major Dun Puffer."

A group of Dun Puffers'

Dun Puffer: n. slang. a person with unusually baggy, dark circles under their eyes; most often associated with computer programmers.

Just as stunning beauty is to South Beach and strange fashion is to Paris, the sleepless, monitor-aged, under-eye circles of the programmer have become the human currency of Silicon Valley. No one is sure exactly when it got started, only that it was born of necessity — high-tech recruiters needed some visual way of picking out top talent — and that programmer and non-programmer alike are now obsessed with "the look."

"It's a totally superficial existence, I'm aware of that," says Chad Kudrow, a bartender and freelance programmer whose swollen semi-circles are so funereal that passersby cannot help but exhale in awe. "But you get hooked on the admiration."

Like Nemoka, Kudrow underwent expensive and painful plastic surgery to achieve his Cimmerian insomniac's eyes. Others take pigment-altering drugs to darken their semi-circles. And most sleep no more than four hours a night. As Kudrow notes, "Not only does it have to look like you've been burning the midnight oil, it's got to look like you keep that oil in a pouch under your eyes."

It wasn't always this way. Not long ago, programmers with nary a line beneath their youthful eyes were no less revered. But as the Internet industry heated up, and startups required programmers to pull endless all-nighters, the most successful programmers were noted for the dun-colored bags beneath their eyes. Seemingly overnight, that became the mark of a true code writer — the coolest of the cool in this part of the world. Today, the Valley is awash in teenage Dun Puffers walking about with Karloffian luggage under their eyes.

For newcomers, attempting to fit in as a Dun Puffer can be daunting, and even depressing.

"I'm not really a programmer, but people have always said I have a programmer's eyes," says Lisa Karevny, a 26-year-old visiting from Chicago who is sitting alone in the Blue Chalk Cafe, a Palo Alto restaurant. "So I came here to show my stuff, but no one will even talk to me."

To Alex Stirrhan, a 23-year-old Blue Chalk waiter who has landed occasional part-time programming jobs, Karevny's solitude is not surprising.

"Who you are seen with is very important," says Stirrhan. "What do their eyes look like? Some of my friends say, 'Hey, if the girl's not a Dun Puffer, let's not hang out with her. We don't want to be seen with her.'" That, he adds, explains Karevny's problem. "Her bags are a little saggy, but there's too much subcutaneous fat. They don't say 'code writer.' They say 'old cheerleader.'"

But why does it matter?

Because, Stirrhan explains, the best startups and the biggest companies cruise the Valley looking for talent night and day. "If you're in a group where everyone is a Dun Puffer, your group is going to get noticed first," he says. "Your chances are just better that you'll be the next Klopowicz."

"The next Klopowicz." It's a phrase repeated here like a mantra. Everyone wants to be the next Daniel "Puff Danny" Klopowicz, "the yawn bombshell" who, legend has it, was sitting at the counter in a local Starbucks in early 1995 when his swarthy, insomnolent semi-circles were spotted by a recruiter for a startup called Mosaic Communications. An unemployed computer science major, the 19-year-old became employee No. 18 at Mosaic, later called Netscape. He also became the first of the pin-up programmers. In this part of California, his calendar — 12 provocative close-ups of the seductively crepuscular crescents under his eyes — outsold the Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar four-to-one.

Recruiters, too, concede they are looking for the next Klopowicz, and insist the Dun Puffer trend helps their cause. "I can interview 100 programmers in a morning, and they all can create with code," says Kevin Dorling, who has scoured the Valley for programmers since 1997. "So I look at the eyes. They'll tell me if this is a programmer's programmer, someone who spends most of their time staring at a monitor and cares nothing about, say, sleeping or eating right."

But it's a Catch-22, he notes: "The best programmers, you should never find. They should be in their caves all day and night writing code."

They do, however, come out on occasion to hit the local 7-Eleven for a microwave burrito and a Jolt Cola, and it's here that you'll often see as many as a dozen recruiters hanging out by their Saabs and BMWs, searching for Dun Puffers. This does not suit everyone.

"I never go near the 7-Eleven," says Rory Zupp, a programmer with Hewlett-Packard whose haunted, heart-breaking half moons garner him an average of four job offers and three marriage proposals a week.

Zupp swears he will leave the Valley if this melanotic obsession continues, and he's not the only one who doesn't like it. The ACLU is considering a class-action suit against recruiters on behalf of Indian and African-American programmers, whose dark skin makes their dark circles less obvious. However, most non-white code writers so far refuse to get upset.

"Dun Puffing is just a fad," insists Vinay Sundar, 20, an engineering major at Stanford University. "Programmers come in all shapes and colors, and in time people will realize it doesn't matter how big or black your bags are.

"What really counts is the posture," adds Sundar, whose jaw-droppingly curvaceous spine would cause even the most seasoned code writer to flip his WYSIWYG.


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