You’re applying for programming jobs, you’re hoping to get an offer soon—and when you do you’ll have to face the scary issue of negotiation.
If you read a negotiation guide like Valerie Aurora’s HOWTO (and you should!) you’re told you need to negotiate: you need to ask for more. And that’s good advice.
The problem is that asking for more is scary: it feels confrontational, your body will kick in with an unhelpful adrenaline surge, it’s just not comfortable. And honestly, given you only negotiate your salary every few years, that adrenaline surge probably isn’t going to go away.
But I think you can get past that and negotiate anyway—by embracing your inner 6-year old. In particular, a 6-year old negotiating for snacks on a playdate.
Let’s set the scene.
A 6-year old named Emma is visiting her friend Jackson, and now it’s time for a snack. Jackson’s parent—Michael—now needs to feed Emma.
Michael would prefer the children not eat crackers, but he has a problem. Michael has some authority over Jackson since he’s his parent, and some knowledge of what Jackson is willing to eat. So he can say “you’re eating one of these mildly healthy snacks” and that’s the end of it.
But Emma is just visiting: Michael has less authority, less knowledge, and a hungry 6-year old is Bad News. So Michael comes up with an acceptable range of snacks, and tries his best to steer towards the ones he considers healthier.
The conversation goes something like this:
Michael: “Would you like some fruit?”
Emma: blank stare.
Michael: “How about same cheese?”
Emma: shakes her head.
Emma: shakes her head.
Emma and Jackson: “Yes!”
Michael has committed to feeding Emma something, he doesn’t want her to go hungry—but he doesn’t have the normal leverage he has as a parent. As a result, Emma can just stall until she gets what she wants. Particularly enterprising children will ask for candy (even when they would never get candy at home!), but stalling seems well within the capacity of most 6-year olds.
The dynamic of hiring a new employee is surprisingly similar.
Whoever is making the offer—HR, an internal recruiter, or the hiring manager—has already committed to hiring you. They’ve decided: they had interviews and meetings and they want to get it over with and just get you on board.
So they come up with an acceptable salary range, and offer you the low end of the range. If you accept that, great. And if you say “can you do better?”
Well, they’ve already decided on their acceptable salary range: they’ll just move up within that range. They’re not insulted, they’re used to this. They’re not horrified at a hole in their budget, this is still within their acceptable range.
You went from fruit to crackers, and they can live with that. All you have to do is ask.
Much of what determines your salary happens before you get the offer, when the decision is made about what salary range to offer you.
You can influence this by the language on your resume, by how you present yourself, how you interview, and by noting you have competing offers. It may not feel like negotiation, but it’s all part of the process—and while it’s a set of skills you can master as an adult, that part is far beyond what your 6-year-old self could do.
But the actual conversation about salary? Pretend you’re 6, pretend it’s a snack, and ask for more—chances are you’ll get some delicious crackers.